50th Anniversary: Michael Cunnah Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Michael Cunnah

Michael Cunnah

Having graduated from Aston University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in Managerial & Administrative Studies, Michael Cunnah went on to serve as Chief Executive Officer and Director of Wembley National Stadium Ltd from 2001 until its opening in 2007. Prior to this Michael had worked for four years at The FA as Finance Director, leading a number of major initiatives during his tenure. His first achievement was the successful acquisition of Wembley National Stadium Ltd from Wembley Plc in March 1999. 

Michael was a key figure in the creation of the largest UK sports charity, The Football Foundation, which for the first time, has secured significant funding from the Government and professional football, for the development of the game at the grass roots level. He also led the re-engineering of the structure of The FA, refocusing it around a main Board of Directors and providing the foundation for the unprecedented growth that The FA has achieved in recent years. He was appointed as Chief Executive to lead the Wembley project. He created the business plan and funding proposition, which was fundamental to the successful re-launch of the Wembley project. 

Michael was previously Corporate Finance Director at Coca-Cola Schweppes Ltd and held several senior positions at Guinness Plc. 

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

I had a very different route through to University because I had worked for four years first before coming back to full time education, so my choice of Aston was carefully made on the basis that I thought that Aston gave me the best chance of coming out of university with a job, having giving up a job to go to university in the first place. Jobs were scarce in the late seventies. Interestingly I suppose, I left school at 16 because I didn't think that I  would pass my‘A’ levels and therefore university seemed so far away it could have been an alien planet. 

Going out into the real world and getting a job, a clerical job, made me quickly realise the "rules of the game" i.e. you don't progress without qualifications. It also allowed me start again by studying through day release education and, when I put in more effort, I was able to re-assess whether I could pass exams and gain qualifications.

What do you think are Aston’s greatest achievements?

To have developed in (only) 50 years to become the institution that it is today is fantastic. Everyone involved should be very proud.

What has your experience at Aston given you personally?

Aston was a very positive experience, perhaps because this was something that I had actively chosen to do, I knew why I was there and what I wanted out of the experience. And it wasn't just qualifications that I was after, I wanted to have a good time. Most specifically I wanted to work in and travel around the USA during the summer holiday. Actually I did that for all three summers! Unlike school, I actually worked hard at Aston - and found that when I put some effort into education it became enjoyable, something that I was good at. It was a virtuous circle for me, the more effort that I put in the better I did and the more I enjoyed it.

What is your fondest Aston memory? 

It is a relatively recently memory. In 2006 I become a Fellow of Aston Business School, an accolade that I am very proud of and therefore that would be the fondest. Having said that I thoroughly enjoyed all my time here as an undergraduate. I found that the whole experience was fantastic, particularly the years living on campus, where everything was so close and so convenient. It was really good fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Would you say that as a person you changed and developed during your time at university ?

Massively. It’s a cliché I know but Aston opened the whole world to me. I was a clerk, working for the National Coal Board in the North East of England, and then I came to Aston and I started to travel, work overseas, and ultimately ended up running a Premiership football club and managing the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium. The difference between my life pre and post Aston was like night and day. In particular, the way that Aston operates, because of the work experienced in the sandwich year,  I got very relevant work experience, and I had something really valuable to put on my CV. Along with my working experience pre-Aston, this gave me something real and tangible to offer prospective employers.  

How do you feel when you see Wembley Stadium?

Of course, very proud. I remember the extraordinary effort of a relatively small team of people that under very difficult circumstances "pulled off the impossible" by re-engineering  every aspect of the project in order to deliver what is now probably the best stadium in the world. When I see the arch I feel proud because we changed London's skyline for the better.  When I see the arch lit up I know that it was my personal initiative to install lights in the arch so that this very iconic feature would be even more magical. When it shines at night across London it looks like half of a very large halo. It is stunning. 

Most people move on when they leave a company and don't go back. I am the same with Wembley although I will occasionally go to events there. The last football match that I saw there was the 2014 League Cup Final featuring my team Sunderland. I must have got something wrong with the stadium because we lost - it wasn't meant to be like that! It was a great occasion as 90,000 fans created a great atmosphere - maybe we did get it right after all.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

The first piece of advice is  - don't try to map out your career for the next 30-40 years, it doesn’t work like that – I’m not sure it ever did, but with the increasing speed of change today it is even more unrealistic.  At certain points during your career you will have decisions to make as to which direction to take and you have to make sure that, at that point, you have the all the information necessary to make the best decision you can. I was given some advice when I was 16 years old which was proven to be very sound advice many times over. I was told not to specialise too early in my career  as it may close off valuable alternatives. Alternatives that may be more relevant and appealing later. Most of us have to specialise at some point but try to be certain about it when you do. If your chosen specialism doesn't work out you have to go back and start again. You are likely to have wasted time and effort as a result.

As I was good with numbers I always thought that I was going to end up as an accountant.  I resisted the move straight into the accounting profession and stayed more general by studying Business Studies before and during my Aston career. This gave me a broader business education and, although I did end up qualifying as an accountant, I feel that I ended up becoming more than just "good at numbers". Now that I have stopped working as an accountant I feel that my broader business knowledge helps me in my entrepreneurial ventures.

My final piece of advice is that when you are considering a new job or some other sort of change, ask yourself "if I don’t do this will I spend the rest of my life wondering whether I should have? Might I regret turning this down". When I was interviewed for my first role in the football industry I thought to myself "if they offer me this job I'm going to have to take it otherwise I will forever wonder if I should have". Life is too short, some opportunities must be grabbed when they come your way!