When Spain’s Real Madrid and their crosstown rivals Atlético take to the field in tomorrow’s Uefa Champions League final at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, football fans around the world will be glued to their TVs.
In Manchester, many will be reminiscing about the famous night in 1999 when Manchester United secured the trophy deep into added time to cap a season where they became that rarest of beasts, winners of “the treble” – FA Cup holders, Premier League champions and European champions.
Among that star-studded team were Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. So where better for United fans to watch tomorrow’s game than in the pair’s latest dining establishment, Cafe Football Old Trafford, a £24 million (Dh129.4m) Hotel Football complex next to United’s ground?
After the highs of their on-field exploits were consigned to memory, it was a passion for the hospitality industry that led the two to form their GG Hospitality venture, of which they are both directors, and open the first Cafe Football in Stratford in 2013, Giggs tells The National.
“As our playing careers were drawing to a close Gary and I began to think what next?” he says.
“We always had a passion for hospitality and thought, ‘why not try and create something completely unique within the industry?’ Throughout our playing careers we have been lucky enough to visit some of the best restaurants in the UK, as well as abroad, so we thought why not use that experience to develop a place where football fans and people who are passionate about food, could go and enjoy?”
After their initial and successful foray into hospitality, the pair decided to get more ambitious and, along with former treble-winners Nicky Butt and Neville’s brother Phil, they teamed up with Rowsley, a Singapore investment group, to launch the 134-room Hotel Football, which opened in spring last year.
So impressed has Rowley been with the establishment’s extremely positive reception, it is already looking to push the brand abroad.
“With this [early] success we intend to take this hotel brand regional and to parts of Europe as well as Asia, where the following of English and European football is so intense, that no one here without visiting Asia, can imagine,” the company says.
The hotel features the former players’ second restaurant, Cafe Football Old Trafford, which opened in March, building on the experience gained from the first diner in Stratford.
“Cafe Football in Stratford was a fantastic learning tool and let us develop Cafe Football Old Trafford to exactly how we wanted it,” says Giggs.
The first Cafe Football opened in its doors to the public in December 2013 with the pair hoping that the 140-seat restaurant at the Westfield Stratford City mall in London, serving football-themed dishes, could blend football culture with the restaurant industry just as well as the team of ’99’s talents came together.
For the former United stars, it was a desire to meld fans and diners alike that pushed them to open Cafe Football.
“We really wanted to create a place where not just sports fans but people who enjoyed food could come together,” says Giggs.
Not content with cafes and a hotel Giggs and Neville have also become the driving force behind plans for a major new development in Manchester.
The 5,800 square metre, £200m scheme to transform the Jackson’s Row area surrounding the former Bootle Street Police Station is being orchestrated by Neville and Giggs’ strategic planning framework. Approved by Manchester City Council in December, it is being funded by Rowsley, in which the billionaire 50 per cent owner of the semi-professional team Salford City FC, Peter Lim, is an investor, and Beijing Construction Engineering Group.
Neville’s property consultancy, Zerum, is acting as the development manager on behalf of the joint venture partners, which include The Jackson’s Row Development Partnership – made-up of Neville, Giggs and the millionaire entrepreneur Brendan Flood, who is also a shareholder in the English second-tier side Burnley FC.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other co-owners of Salford City are Giggs, the Neville brothers, Butt and their former teammate Paul Scholes.
K K Ho, Rowsley’s managing director, says: “The largest of our investments is the St Michael’s development situated in the heart of the city. This development will regenerate parts of the city centre and an architectural landmark.
“It will comprise 147 apartments, a 200-bed five-star hotel, grade A offices and will also offer high-quality dining experiences and a new contemporary public realm. Construction is expected to start later this year.”
Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School in Manchester, says the decision by Giggs and Neville to go into business is a logical step for many top athletes and most prepare well as they near the end of their playing days.
“While athletes are actively engaged in their careers, they are more acutely aware of the opportunities open to them,” Prof Chadwick says.
“This means they can build sustainable long-term businesses using their experience and knowledge.
“Often, such developments are helped by the support they receive from their advisers and intermediaries such as agents and lawyers.
“Furthermore, by engaging in business at this stage of their careers, it means that there is a smooth transition into retirement and therefore no gap in their earnings.”
While Neville retired from football in 2011, Giggs hung up his boots relatively recently, in 2014, and the two have since been involved in the game from the sidelines.
Neville had a short-lived spell as the manager of Valencia until he was sacked in March while Giggs has enjoyed considerable success as the assistant manager at his beloved United.
Prof Chadwick is unsurprised by the former players’ business nous.
“Elite professional athletes know how to work in teams, perform under pressure, withstand intense scrutiny, make quick decisions, measure and improve their performances, motivate themselves and others and build a winning mentality,” he say.
“If one takes a look at the work of Olympic gold swimming medallist Adrian Moorhouse, you can see an example of how a former athlete has taken his skills to build a successful business.”
Moorhouse is the co-founder and managing director of the human resources company Lane 4 – the lane set aside for the fastest heat winner in swimming. The company, founded in 1995, has grown and has a staff of more than 100. In 2014, it had its best financial results for five years with revenues up by 50 per cent to £9.1m and profits of £1.3m.
Prof Chadwick warns there are certain pitfalls that athletes-turned-entrepreneurs must be aware of.
“Perhaps the biggest danger that ex-athletes face is the ‘halo effect’,” he says.
“That is, because of who they are or what they have done, they can sometimes be exposed to unscrupulous individuals who are less interested in the success of the athlete than they are associating with the athletes and the success they have had.”
Still, making cash outside their sport comes easily for some top performers.
At times, they merely lend their names to firms wanting product endorsements from well known stars.
There are others, however, such as the former England and Manchester United star David Beckam, also a class-of-’99 winner, who plough millions of their own cash into projects such as his push to set up a professional football team in Miami.
In many cases athletes are not directly involved in their business projects. They may initiate the business while other people run it.
But neither Giggs nor Neville were afraid to do the hard yards when it came to Cafe Football.
“Gary and I worked closely on this from the planning and design right down to what was on the menu,” says Giggs.
“We’ve donated our old boots, shirts and other bits of memorabilia, which have been displayed around the hotel and cafe and add a personal touch and identity. We have used local artists and students to design exclusive artwork for the cafe and hotel, which always creates a great reaction and talking point from the people who visit.
“However, we are always looking at ways to be innovative and improve and we are lucky to have such an ambitious team who are always looking to do just that,” Giggs says.
He says one of the most fun aspects of the cafe came when deciding on names for menu dishes. “We really enjoyed seeing what worked and what didn’t,” he says.
“We enjoyed generally coming up with ideas and names for the dishes such as ‘The 66’ [a reference to England’s World Cup winning year], ‘The Nicky Butty’ [so called after the northern English term for a sandwich] and ‘The Boss’ [after the nickname of United’s treble-winning manager Sir Alex Ferguson], he says, adding: “Although ‘The Giggsy’ is my favourite!”
Perhaps they could also have found space for ‘The 99’?
Shuaib Ahmed writes on all things football at footynions.com.
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