Roy Keane tells a story about being introduced to a watch dealer by his Manchester United team-mate Lee Sharpe. Wrist accessories were hardly Keane’s style but he was willing to pay the £1,150 that he thought was the price. Turns out, the watch cost £11,500, much to the amusement of the Old Trafford dressing room. “I still have it, and it’s gone up in value. Who’s laughing now?” Keane joked.
These days, Premier League footballers are following a similar path. But while Keane’s investment was unwitting, players now see wristwatches as a shrewd investment, as well as part of their post-match wardrobe. Owning a race horse or a bar involves a degree of risk, while luxury Swiss watches have become the safest bet for footballers.
What other product increases in value the moment the buyer leaves the shop? While some of the watches on display in the Premier League every week can cost £200,000, they are also one of the rare commodities that appreciates the moment they are bought. When they walk out the door with their timepiece, it is already worth more than it cost.
Reece James, the Chelsea and England full-back, recently gave an interview with GQ where he went through his collection, bringing around £2 million worth to the photoshoot by estimation of the interviewer. He talks about becoming addicted to his collection, looking for “safe” investments but also have a collection personal to him and tailored to his style. Harry Kane, Virgil van Dijk and Marcus Rashford are namechecked as watch enthusiasts.
At Manchester City, it is thought that Fabian Delph and David Silva were trendsetters with the world’s best watches on their wrists. Now their open-top parades after trophies are a catalogue of the finest horology on the planet.
That group of Premier League royalty have an edge on other collectors. The main issue the general public has is actually getting their hands on these new wristwatches, even if they have the money. The popular Rolex brands have retailers with long waiting lists, lasting years, before a “Daytona” or a GMT “Batman” arrives.
In the window of Rolex shops there is the dreaded sign: For Exhibition Only. It is not the case of walking into a shop and buying a watch anymore. What Premier League stars have is a persuasive case for climbing the waiting lists. Managers have billions of fans scrutinising every move on the touchline, players’ moves are pictured once they leave stadiums. They also have wealth to expand their collections – and investments – quickly.
“The watch often reflects the character, and there are different watches for different moods and occasions” says Ramon Calliste, the former Manchester United forward who moved into the watch business after his playing career and owns Global Boutique in Mayfair.
“It is always nice to see managers with a good eye for watches and watch complications. Some are a bit more loud, others are more subtle and won’t wear gold. It is horses for courses and at the end of the day, you can’t beat a Rolex.”
One of the iconic images of the Premier League is Alex Ferguson pointing at his watch, suggesting to the referee there is some way to go in stoppage-time, or Fergie Time as it came to be known.
In the decade since Ferguson’s retirement, managers are still reminding officials of their timekeeping but the wristwatches are likely to be Swiss, among the most sought-after accessories in a world where demand is exceeding supply and those stalking the technical area know their Patek Philippe from their Richard Mille. Even tracksuit managers are now seen with rare Rolexes.
Just a cursory glance at football coverage is a shop window for horology. Hublot, relative newcomers to the market, are splashed across the fourth official’s electronic board when he holds up how many minutes of stoppage-time will be played. Hublot is also on Gary Lineker’s wrist for his promotional pictures for Match of the Day each week.
On a matchday, the wristwatch is as much part of the manager ensemble as the tracksuit, baseball cap or tailored suit. Change in attire is rare in the technical area but there are subtle pieces of individual flair to those looking closely.
In the Premier League, the king of the wristwatches is Pep Guardiola. Two seasons ago he favoured an understated Rolex Cellini – white dial, leather strap – then returned to his Richard Mille 010 as Manchester City closed in on the title. For the Treble campaign, he often wore an A Lange & Sohne Datagraph – along with his lucky bracelet – which is a watch for the serious horologist.
Guardiola is not alone in using Richard Mille, whose tagline is “a racing machine on the wrist”. The incredible cost of a watch - they trade for hundreds of thousands of pounds - comes from the “tourbillon” technology used. Roberto Mancini is an ambassador for the brand and has RM11-04 named after him, which is a football-inspired watch.
Other managers who clearly enjoy watches include Frank Lampard, who at Everton often sported a Patek Philippe, a brand as difficult to buy at retail price as Rolex. In his interview, James joked that Lampard has “more Pateks than the catalogue”. Brendan Rodgers has been seen wearing a “Nautilus” by Patek, while David Moyes has also worn the Swiss-made watch on the touchline.
Clubs have tie-ups with companies, such as Tottenham and IWC, while Hublot have been associated with Chelsea. But managers are free to wear their own. This season, Marco Silva at Fulham has been wearing a Rolex Explorer II.
Mikel Arteta also favours Rolex and wore a GMT throughout the All Or Nothing documentary, his watch telling him the time in different time zones, which could be the most important function for a manager after a stopwatch. While he was at Spurs, Antonio Conte was a fan of Rolexes and owns a Daytona, the watch popularised by the actor Paul Newman.
Calliste saw the popularity of watches when he was a player at Old Trafford and their popularity has only increased.
“Even from when I was younger, 15 to 20 years ago people were into their cars and watches,” said Calliste. “It is a different perspective now as they are seen as assets and investments. To see some of these players who I have contact with still and have nice pieces in their collection and paid very good money many years ago, kept them in pristine condition and now they have gone through the roof. That is what we want from all our investment.
“There are always those who sell and it is difficult to know when to get in at the right time and out at the right time but I believe those who hold on are the ones who will win. Some you might get a wrong call but not all are investments, if you go by or heart you might get 10 years of joy out of it and it might replace any profit.”
Dark side of watch market
The dark side to the luxury watch market is owners getting targeted by thieves. Robert Lewandowski had his watch stolen outside Barcelona’s training ground when he signed autographs, with the police recovering it later. In general, these watches are increasing in value although the dramatic rise in value has levelled out recently. As the managerial merry-go-round speeds up and jobs are lost, these investments have remained valuable.
“I’ve been in this business for quite some time and I’ve chosen a great path for myself, seeing these pieces appreciate,” said Calliste. “They are going up in value, there has been a healthy correction which is more realistic because it was becoming unsustainable how high they were going. It was becoming more dangerous. You couldn’t walk around with an £80,000 retail watch that is now worth £400,000 on the grey market.
“If you get that multiple times a year, you are further ahead. It is the jackpot. Over the years there has been a dramatic increase. It is hard to know where it will go, slow incline is healthy compared to rapid incline. At the moment the market is stable. It has gone from strength to strength.”