Obituary: Simon Greenberg – ‘Warm and entertaining, with a sharp mind’

The award-winning sports journalist, successful comms director and sports industry executive died this week after a short illness.

Simon Greenberg in 2009, when he was chief of staff for the England 2018 World Cup bid
Simon Greenberg in 2009, when he was chief of staff for the England 2018 World Cup bid

Simon Greenberg, who died this week aged 52, began his career as a journalist. He was only 25 when, as a sports reporter at The Mail on Sunday, he broke the 1995 story that cost George Graham his job as manager of Arsenal. Greenberg revealed that Graham had accepted a “bung”, or illicit payment, of more than £400,000 from a Norwegian soccer agent in relation to the transfers of two players.

Greenberg won a couple of major awards for the story, moving on to become the Evening Standard’s youngest ever sports editor.

To many people in the PR industry, he was perhaps better known for his senior comms roles.

In 2004 he left journalism to become communications and public affairs director at Chelsea Football Club, despite being a lifelong supporter of London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

It was an exciting time at Chelsea, as Roman Abramovich had recently purchased the club and invested in the young manager José Mourinho. Mourinho affectionately referred to Greenberg as the “shadow”, because he was always there, helping to keep him out of trouble.

Greenberg spent five-and-a-half years at Chelsea, helping build a formidable comms and marketing operation.

“I first met Simon when I first edited PRWeek back in 2005,” said Danny Rogers, PRWeek’s editor-in-chief. “I initially found him a very tough character – pretty essential for managing Chelsea’s and Jose Mourinho’s reputations at that time. But once you got to know Simon he was actually a warm and entertaining person with a very sharp mind. He told some fantastic stories about working with Mourinho and I think worked out how a modern football club had to communicate professionally in the modern era.”

In 2008 Greenberg convinced Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s current comms supremo, to move from his job at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, to come back to the UK and take up the role of head of media, as Greenberg’s deputy.

Atkins told PRWeek yesterday: “Simon was an incredibly good communicator and a strong and effective leader who gave his teams both the confidence and freedom to thrive and do their best work. His insatiable appetite for new projects and good works meant he left an indelible mark and legacy at Chelsea FC. He will be sorely missed by his many friends at the club and across the industry.”

Greenberg then spent a year as chief of staff on England 2018, the country’s unsuccessful bid to bring the 2018 World Cup to these shores.

Henry Chappell, founder of sports consultancy Pitch, told PRWeek: “I’d worked with Simon previously in his role at Chelsea, but then worked with him even more closely on the World Cup bid. England 2018 actually proved an enjoyable and stimulating experience.”

But neither were to prove Greenberg’s most testing roles in comms. In 2011 he joined News International (now News UK, publisher) as director of corporate affairs. This was at the time of the phone-hacking crisis that would engulf, and ultimately close, the News of the World, and he was responsible for articulating the company’s response to the affair. It was a gruelling couple of years, including an interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News that was “more of a mauling than a grilling”, according to The Times.

Greenberg spent a further nine years at News International, initially as executive member of its management and standards committee, trying to clear up the mess following the phone hacking crisis, and then, from 2013 to June 2020, as global head of rights, setting up Dow Jones Sports Intelligence, dedicated to providing sports brands and their sponsors with data.

Over the past year he worked as head of international, business and corporate development of sports content start-up The Athletic.

Greenberg was a lifelong friend of both Will Lewis, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and chief executive of Dow Jones, and his brother Simon Lewis OBE, who is now a director at FTI Consulting.

Greenberg married Fran Jefferson, a music industry executive, in 2013. She survives him with their son, Sam, as well as Coco and Sukie, Fran’s daughters from a previous marriage.

Simon Greenberg, journalist and football executive. Born 26 July 1969, died 30 August 2021.

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