TOP media and sports lawyer Simon Johnson, who was second in command in running England’s 2018 World Cup bid, has rubbed shoulders with British royalty, leading politicians, sports and media personalities.
Yet Simon, who co-ordinated the first stage of the Chief Rabbinate Trust’s consultation process for the appointment of the next Chief Rabbi, is happiest in his warden’s box at Hampstead Garden Synagogue.
Simon, who grew up in Prestwich, Manchester, has been a regular shulgoer all his life, firstly at Prestwich Hebrew Congregation and in Hampstead since he moved to London.
“Every Shabbat and everything I do in the community is very different from the sports world,” he told me.
“It is a bit more like real life. Mine is a high-profile job, pressured, with a lot of publicity. I am involved with politicians and sports people. But it has a slightly unreal element.
“When I walk into my shul and sit in the warden’s box, that’s what life is about – family and spending time with friends and the community, helping and volunteering.”
That is not to say that Simon has not enjoyed his time at the very centre of British sports activities.
Looking back on his varied legal and management career so far, being at the centre of the 2018 World Cup bid was most definitely the highlight.
He said: “My most enjoyable experience was working on the World Cup bid. I was right at the heart of something that united the whole country.
“I spent a huge amount of time with Prince William who is the president of the Football Association, David Beckham, who was the ambassador for our bid, David Cameron and members of the previous Labour government.
“It gave me a real opportunity to be at the heart of something that the whole country was behind. It was very, very enjoyable.”
The person who impressed Simon the most during the process was Prince William.
Simon said: “He is a very impressive young man, a very good leader, very generous, very warm and kind, superb.”
As for the other top politicians and sports personalities with whom he has worked, Simon said: “They were all people doing a job. Only they have a bit more security and attention than most people. But there was a very good spirit of co-operation.”
Simon is still “extremely disappointed” that the bid failed.
He said: “I believe that it would have been a huge success in this country, bigger even than the Olympics.
“It would have involved more of the country and it would have been more profitable. It would have been a superb occasion.”
He claims that “the process was not clean and straightforward” and that England’s bid was not decided on its merits.
Simon’s interest in sports began with the North Manchester Jewish Soccer League, in which he played while attending Bury Grammar School.
He was very active in BBYO, for whom he was the Whitefield president and served on the national executive committee.
But he never dreamed that he would work in the sports field.
He went to London’s King College with the intention of becoming a lawyer, which he accomplished.
He chose to apply for his training contract to Denton Hall solicitors.
Simon said: “Among their clients were Monty Python and Spitting Image. I thought they sounded like a fun firm. They specialised in entertainment and media and acted for a lot of film and TV production companies and distributors. It appealed to what I was interested in. It was a very interesting place to work.”
While Simon was working there the company decided to expand to the sports field and he was asked to build up their clients in that area.
Simon said: “We were very successful. We picked up the Premier League as a client almost as soon as it was formed in 1992.
“I was acting for FIFA as a solicitor and I was doing a lot of work on Premier League sponsorship and TV agreements for televising the World Cup.”
Simon was then headhunted by ITV as a programme rights lawyer to do the deals to buy sports programmes.
He was part of the team which pulled off the high-profile deal to bring presenter Des Lynam from the BBC.
After nearly 10 years at ITV, during which he got to know the ITV sports programmes presenters, he was headhunted again – this time by the Premier League as their director of legal affairs.
Then he was headhunted once again – as the Football Association director of corporate affairs.
He said: “This time it was not in a legal role. I worked very closely with the chief executive.
“That was when I got more involved with more well-known and newsworthy events and people.
“In a management role, I looked after our relationships with the government, international federations like FIFA, with other sports and with the Royal Family.”
That was how Simon became involved in the World Cup bid of which he became chief operator.
Following the 2011 bid failure, Simon set up his own company, providing services and advice to people in businesses in the sports field.
He is currently working with the Rugby Football Union, running a lobbying organisation on behalf of businesses in the leisure industry and has just set up a digital media business.
It was in his professional capacity that Simon was employed by the Chief Rabbinate Trust to co-ordinate a consultation process about the role and characteristics of the Chief
Rabbi, which he has now completed.
I asked Simon how working with the Trust compared with his previous work with sports and media.
He said: “The process of co-ordinating meetings, organising dates and presenting a report in order to form a Chief Rabbinate job description was very much what I was used to.
“But I viewed it as an extension of my communal life.
“In 2006, I became vice-chairman of Hampstead Garden Synagogue and I am now warden.
“Every week I’m involved in my own community. We’re one of the biggest communities in the UK – with 3,000 members.”
Simon also helps the UJIA sports committee.
Wife Joanna (nee Feld) comes from Bournemouth, where her father used to run the kosher Cumberland Hotel.
The couple have two daughters – Ellen, 16, and Lucy, 13 – and a nine-old son, Max.