At this point, Kennedy called a time-out during which he told his client a few home truths about the art of haggling. When the talks resumed, the ante went up even further and they still departed the meeting without signing the mind-blowing contract. Apocryphal or not, the story did the rounds of the Irish squad and the Kennedy legend was amplified once more.
Roy Keane once described the London-based solicitor as “the best thing to happen to my career” and David O’Leary’s relationship with him is so firm that he is godfather to one of the Aston Villa manager’s daughters. Once described as “the unknown Mr. Fixit of British football,” he was also part of John Leahy’s legal team when the Tipperary hurler was convicted of assault in a Manchester court in the mid-1990s. Kennedy, who is far removed from the caricature of the sharp-suited football agent, has been thrust into the spotlight again through his role as Keane’s representative at this most crucial juncture in the Corkman’s career. So who exactly is he?
“He’s not an agent, he’s just a very approachable solicitor,” said one client. “He doesn’t work five days a week on a player’s behalf like an agent does and he doesn’t go advertising for work. He just works for the couple of hours he’s required to on going through a contract or whatever you ask him to. But you only have to see him work once to realize how good he is at what he does and I’ll tell you this, if he was an agent, he’d be the best in England.”
It was a chance encounter with David O’Leary more than a quarter of a century ago that brought Kennedy into football. In the process of purchasing his first house, the then Arsenal center-half needed a solicitor and happened upon Kennedy. He returned to the same man when signing his next contract at Highbury, and retains his services to this day. Indeed, it was Kennedy who came up with the famous line about O’Leary being so loyal to Arsenal that he used to enter every negotiation with a pen in his hand.
Those who have sought Kennedy’s counsel remark upon the forensic approach he brings to his work, and his portfolio of football clients has expanded steadily. More than two decades after he first sat down with Manchester United to smooth Frank Stapleton’s passage from Arsenal to Old Trafford, he locked horns with the same club last week on behalf of Keane for the final time. In between, he has worked the corner of amongst others, Ray Wilkins, Frank Stapleton, Michael Thomas, Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton, Brian Kidd and David Connolly, each one paying just a flat fee for his services instead of the normal agents’ percentage.
“The thing about Michael is that he will never allow you to be pressurized into signing anything,” said Stapleton. “Sometimes, clubs will try and get you into a corner but Michael is a calming influence in negotiations, he won’t be hurried.”
With a father hailing from Inch, Co. Kerry, and a mother from Bandon, Co Cork, Kennedy grew up in North London. He and his brother John both entered the legal profession with impressive results. Having been awarded an OBE for his role in the organization of Live Aid in 1985, John Kennedy is now president of Universal Music International and chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Michael Kennedy specialized in property law at Herbert Reeves, the company where he became a senior partner and it was in 1993 that O’Leary advised Keane, his then teammate in the Irish squad, to meet his solicitor. Early in the player’s development, the Londoner used to greet calls from journalists with an ironic: “What has Roy done now then?” Behind the joking, he was fiercely protective, and when Keane first appeared on Kenny Live in 1994 for instance, Kennedy accompanied him to the TV studio. From that point on, he took a similar level of interest in every aspect of Keane’s career and most notoriously was a key player in the drama known simply as Saipan.
A season ticket-holder at Highbury, he wears Marks and Spencer’s suits rather than designer labels, doesn’t drive flash cars and works incredibly long hours at his office. The dowdy image belies his status within the sport, something recognized earlier this year when he was appointed to the board of directors of Formation Group, an enormous sports marketing company. In this capacity, he was also part of a working group that recently met with the Premier League chairman Dave Richards to begin the process of properly regulating agents within the game.
Kennedy is especially highly regarded by clubs because, unlike so many agents, he never tries to engineer mid-contract moves for his clients, and his reputation as a tough negotiator is borne out by his storied achievement in securing a Bosman deal with Feyenoord that made a largely unproven David Connolly the best-paid player in Holland. While at Leeds United, David O’Leary encouraged a number of his blue chip prospects like Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Stephen McPhail to seek Kennedy’s guidance.
It was through his work for Keane however that he became arguably the most influential lawyer in football and according to reports, he even tried to broker an 11th hour peace between the Manchester United manager and his captain last week. When the olive branch was turned down, the solicitor moved into a new phase of his handling of the most successful of all his clients, seriously considering offers from other clubs. Wherever Keane ends up, the man in the Marks and Spencer’s suit will have a role to play in his decision.