Profile: David Bernstein: Into the field of broken dreams

The boss of French Connection has taken on a riches to rags story at Manchester City football club. He explained his ambitions to Jon Culley
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The Independent Online
DAVID BERNSTEIN found himself portrayed with some predictability as a man in receipt of a poisoned chalice after he agreed to succeed Francis Lee as chairman of Manchester City. Given the football club's perilous position, faced with the once unthinkable prospect of relegation to the third-rate status of the Second Division, the image is understandable. Bernstein, however, will have none of it.

"Actually, Francis has left the club in good shape," he said. "Our income levels are very acceptable. We have an excellent entertaining and catering set-up, the merchandising side is first class and, of course, we have an incredible supporter base, with crowds regularly approaching 30,000. If only we could start winning on the field, the prospects would be outstanding."

As a chartered accountant engaged in fashion retailing, the 54-year-old chairman of the French Connection group might not seem to hold obvious qualifications for the immense task of reviving a strife-ridden football club. But he and City go back a long way.

Although resident in Finchley for 25 years, Bernstein was born in the North-west in St Helens and has followed City "with great passion" since 1954. His four sons have inherited his enthusiasm for the light blue cause, spurning more fashionable alternatives, and the whole family are often to be seen at Maine Road. "My car does a great many miles on the M1 and M6," he said.

More to the point, he has been an active board member since late in 1994 and his tribute to Lee, who resigned last week as a director as well as chairman, is far from disingenuous. Introduced to the former playing legend shortly before the "Forward with Franny" movement swept him to power, Bernstein helped with Lee's campaign strategy and was rewarded with a place on the board. The two have become good friends and, Bernstein insists, will remain so despite the bitter nature of Lee's parting, amid claims that he faced "enemies within" as well as the hostility from supporters that ultimately forced him to quit.

"I have great respect for Francis," Bernstein said, "both for the efforts he made in trying to achieve his objectives for the club and for his total integrity. The changeover was conducted in a very orderly way and without animosity."

Ironically, however, Bernstein played a significant part in the undermining of Lee's power base at Maine Road. As he grappled with debts of pounds 26m after City's relegation from the Premiership in 1996, mainly the consequence of a spiralling wage bill and years of over-borrowing, Lee was close to desperation. His latest manager, Steve Coppell, had resigned on the grounds of ill health and finding a successor capable of returning City to the top flight depended on the provision of substantial new funds for players.

Again he turned to Bernstein, who was successful in raising nearly pounds 11m, enabling Lee to appoint Frank Clark - the sixth City manager in three years - with the promise of a sizeable war chest.

But the consequence for Lee was that the rights issue through which Bernstein secured the new investment led to a shift in the balance of power at the club that would in time make his position untenable.

The bulk of the new shares were taken up by Stephen Boler, a Cheshire businessman said to have made pounds 120m from the furniture trade, and John Wardle, who with partner David Makin built the successful sports goods retailer JD Sports. The deal increased Boler's share of the club to 24 per cent, with Wardle and Makin controlling 19 per cent jointly. Lee's stake remained at under 12 per cent.

Disputes reportedly followed and Lee increasingly appeared a lame duck, under fire from the stands for failing to deliver a return to glory and yet unable to pursue his own agenda within the boardroom. Last December, rather than face a vote of no confidence, he surrendered the day-to-day running of the club to Dennis Tueart, like himself a former City player turned successful businessman who joined the board on Wardle and Makin's nomination. Tueart became director of football last week in the wake of Lee's departure.

The new man in the chair, meanwhile, arrives with a reputation as a shrewd and able performer. After 20 years in accountancy, his business talents came to the fore as development director of Pentland Group, which made a fortune through its investment in the Reebok brand. French Connection, the half-retail, half-mail order operation which has been under Bernstein's stewardship since February 1995, maintains an upward curve in profits and expansion.

His ambition is to create a similar graph at Maine Road, although he acknowledges that the first part of his strategy might see his reign as chairman end rather quickly should the injection of further new capital he is determined to secure result in power changing hands again. The likeliest source of new investment is one of the suitors currently courting Boler, who spends much of his time on his game reserve in South Africa and is understood to be willing to sell his own shares and those owned by the widow of the late Peter Swales, Lee's predecessor as chairman, for which he also has responsibility. Raymond Donn, a Manchester solicitor and a club vice-president, is understood to have made Boler an offer and there may be one forthcoming from Mike McDonald, the Manchester businessman who recently resigned as chairman of Sheffield United. The eventual buyer could acquire 30 per cent ownership.

But Bernstein sees no other option. "The intention remains to go for a full stock-market flotation [City shares currently trade on the Ofex market] but that would have to be from a position of strength, and this is certainly not an appropriate time," he said.

Such is City's potential, he says, he does not envisage the team's current plight proving a deterrent to investors, although little of that potential will be realised without a return to the Premiership and a worthwhile challenge to the club's envied neighbours, Manchester United.

"The television income lost when we dropped out of the Premiership has been sorely missed," he said. "That, combined with a large playing staff still on Premiership wages, has been the biggest drain.

"Obviously, we will have a strategy should we be relegated again but I will not even contemplate that. The Premiership is really the only road ahead."

Responsibility for that part of the club's future now lies with Joe Royle, the former Oldham and Everton manager - and ex-City player - in whose appointment as successor to Clark Bernstein was again influential.

Royle, who made his first major purchase when he spent pounds 1m on Bolton's Jamie Pollock before yesterday's critical match against Sheffield United, has just seven matches left in which to keep City in Division One. He has seen glimpses of improvement but nothing, so far, sustained.

As one Manchester stockbroker and diehard fan said: "Francis Lee improved a lot of things. For instance, you can sit down in the club restaurant before the game and eat quite possibly the best food in town.

"It is just that what happens on the pitch is almost guaranteed to give you indigestion."