With one friend selling internet cable, another in recruitment and the rest at university, as managing director of West Ham Women Jack Sullivan clearly is not your average 19-year-old.
Son of the billionaire West Ham owner, David, Sullivan may have had a bit of a head start in life, but he is turning heads with a seemingly genuine drive and desire to build women’s football.
Now, in the club’s first season in the fully professional Women’s Super League, and Sullivan’s first year in the job, he and the team are going to Wembley, where they will play Manchester City in Saturday’s FA Cup final.
“Our general manager is also a West Ham fan,” says Sullivan, who is suited up to meet the press in the sun at their Rush Green training ground, but still recovering from his first and, he jokes, last London Marathon. “For me and Russ to be able to take West Ham, our own football club, to Wembley? It’s something you only dream of as a kid.”
The dream started when he asked his mum to buy him the women’s team, who were then not properly integrated into the club. “I asked mum, I wouldn’t have asked dad,” Sullivan laughs. “I was about 14 and a bit naive. I saw the women’s team and I thought: ‘You know what? Women’s football is growing massively.’
“I thought there was scope to really grow something at West Ham, build a fanbase and grow women’s football as well. I thought there was a massive opportunity. Obviously I was far too young. I was doing my GCSEs and all sorts.”
Featuring in the BBC Three documentary Britain’s Youngest Football Boss, he has flung open the gates and brought eyes to the game on a week-by-week basis that were really unimaginable. There is a sort of freshness to his youthful approach. In the documentary you see him sitting in meetings with sponsors one minute and the next leafleting locals in Romford.
He spent a year working across all club departments to get ready for his chance: the club shop, the warehouse, marketing, sponsorship, the academy, HR, corporate sales and media.
The TV show “was a gamble,” says Sullivan, “but the gamble’s paid off. We’re on BBC One every Saturday night after Match of the Day and the viewing figures have been 1.3 million which we’ve been absolutely over the moon with, that sort of coverage is incredible. We’re also on BBC iPlayer getting hundreds of thousands of views.”
The FA’s green light for West Ham to join the top division, having played as an amateur team in the third tier, kick-started Sullivan’s project, but from the off it was about more than just having on-pitch success.
“We thought we would bring something different to the Women’s Super League, we thought we could bring that Essex, London heartland into women’s football, engage them into women’s football. We wanted to get more eyeballs into women’s football and we hope we’ve done that, and in getting to the final hopefully the FA can sit down and say they made the right decision.”
The first task was to bring in a manager and the recruitment of Matt Beard was a masterstroke. Out of work after the collapse of Boston Breakers in the US, Beard was available and the manager who ended Arsenal’s dominance of women’s football with back-to-back league wins at Liverpool was keen to jump in at the deep end with another new build.
“We’ve seen it with the men’s side with Pellegrini; they are natural winners and they can revolutionise a football club. Matt has done similar here, he’s won pretty much everything in the women’s game and it shows the world that we mean business.”
Shrewd signings are Beard’s forte. He finds players few in the women’s game have heard of, the PFA young player of the year nominee Alisha Lehmann being one of this crop, and marries them with experience.
“That was an important part of why we wanted him,” says Sullivan. “Morale within the camp is really nice, there’s a lot of harmony and we’re all invested in the football club. They’ve all taken that gamble with the club, a gamble in that we were brand new in the division and nobody knew what to expect. They’ve all got that vested interest in the football club.”
You can witness Sullivan’s emotional rollercoaster during games on screen, but with the episode that includes West Ham’s penalty defeat of Reading after 120 minutes in the FA Cup semi-final yet to air, just what was it like? “It was lots of ups and downs, it was probably the most stressed I’ve been at a football match in a long time, probably the last time was the play-off finals with the men’s.”
Sullivan Sr’s on-screen patter about how good it is that Sullivan Jr is learning the ropes of running a club, albeit on a much smaller scale, hints at bigger plans for his son’s future, but the teenager is focused on only one thing: “To be honest, at the moment I’m investing all my time into the women’s team, there’s still a lot to be done with the women’s.
“We still want to make it as sustainable as possible, we still want to get as many people here as possible and I’m just taking it day by day and not looking too far into the future. Look, you never know what the future can hold, anything can happen and I suppose we just take is as we can.”
A trophy less than a year into his directorship would be quite the start. Does he have celebrations arranged for the players should they defy the odds? “We have already planned it, even if we lose it is an amazing achievement – win or lose, we’re on the booze,” he grins.
“It’s been a brilliant achievement for the girls this year, for the whole football club. We have taken a massive gamble and the whole club has worked incredibly hard.”