There’s only going to be one Old Aylesburian interview this month but, fortunately, it’s a big one. Christian Purslow has had a hugely successful career since leaving AGS, going from Cambridge to Harvard and into consultancy, eventually setting up his own investment company. However, it’s in the world of football that his name has become most widely recognised, particularly by fans of Liverpool. He was appointed Managing Director of the club in 2009, and eventually had to fight its American owners in a dramatic court battle to be able to sell Liverpool FC and settle its debts.
Despite his later success, Christian’s school career was far from perfect. He talked to me about how he turned himself around at AGS, and his turbulent time in football.
Hi Christian. What are your memories of AGS?
My overarching memory is that my time at the school got better and better the longer it went on. That’s because I started badly, I was a poor student for the first three years or so at the school. I didn’t concentrate at all, I didn’t take my work seriously or do it when I was supposed to which meant I was in trouble a lot, and I didn’t behave in class that well as I was too interested in trying to be funny. Being in trouble is not that much fun, honestly. I had a terrible nickname: ‘The Det Collector’, because I was in detentions most Fridays, which was pretty awful. It was so bad having to pretend to my parents why I was late home from school.
The important point that I’d make is that I eventually grew up and started to take being a student more seriously. I began to care much more about the quality of the work I did. I started to respect teachers and behave better around the time of my O-levels and then into the Sixth Form, and, of course, the more you put into school life then the more enjoyable it becomes. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
By sixth form I enjoyed my work, had fantastic friendships, great fun and I have many happy memories right the way through to when I left in the Autumn of 1982.
How did you get on with teachers at the school?
In the early days, when it wasn’t going well for me, I had an immature view of teachers. They were just dehumanised authority figures, and I fought against that authority. The supreme irony is that I’ve now been married to a teacher for 25 years, and even as an adult it’s such an eye opener to see that teachers are actually no different to everyone else – I didn’t get that as a schoolboy.
In UK society and in the education system we need to value teachers much more in every sense of the word. It was the few teachers in the early stages of my time at AGS who rated me highly, who I respected and for whom I did good work, who drowned out the many teachers who thought that I was not doing justice to my place at the school. That small group of teachers who believed in me got the best out of me even in my most immature phase- if they hadn’t been there for me then I wouldn’t have got through AGS and I would not have had the career opportunities I’ve had since.
What I came to realise was that there were loads of great teachers at the school. Once I realised that it was much more fulfilling to have really good relationships with teachers who liked you, respected you and rated you for your work.
Who were your favourite teachers?
I can think of a couple of very strict teachers who, even in the early days, got the best out of me and kept me motivated. One was a guy called Mr Hunt, a Spanish teacher, another was Mr Larkham, a Chemistry teacher. Mr Brown in French and my Phillips Housemaster Mr Brooke were all really good from day one. What they had in common is that at no point did I ever mess them around as for some reason I wanted to do my best for them. By the time I left I could list many more who I had a good relationship with – Mr Wilson in the English department, Mr Horsfall, Mr Price, to name a few but it was those early believers who I have never forgotten.
The Headmaster K.D Smith was also incredibly supportive and helpful. Right up until the day after my A-level results when he set me up with interviews at both Oxford and Cambridge. He literally cold called colleges at both universities on the day of my results with me sitting in his office listening and arranged interviews for me for the next day. Without his personal intervention I would have been scrambling around. I’m eternally grateful to him for that. And he always seemed to know I would come good in the end.
Did you have any idea of your future career when you were at school?
I did have an idea that I might want to be a barrister when I was at AGS… but it didn’t work out that way. I always say to students that you don’t need to worry if you don’t have a plan. I’ve got two teenage daughters at university and they still have no clue about what they want to do!
The best thing is to try to get a range of experiences in the holidays to test out new environments, cultures, and businesses, and what excites you and appeals will start to become very obvious. That’s what counts.
How has your time at AGS influenced you since leaving?
What AGS brought out in me was a competitive streak. I like winning and I always did. The school certainly brought out, fine-tuned and developed my natural desire to try and be the best at what I do – to not be satisfied with just being in the pack. It’s a competitive world, never more than today, and so wanting to get the highest grades you possibly can is something that the school instilled in me and it stuck.
Being surrounded by people of comparable intelligence, great teachers, a culture of excellence, those all stuck with me more than anything else. From the minute you got there it was a school where you were expected to do well and to try and achieve. I believe that was in my DNA but the school brought it out and it’s never gone away.
How did you find your time at Liverpool FC? What were the challenges?
The main challenge was that the club had been bought by two American businessmen with a huge amount of borrowed money, and the club’s income was to be used to pay the interest on that borrowing, which didn’t leave very much for running a top competitive football club. So I was brought in to more or less take away the credit card that the owners had bandied around and which had put the club into a hugely risky financial position.
To be the person who had to keep the club alive long enough to get it sold but on the other hand having no money to spend, that tightrope was the hardest part of the job. Fans, naturally, want to see their team being highly competitive and to spend lots of money on transfers and wages. It was not an option for me to speak publicly about what a financial mess it was when I arrived; my job was to fix the mess and not whinge about it. With some people not appreciating that situation until the very end then there were naturally pressures put on me and questions asked.
It would have been so much easier if I had just told people how terrible the position was, but I preferred to try to fix it quietly and maintain the club’s reputation. That was the only way I could keep players at the club and get people interested in buying it. Right until the last minute I managed to do that, until the owner’s decided to take legal action to try to prevent me from selling the club which put our crisis firmly in the news.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
To be offered the chance to go and run the football club that my grandfather and father supported made me hugely proud. It was a tough job, but the day that I won the High Court battle against the owners allowing me to sell the club was certainly a hugely proud moment in my life.
To come out of the High Court and have hundreds of Liverpool fans singing your name, that was obviously a very proud moment. My kids laugh about it because on YouTube I apparently say to the various microphones stuffed in my face “ I am elated!” about ten times which led some wag on Twitter to comment “ I think he’s elated”
What advice would you have for the boys who are at the school now?
Don’t have regrets when you’re 40 years old and wish that you’d taken school more seriously and taken the opportunity to learn. You need to be learning all the time and you need to be having fun, in life and at school, so try to balance those two sides of the equation.
Also, just remember that teachers are no different to you. They’re human beings who turn up come rain or shine and perform in front of you in the classroom- you should respect them for that and recognise that it’s a choice they’ve made to help you develop as a person. Pupils should respect their teachers- the reverse is just plain wrong.
Sitting back now as a nearly 50 year old, my main memory of AGS is that it was definitely a marathon and not a sprint. So to the guys there today who are languishing around at the bottom of the pack, whether in terms of results or just not enjoying it, honestly and truly you can get your act together, you can improve and it’s amazing how different the outcomes are when you take your work, in the classroom and at home, seriously.
Students at AGS are highly privileged – many children, indeed most children in England, do not have the opportunity to go to a school of its quality – so enjoy it and make the most of the incredible opportunity it gives you to get a great start in life.