Five lessons in business from the footy

Business owners and investors can learn a thing or two from Leicester City's inspirational Premier League triumph, says Matthew Lynn.


If at first you don't succeed, try and try again
(Image credit: 2016 Plumb Images)

It is one of the most unlikely success stories in all sporting history. The Premier League was meant to be dominated by money, with the giant clubs hoarding all the best players, and with a top four that competed largely with each other, while the rest of the league just made up the numbers.

And then, against all the odds, Leicester City go and win the thing, and do so in style with a couple of games to spare. The win has some important lessons for business, whether you are running one yourself, or simply investing in companies. Such as? Here are five to be thinking about.

1. Money doesn't buy success. Leicester's budget is a fraction of some of the bigger clubs it has easily bested this season. The whole Leicester first team cost £22.5m in transfer fees, and its most expensive player, Leonard Ulloa, cost only £10m. The Manchester City squad cost £418m, and its most expensive player, Kevin De Bruyne, set it back £54m.

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Lots of companies think they simply have to hire in the most expensive staff and advisers and the results will follow soon enough. But often that is not true. In fact, the best results are often achieved on a relative shoestring. A lot of companies could be a lot more frugal and get better results.

2. Hire older workers. Right across the corporate sector there has been a trend toward employing younger and younger chief executives (CEOs), and surrounding them with lots of ambitious youngsters. But Leicester's manager, Claudio Ranieri, is already 64, far older than the typical Premiership manager.

He had been a reasonably successful professional, without ever actually winning a league. But he has an accumulated wisdom that has been put to brilliant effect at Leicester. In many cases, a modestly successful career can blossom with experience as more CEOs in their 60s might do really well and better than the 40-something in a hurry.

3. Break with the orthodoxy. Within football, the prevailing view has long been that possession is all. Spain won the World Cup like that, and Barcelona became the most celebrated club team in Europe and both sides never let the opposition anywhere near the ball.

Obviously there is something to be said for that you can't score when the other side is in possession. But Leicester, possibly because of its players' more limited skills, plays entirely on the counter-attack. That has confused its opponents, and shaken up the game. That is surely true in business as well. There is no point in simply doing what everyone else is doing. For genuine success, you have to be distinctive.

4. Seize on your opponents' weaknesses. In a more normal season, exactly the same Leicester team might have headed for mid-table respectability. But it hasn't been a normal season. Last year's champions, Chelsea, imploded; Arsenal's gone into permanent stagnation; Man United and Man City have had management problems.

All that meant there was a space and Ranieri's team moved into it ruthlessly. The lesson to learn here applies in business too. The best firms don't just hone their skills, they exploit the flaws in the competition as well.

5. Never give up. Leicester City has been going for 132 years. It has had remarkably little to show for it. Its previous best season was second place in the old Division One way back in the 1928-1929 season. That is a long time to wait for success. But, hey, it kept going, it didn't give up, and eventually the rewards came.

The same is certainly true for many companies. There is a lot of emphasis on short-term results and, especially in technology, vast valuations are put on companies that are only a few years old. But they won't necessarily be the winners. Even if you don't succeed in the first century of trying, it is vital to keep plugging away.

Matthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg, and writes weekly commentary syndicated in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Miami Herald. He is also an associate editor of Spectator Business, and a regular contributor to The Spectator. Before that, he worked for the business section of the Sunday Times for ten years. 

He has written books on finance and financial topics, including Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis and The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031. Matthew is also the author of the Death Force series of military thrillers and the founder of Lume Books, an independent publisher.