Omar Berrada: City’s business brain crossing Manchester to rebuild United

<span>Omar Berrada is leaving his post as <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a>’s chief operating officer to become United’s new chief executive.</span><span>Composite: Newcastle United/Getty Images; PA Images/Alamy; Manchester United/Getty Images</span>

Omar Berrada and John Lennon: Manchester United’s incoming chief executive and the late Beatles superstar are, seemingly, kindred spirits.

This is according to Berrada himself, the Paris-born Moroccan who was a boyhood Barcelona fan. His poaching from Manchester City by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the 27.7% United owner and controller of football policy, has been a shock to the champions’ hierarchy and is viewed as a coup in the industry.

Berrada cited a line from Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) – “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – when recounting in an interview with the EU Business School that he had transferred to its Barcelona campus for one year but ended up staying in Catalonia for 13 before joining City in 2011.

Related: Swagger, soul … and patience: inside Ratcliffe’s plans for Manchester United | Sean Ingle

The initial decision was, in part, so he “could watch good football” at Barcelona while graduating, which he did in 1999 before meeting his future wife at a first job, for the telecommunications company Tiscali. From there Berrada was recruited to be Barça’s head of sponsorship in 2004. He was informed on his second day that Catalan was the club’s “official language” – so he learned it.

Seven years later, City headhunted Berrada to take charge of international development. He became chief operating officer in 2016 and when United hired him in January he was working, as he had been since 2020, as COO for the 12 teams under the City Football Group umbrella.

Berrada’s departure for the fierce rivals across town came as a bombshell, the Observer has been told by a person familiar with the City executive. Berrada was instrumental in building the super-slick operation at the Etihad Stadium but faces a mammoth challenge at United, according to Stefan Borson, a former financial adviser to City.

Borson points first to how Berrada has to manage a multitude of potential chiefs: Ratcliffe himself; the Ineos owner’s two key lieutenants, Sir Dave Brailsford and Jean-Claude Blanc; and the six Glazer siblings, the majority owners who are headed by the Florida-based executive co-chairs, Joel and Avram.

“The big challenge is the number of voices and opinions round the table,” says Borson. “Berrada has been appointed CEO but there’s two executive co-chairs – that’s unusual straight away. Most CEOs will not have to work under two, especially when they are not on the ground in the UK. Then you have a whole other infrastructure of Ratcliffe, Brailsford, Blanc.”

Ratcliffe has made one major decision without Berrada’s material input while Berrada is on gardening leave before an expected start in the summer, which means he will have to watch tomorrow’s derby from afar. He has appointed Dan Ashworth to lead the football department – subject to agreeing compensation with Newcastle United.

The Observer understands that Berrada was made aware of the intent to hire Ashworth during discussions with Ratcliffe and the Glazers regarding his potential appointment as CEO, and that it aligned with his view of who should replace John Murtough in the position.

Ratcliffe’s camp has also stated a wish to make United’s home a “Wembley of the North” by revamping Old Trafford or building a new stadium on the site. “Look how visible Ratcliffe is already,” adds Borson.

“He’s obviously speaking to Andy Burnham [mayor of Greater Manchester] about the stadium. He’s hiring a director of football and that’s presumably before Berrada is in situ because he’s got gardening leave. Ashworth has apparently been told he’ll have plenty of decision-making power. So, the scene is not conducive to being the ‘top dog’ for Berrada. That’s a challenge. It’s not insurmountable, and he obviously knew about that before he took the role.”

Berrada has the skill set to navigate all of this, according to more than one person who has observed his work at City. He is characterised as likable but no pushover and as possessing expertise in transfers and player contracts. He also has an understanding of commercial opportunity and the systems, physical infrastructure and people that make up a club.

When first driving City’s non‑football business, the deals Berrada brokered included a multimillion pound contract in 2014 that made Nissan a global partner. He later became responsible for the club’s structural operations before moving into the rarefied air of football operations, first for City then CFG.

Berrada has been compared to David Gill, United’s chief executive for 10 years until 2013, who worked alongside Sir Alex Ferguson during the club’s most successful decade in which six Premier League titles, one Champions League, one FA Cup, three League Cups and the Club World Cup were claimed. Here, though, Berrada has a further challenge identified by those with a knowledge of both clubs.

At City the chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, allows the chief executive, Ferran Soriano, the sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, and Pep Guardiola, the generation’s pre-eminent manager, to run the club without interference. Berrada is not walking into a best-in-class structure. Instead, the demand is to rebuild United virtually from the ground up.

Borson says: “The first thing I would do is listen. For a month, maybe two, three. Get around the organisation and listen to everybody. Ignore preconception. Actually keep all of the people we’ve spoken about out of the way to get my own view of what’s going on in the club.

“We all hear about United being a mess. It looks from the outside as if they have problems at all levels. He’s got to find out what those problems are, because if he can’t identify them, he can’t fix them. I would be speaking from the most junior to the most senior [employees].”

Another person who has dealt with City and United for a number of years believes Berrada took the job owing to a number of factors. There is the huge opportunity to turn United around, the lucrative salary and bonuses on offer, and the ceiling at City, where unless Begiristain and Soriano departed he could not rise further.

Borson concurs. “It’s a no-brainer. [He’s] going to United at the absolutely perfect point in the last 40 years maybe.”

As Berrada has previously stated: “Challenge yourself – get out of your comfort zone because it’s going to make you grow personally and professionally.”

United observers must wait to see whether Berrada is up to the task of reviving a behemoth of a club that has flatlined since Ferguson departed. One major test will be to achieve a new agility in the transfer market, where United have recently operated at a glacial pace.

The months-long and ultimately fruitless pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong in the summer of 2022 is one example in a long list of bungled moves. Compare this with City and, say, the few days required to land Jérémy Doku from Rennes last August. Part of the problem is how United’s sluggishness means their targets are leaked.

Borson says: “Anybody that is unhappy or feels aggrieved is going to speak [to the media]. Berrada has to get them out. It’s got to be: ‘This is who we are now. This is my fresh start. I’m in charge.’” In time we will discover how much power Berrada wields.