Millwall chairman John Berylson opens on the challenges of owning a football club during the Covid-19 pandemic


John Berylson’s financial backing has been vital to Millwall since 2007. And the absence of fans at The Den for more than a year has seen the American take an extra huge hit.

The Lions’ last match with paying punters in SE16 was February 29, 2020 – 13,584 in attendance for a 1-1 draw against Bristol City.

Since then 27 matches have been played behind closed doors at The Den, 22 of those in the current campaign, due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Millwall chief executive Steve Kavanagh calculates that as £8million in lost revenue – describing that figure as “horrifying” – with Berylson required to plough in an extra £5-10million to bridge the gap.

Running a Championship football club is not cheap in the first place. Let alone in a pandemic.

So how has Berylson, based in Boston, found the whole experience?

“There are 23 home [league] games and we were averaging almost 15,000 people a game going into lockdown. If you do the math on what the average spend is on the tickets, and everything else would be, we’re losing that.

“That’s just lost revenue. That’s just minus – no matter how well you manage the club. And I feel we have great management. But you start off with an enormous hole.

“We’re not getting any help from the Premier League, the media outlets or the government – of significance. There were the loans towards the PAYE, but that’s just a loan. It’s not really help, in my book.

“The cash losses are enormous. Then there are the teams who break the rules. You have teams that are going to lose £20-30million this season – some were losing that before this.

“I have other businesses. So nothing is easy. I operate in lots of countries and one of the biggest problems in operating anything in any country is politicians.

“People like me provide jobs. To make things difficult makes no sense -including in my country. I may be a little bit biased about this, but I think the Scandinavians got it right from the start – which was to try and be as normal as possible.

“It’s a difficult environment. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. It’s economically harmful, it’s socially harmful and it is affecting the players’ ability.

“Our players are better when the fans are present. For some of them their performances are due to not feeling the backing of the crowds.

“From a country perspective, I don’t think the government realises how important football is to your population. Were we as a sport to disappear, you could be on the verge of social issues – like we’ve had in the US. A lot of the violence here has occurred because people are at home doing nothing.

“There is no positive out of this -other than the vaccines. Your country, our country and Scandinavia appear to be faring better.

“I don’t think any business management team has had a lot to work with. The fact we’ve been able to muddle through to this point is great testament to our senior management team.”

The hope is that fans will be allowed back into stadiums in the 2021-22 season. But there are no cast-iron guarantees on that. Lockdowns have been eased and clamped back down based on the spread of the disease. Even if the turnstiles do open, it could be with reduced numbers.

Berylson admits that uncertainty within the industry impacted what Millwall did in January. They paid an undisclosed fee to sign George Evans from Derby County.

They also saw bids rejected for other players – such as Barnsley midfielder Alex Mowatt and Hibernian centre-back Ryan Porteous.

Beryslon said: “Might we have bought another player? Possible. A lot of teams have not brought the values of their players down, even though they are under duress.

“As we approach the transfer season you’re thinking about changes to improve the team, because this unproductive use of money [covering the absence of supporters] has occurred for a year now. It’s why January did not see that many transactions.

“There are some teams who are doing quite well. It will be really interesting if they continue to do well – their fans will demand they pay their players more and buy some players.

“There may be some teams who end up in the top six, eight or 10 who won’t be able to sustain it because the costs will be enormous.

“Think if you’re a League One team, you get promoted this year and you spend another six months like this? Just think of the costs if you’re an owner who, before last month, had cost controls and salary caps? Think what you’re facing.

“Some of these promoted teams are going to find themselves needing double digit millions just to have a chance to remain in the Championship for more than a year – or not even trying to.”
Berylson usually jets over to watch 15 to 20 matches in a season. Now he is limited to the club’s streaming service on iFollow.

“I’m the worst on superstitions,” he said. “I could be going skiing in two hours and I’ll be dressed in shorts, the same T-shirt, a lucky watch or the same glasses. I’ll try and sit in the same places.

“In games we’ve lost I’ll realise I didn’t do the same thing. I’ll say to Steve: ‘Forget it – it was my fault’.

“I’m not a religious person, but I’m very superstitious. I’m cognizant it’s probably not me – but that doesn’t mean I won’t take the responsibility if I screw things up with my pre-game routine.

“Gary [Rowett] has done a great job. You know we always tend to do better in the second half of the season.

“Chasing is always easier than being chased, because you’re looking behind all the time. If you know where you’re going you tend to run a little bit straighter.”

Berylson opted for Rowett to succeed Neil Harris in October 2019. The former Stoke, Derby and Birmingham boss is his fifth appointment. Millwall’s hopes of the 2019-20 play-offs were only ended after the penultimate round of fixtures.

“It was a magnificent job by Gary getting us there because we wobbled a bit, after the break [due to the pandemic],” said Berylson.

“Neil was a good appointment. Not too many teams go to the play-off finals, lose and get there again the next season and win. I think if you look it up the last two teams to do it were Millwall…and Millwall. Where are Bradford City these days? And Swindon lost to us. It’s very hard to keep the enthusiasm and go for it again, which we did under Kenny Jackett and Neil.

“Neil had a tough year and then a tough start [leaving 10 league games into the 2019-20 season]. To his credit he basically said: ‘I don’t know how to take the team forward’.

“Gary fortunately turned up. We had a great conversation the first time, I think as long as he didn’t throw up all over himself he knew he was probably going to get the job. He is very analytical and went through all the players.

“I don’t know how we’d have done if we got into the play-offs because the other teams were better than we were.

“Gary did a fabulous job last year. This year we’ve had rocky games and way too many critical injuries have hurt our attack but we aren’t out of it – we’re still breathing.”

Berylson has been unable to travel due to Covid-19.

“I’m fortunate to have a ski house. That’s my escape. Most people don’t have those escapes, do they? So I consider myself quite fortunate. My plate is not so terrible.

“Because of the pandemic, my wife has not been able to spend as much money as she usually does! I’m thrilled. Her credit cards are significantly less than they usually are.”

But Millwall does continue to be a cash drain for Berylson – but also a love.

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