The changing face of football club chairmen

By Online Editorial

The image and significance of a club chairman has changed considerably in the years since football’s TV boom, yet the price of success and failure remain the same.

If things are going bad they are regularly the brunt of protests outside the stadium gates, when things are going well they are very rarely referenced to.

There was a time when a ‘build your own chairman kit’ would come complete with a selection of sheep skin jackets, a range of fat cigars and a car big enough to warrant two parking spaces labelled with the job title.

Chairmen would make their money in the local carpet/car/butcher/steel business, and look to pass on control to their sons once they can no longer handle the daily trudge to the oak-panelled boardroom.

Now that figure has been replaced by a mixture of oil tycoons from Russia, sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates, sports fans from the USA and ex-players with an undying love and sense of duty toward their club.

In certain quarters the dynamics of the boardroom have shifted so much that the owner and chairman are no longer synonymous, in those circumstances it is almost exclusively the owner who is the focal point.

Despite the recession, football clubs undoubtedly remain big money projects. However, whether the rich buy clubs to make more money or merely for their own amusement is a matter of personal preference.

The city of Manchester is a prime example of contrasting intentions; Manchester City’s owners are unlikely to see a return anywhere near the levels of their lavish investments whilst there has been no secret made of the fact that Malcolm Glazer has saddled United with his personal debt.

Regardless of whether they intend to make a profit or not, once they have acquired a football club they must then decide how the business should be run. This is where money is made and lost and football clubs are developed or broken. The Football League is littered with examples of how to and how not to run a football club.

Mike Ashley provides the most notorious example in recent times of how not to run a football club. Ashley took on the role of everyone’s favourite uncle, sitting amongst the fans at away games sporting a black and white striped shirt. He treated the club like a new car, showing it off to his friends spending lavishly on players and player wages with little or no business sense.

The club now languishes in the Championship (6.2 to win and 3.0 to be promoted, yet only 15.0 to be relegated; an accurate mark of the club’s instability) with a massive for sale sign pitched outside St James Park.

Americans have now commandeered complete ownership of four of the 20 Premier League clubs and they tend to take a relative back seat in the image stakes. Liverpool (4.3 to win the Premier League) and Manchester United (3.15 to make it a fourth title in a row) are the most notable along with Aston Villa (16.0 to acquire a top four finish), they have all seen an upturn in their fortunes since the Americans arrived. It waits to be seen whether Sunderland (25.0 to finish in the top six) can follow suit having recently been acquired by the American Ellis Short.

There is still a place toward the top of the football pyramid for the local business man, notably Dave Whelan of Wigan (5.5 to be relegated) and Peter Coates at Stoke (4.2 for relegation) who made their money in local sports clothing and betting industries respectively.

In what can only be perceived as an attempt to raise the club’s profile, Whelan has become something of a media whore. He is always the first chairman on the phone to Sky Sports news should a story break, often conducting the clubs transfer dealings in public. It is maybe a necessary tactic for a smaller club but certainly not an endearing one.

It is impossible to say that there is any one defining way of running a football club, and far be it for me to tell these successful business men how to do their job. But, although it pains to say it, to achieve longevity at the top in this modern era a football club must be ran, first and foremost, as a business.

And we as fans must come to accept this if we want our clubs to be around for our grandchildren. There are too many ‘massive’ clubs languishing in the lower echelons of the Football League to suggest otherwise.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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