Steve Archibald reveals what he's gained from working in football, marketing and renewables
Steve Archibald’s football career took him to league titles, the World Cup and Diego Maradona’s former shirt. His time in business has brought him to marketing, renewable energy and now possibly the biggest battle of his life. Richard Purden reports
On a bright day in Edinburgh, with a gentle south-westerly wind, Scottish football legend Steve Archibald is sitting in the elegant Black Ivy hotel in the genteel Bruntsfield area of the capital. Steve is back in the city where he once played for Hibernian to make two appearances at the famous Fringe festival, where he will discuss his much-decorated career in the beautiful game. As well as league titles at home and in Spain, he also played in two World Cups. In 2009, he was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.
Steve was an essential part of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side that won the Scottish league in 1980, finishing the season as top scorer. Success continued south of the border, where he won both the FA Cup (twice) and Uefa Cup with a rejuvenated Tottenham Hotspur, before his move to Spain. Steve was one of only two permitted foreign signings at Barcelona, where he helped secure the club a league title for the first time in more than a decade. During that time he famously inherited the number 10 jersey from one Diego Maradona, who had just departed to Napoli.
This was a hand-me-down Steve had been keen to avoid. He preferred the number eight, the shirt also favoured by midfielder Bernd Schuster. Steve conceded the battle, wisely calculating that he was better off not antagonising the brilliant but temperamental German, who would be his “feeder”, a prime source of goalscoring chances. The Scot was left to pick up the “new Maradona” gauntlet, with all the attendant risks should he fail.
This was one of many football-related conflicts that set Steve up for his later career as CEO of an energy firm. The 67-year-old is currently entrenched in what the Daily Record describes as a “David v Goliath” court battle. But before we go there, Steve explains his transition from football to sustainable energy in January 2018. “I knew a company that was in the renewable energy business called Nexus Energía,” he says. “My original partner and I produced a business plan and took it to them. They liked it because the plan was connected to football, and they invested a lot of money in the project.”
The glamour and kudos of an ex-footballer, especially one with Steve’s record remain useful currency in business. In his playing prime, his long, flowing blonde locks, designer stubble and status as the first footballer to appear twice on a single episode of Top of the Pops (with both the Scotland national side and Spurs) all helped cultivate a strong media presence that has lingered in the memory. It soon became apparent to the canny Scot just how much of an asset he was. But while the partnership with the Madrid-based company seemed straightforward, problems soon began to surface.
“My original partner came from an energy background,” he says. “I became president and was the person to introduce the company to the football world. We contracted major football clubs in Spain, did sponsorships and then through the clubs we would go into their database and sell renewable energy to their fans, which sounded like a great idea.”
The partnership ended abruptly, however. Steve cancelled existing sponsorship deals with Spanish clubs and started again under a new name, FC Energía, having bought out his partner because the latter was determined to pursue a model that had already failed. “He still wanted to take the idea into Portugal,” says Steve. “But Einstein said [doing the same thing twice and expecting different results] is madness. I felt if it wasn’t working in Spain why would it work there? But he still wanted to do it.”
Steve has played in some of the most passionate leagues in the world. As a Glaswegian born and bred, he understood the intricacies and devotion to the Old Firm teams. He had played in north London derbies with Spurs and won difficult leagues with decorated sides. Later that night he will speak about the bust-ups he had with Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen, but also about the mutual respect that exists between them to this day. “We had something in our heads that was a little bit different,” he says of Ferguson. “You would be going to play at Ibrox and he would instil in you how much you had to want it, you had to go into those games and be aggressive, you had to want to come out of that game with all three points.”
After 18 months with Nexus Energía, it was clear to Steve there was a problem with the initial business plan. “We didn’t have enough clientele for the money we were spending and the funding was going down,” he says. “I looked at the plan and worked it out. Fans love their clubs until the day they die but they don’t trust them. I don’t want to name anyone, but they don’t trust the chairman, so it doesn’t compute for them – they won’t trust the club with their energy. This was when I expressed my thoughts on the business for the first time because that wasn’t my job.”
Steve found himself drawing on his past as a player. He had some vital experience in management with East Fife and Airdrieonians in Scotland’s First Division, in 2000, and was running the latter before being knocked sideways by administrators. “They were ruthless” he explains. “We were paying £7,500 a month plus bills to run the club, then they increased it by another £3,000. I told them where to go.”
Although he left the club in 2001, Steve still gets compliments from fans about the Diamonds’ style of football under him to this day. Despite the unhappy ending, his time at Airdrieonians provided vital lessons in both football and business. He continued working in the sport, both as an agent and as a pundit on Spanish television. He started to write a book about his life in the game (he hopes to publish in the near future, alongside an illustrated children’s book about his life growing up in Glasgow). He also considered the link between football and his developing business career. “I began to understand the lessons that football was teaching me, because you, me or whoever are not going anywhere without a team – it’s always a team,” he says. “As a manager you have to connect with the team and get them playing for you.”
Having relaunched the business as FC Energía, Steve soon devised a fresh plan based on his knowledge of football: “Let’s say the defence make the product, the midfield are the marketing team and the salespeople are the strikers who must score. That became a simple way for me to understand the business world of product, sales and marketing.”
During the pandemic the former cab driver and mechanic worked on a new strategy that would move the business forward, offering cost-price energy to essential workers in Spain for one year. “I got the product and pricing right, we then gave the product [at cost] to the emergency services, the police, doctors and all the people who were helping during Covid,” he says. “That helped our marketing and from there everything went upwards! Within a year we grew exponentially.”
At the time of writing Steve’s company FC Energía is getting close to the outcome of a two-year legal battle with both his former business partner and the parent company Nexus Energía, after what Steve describes as a “hostile takeover”. The past two years have been financially and mentally draining on the ex-footballer whose shares in the company have been diluted from 50% to little over 1%. “Our biggest partner came in and said: ‘We’re going to put a huge injection of capital in and if you can’t match it then you’re out.’ Not matching it reduces my percentage of the company. Our shareholder agreement clearly stipulates that for any changes of this type, it needs 100% board approval. They didn’t have it because, obviously, they didn’t get my approval – I wasn’t going to kick myself out of the door.”
Working alongside his daughter Kirsty, Steve, a fluent Spanish speaker, had to translate convoluted legal documents for his lawyers. “I’m fighting for my life,” he says. “It’s costing me thousands each month. They are using the best lawyers in Spain; I have to use the best from over here to keep up.”
This could be the perfect time to be in the renewables business. The UK has experienced a significant surge in rooftop solar power installations in 2023, surpassing the total for the whole of 2022 as early as September, suggesting Steve had his finger on the pulse, the result of his growing concern about climate change and pollution. “Every roof is a potential business opportunity, from banks to big chain stores,” he says. “It’s the way ahead and the future for sure. When I got into the energy business it was about business, but now I understand more about solar panels, renewables and the things that are polluting the world. That’s why I got involved in green energy. This is something I really believe in.”
Before we depart, the conversation shifts back to Ferguson and his inspiring win with Manchester United at the 1999 Champions League final. “The boss [Sir Alex] won the Champions League with Manchester United. But he asked me the day before the match if I had any advice. I told him about getting to the European Cup final and not winning it with Barcelona [in 1986]. I said it was the worst thing you can ever imagine as a player, seeing the cup pitchside after the match, ready for presentation to the winning team – and it’s not your team, and you can’t touch it! You can look, but you can’t touch the holy grail of club football. I’ve still got this dagger in my heart from the pain of losing that final – that will never go away. I told him if they lost they would suffer this for the rest of their life. He said: ‘I’m not telling them that – too much pressure before the match.’
“You remember how the game went [United beat Bayern Munich 2-1, with two goals in injury time, having trailed from the sixth minute]. Afterwards, I was going up the tunnel to congratulate Sir Alex and give him a hug. Before I had a chance to say anything, he said, ‘I told them at half-time!’ We both laughed, but it was an emotional moment for me and I had a tear in my eye, which he noticed. I suppose it was because I had lost my final and he had won his.”
In the biggest contest of his non-footballing life, Steve is hopeful the next victory will be his own.
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