Club Chairmen

Tough at the Top
Being in charge of a club is often viewed as a thankless task, Richard Foster looks at some of the most memorable Chairmen that have played their part in Football League history.

Brian Clough’s view of football chairmen was typically strident and controversial. “Football hooligans? Well there are 92 league chairmen for a start.” But it is fair to say that people do not become chairmen of football clubs to court popularity, nor to make money as neither is likely to be achieved. Indeed the main attributes for the job would appear to be a remarkably thick skin, a bottomless wallet and a degree of insanity. When looking at the overall vilification and financial hardship that the majority has to suffer, it is a wonder that there are enough people willing to take on the role. 

It has not always been the way and many of the early league chairmen gained a healthy degree of respect especially those who were part of family dynasties, which were much more commonplace in the 20th century than they are today.  The Cearns were such a family, whose association with the club goes back to Thames Ironworks, the team that became West Ham United in 1900. Three generations of the family were involved with the club as either chairmen or directors stretching for almost 100 years. 

Similar families such as the Wales and Richardsons at Tottenham, the Mears at Chelsea and the Edwards at Manchester United all thrived over several decades, providing continuity and consistency at the top of their respective clubs. There was also some financial gain for the likes of the elder Edwards who earned the nickname of Champagne Louis. "The Edwards family,” David Conn of The Guardian observed, “became one of the first to live, very comfortably, off a football club." It should be acknowledged that these families did also bring success to their respective clubs as all three won the First Division during their tenure in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bob Lord brought a similar level of success to Burnley, winning the First Division Championship in 1960 for only the second time in their long history, followed by being runners-up in both league and FA Cup in 1962. Lord was an innovator, building up the club’s infrastructure with modern facilities, such as one of the UK’s first all-weather training pitches in conjunction with an investment in a youth policy that bore dividends. However, when he first joined the Burnley board he was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the existing directors of the club as Simon Inglis pointed out in his book, ‘League Football and the Men Who Made It’. “Under the circumstances, gentlemen, there is nothing we can do. We shall have to put up with him!”

Lord’s tenure at Turf Moor also stood out because of his trenchant and often controversial stance, being dubbed the “Kruschev of Burnley” by writer Arthur Hopcraft. Whilst most chairmen were relatively low profile and rarely rocked the boat, Lord was drawn to the flame of confrontation and made a habit of upsetting the authorities over a variety of issues, including what he saw as a bias against his club. He was particularly strident in his criticism of the growth of television, which he saw as a pernicious influence and strongly opposed the introduction of Sunday football. So ultimately Lord failed to halt his joint bête noirs and one can only wonder what his reaction would be to the idea of today’s Super Sunday. 

Towards the end of Lord’s 26 years at Burnley, a chairman arrived who lasted as long as Lord but could not have been more different. In 1976 Watford appointed Elton John as their chairman. The flamboyant singer and lifelong supporter immediately announced that he wanted to take the club from the old Fourth Division all the way to the top. Dismissed as so much bluff and bluster at the time, John was true to his word and within six years under Graham Taylor they reached the First Division and finished second in their first season. Although an FA Cup Final appearance and another promotion to the top flight were secured during John’s successful 25 years at the helm, it was not all glory. 

Watford Chairman Elton John with team manager Graham Taylor in 1984

In 1987 he had had enough of being chairman and was on the verge of selling his stake. But there were complications as the potential buyer was already involved in the part-ownership of two other clubs and the League blocked the move. John found himself dealing with none other than Robert Maxwell, the press baron. The deal collapsed because of Maxwell’s connections with Reading, Oxford United and Derby County and John stayed in charge.  

The whole issue of multiple ownership had come to the fore during these negotiations, added to which Maxwell had already mooted the idea of merging Oxford and Reading into one club, Thames Valley Royals in 1983. Whilst the idea of creating new sporting franchises might work in the US, there was vehement opposition generally and from both clubs’ fans. The plan was eventually shelved by a disgruntled Maxwell, although it proved a precursor to other merger proposals (which also foundered) between Wimbledon and Palace, as well as Fulham and QPR. Maxwell’s unhappy relationship with football never really recovered and remained strained until his death in 1991. 

Lord remains the only chairman to have a competition named after him, the Bob Lord Challenge Trophy ran from the year of his death in 1981 up to 2000. He is unfairly remembered more for his brazenness than laying the foundations for Burnley’s success in the sixties, and a string of chairmen followed in his wake who were similarly adept at creating headlines. The notion of a firebrand chairman became commonplace during the 1970s and 1980s and as family grandees made their exit, brasher and more belligerent men took over.

The next generation of chairmen was exemplified by the arrival of a new breed of pugnacious and outspoken men who courted controversy. One club where this was especially true was Chelsea where the Mears family relinquished control in 1981, having been involved from the founding of the club 75 years before. As a property deal to secure Stamford Bridge went awry, the club’s finances were plunged into dire straits and the following year Ken Bates famously bought the club for £1. 

Bates’ 20 year reign as chairman did see a change in fortunes both on and off the pitch, with Chelsea being transformed from an under-performing, financially impoverished club into a regular Champions League contender. Along the way there were plenty of headlines, which were often prompted by his uncompromising programme notes as much as his incendiary actions, which included the erecting of an electric fence to deter hooligans at Stamford Bridge in 1985 that was never switched on thanks to the intervention of the GLC and the FA. 

As he sold out to Roman Abramovich in 2003 Bates represented a connection between the old family-based chairmen and the influx of foreign interest that has picked up speed over the last decade. In December 2012 Bates sold his stake in Leeds to GFH, a Bahrain-based investment company thus ending his official links with English football after 30 years of continuous service. His longevity and contribution to the game is to be respected even if some of his practices were not always universally popular.

When Milan Mandaric became Portsmouth chairman in 1998, he was one of the first foreign owners in the English league. 15 years on and nearly half of all league clubs in the top two divisions have some element of foreign ownership. With the likes of John Berylson at Millwall and Andrew Appleby at Derby amongst half a dozen American chairmen, the supposed Americans’ general indifference to ‘soccer’ is clearly a relic of the past. David Sheepshanks, chairman of St. George’s Park and erstwhile chairman of Ipswich Town for over ten years and The Football League between 1997 and 1998, views this growing foreign influence as a positive component of the unstoppable globalisation of football. “Today we embrace foreign ownership,” says Sheepshanks, “because it is what it is and helps to bring an even greater sense of wealth, investment and global appeal, which is now very much part of the cocktail.” 

If a wave of American chairmen is a surprising trend then the appearance of women in the boardroom has been long overdue. Lorraine Rogers broke the mould in 1999 when she became Tranmere chairman, holding the post for ten years. Rogers, a former lawyer and banker, oversaw a relatively successful decade at Prenton Park, achieving financial stability and success on the pitch including a League Cup Final, three FA Cup quarter-final appearances and some notable Premiership scalps along the way. 

Rogers was also appointed to The Football League Board but following her departure from Tranmere, there have still only been a relatively small number of female directors at football clubs, let alone chairmen.