Ben Kensell: Why I chose Hibs, Scottish football, ambitions for club and Rangers situation
Ben Kensell isn’t the first man to arrive in Scottish football and pledge to close the gap on Celtic and Rangers. For many that statement is forged in ignorance, for others it is the product of arrogance but, on first impressions, it would be wrong to pop the new Hibs chief executive in either of those categories.
This isn’t a man oblivious of the hold the Glasgow pair had have traditionally had on Scottish football but, coming from a club where he had to battle against the finances and the clout of the Manchester duo, Liverpool, Chelsea, et al, he isn’t cowed by the size of the task that faces him.
Crucially, he does not claim to be the kind of miracle man who can turnaround fortunes in a fortnight but, in past evidence, he does improve clubs.
He proved that in his seven years at Norwich City, where he was highly-regarded by fans, the football department and fellow board members and while Hibs is a fresh challenge he wants it to be another collaborative effort.
“If you had seen the club I walked into and the club I walked away from it was quite a big journey and quite a big difference in what we managed to achieve so I felt my job was coming to an end there and it felt right to move onto a new challenge,” said Kensell. “When I was made aware of the interest from Hibs, it was a club I have always been aware of and fond of. I’m actually a big Scottish football fan, mainly because of the passion that comes out in the football and the fans, everything is so patriotic. So that appealed to me even before I knew specifically about the opportunity here.”
Speaking to owner and chairman Ron Gordon convinced him that the Leith club was the ideal fit for him.
“He was very passionate and sincere and very caring and there were visions and values that came through in what he was saying that chimed with how I feel you should run a football club. From that perspective I was quite clear that if there was an opportunity to come up [to Scottish football], on the right terms, and offering the right opportunity to grow, then this would be it.”
A landscape that can be as crazy as it is passionate, as combatively-destructive as it is compelling, he arrives at a time when defending champions Rangers are close to detonating a bomb under the biggest single sponsorship deal in the history of the league. A league Kensell believes has, in the past, sold itself short.
Crisis talks are ongoing as the Ibrox club continues to blank title sponsors cinch and while Kensell says it would be wrong to pass judgements when he hasn’t spoken to his counterparts in Govan, he does advocate clubs pulling together for the greater good.
“Firstly, I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to anyone from Rangers yet so I won’t pass judgement on Rangers per se. What I would say is that collectively we need to work together to grow the value of the league.
“Greg [McEwan, Hibs’ Head of Marketing and Brand Partnerships] is very well connected with all his counterparts and they’re working really, really hard – not just from a club-by-club perspective but also looking at how we can explore and extract maximum value from the league.
“I think that’s what’s required. A collective effort to grow revenues for the better of the game up here.
“Initially I would say we can do a better job of selling the league. But it’s a tough market.”
As an outsider looking in, he previously felt that more could and probably should have been done to sell the game north of the border. Now he is part of it, he intends to address that, as a club and as part of the league.
“Pre-Covid, yes, there was a definite view that there was an opportunity for growth across all clubs, individually and collectively. But, for the time being, for the good of football, we’ve got to get fans back, we’ve got to work collectively.”
A chief executive who understands the need to balance the business side of a football club with the football side of it, he was lauded for his transparency and willingness to engage while at Norwich. He believes that is the way forward at Hibs as well.
“What we can’t do is have a scattergun approach to how we are going to do that. We have got to be quite clear and concise with how we are going to grow and what we can do to translate that onto the pitch.”
But does that realistically mean closing the gap on Celtic and Rangers?
“Absolutely. 100% I genuinely believe that while there is a kind of duopoly, we are a big club and we have got good foundations and can take it to the next level. We have good members of staff who want to do that and we can capitalise if any other club is struggling. So if they take their eye off the ball we can close the gap but we will close that gap naturally, over a period of time, anyway.
“What we can’t do though is make any bold statements that we can do that in one, or two, or three weeks. We have to quietly go about our business, be humble, be hard working, and stick to our values and principles. But we have to be steely underneath.
“It’s that old adage of someone creeping up behind you, leaving you wondering how they even got there. That can be us after a period of time but we are going to need everyone pulling in the same direction; fans, staff, the board. We need investment and a bit of luck and a lot more strategy and drive to get us there.”