Heather Rabbatts: 'Pushing back the boundaries - that's what really excites me'

A Jamaican-born tigress of the business world is daring to make her mark in a Lions' Den of football. Alan Hubbard talks to her

Take a deep breath before reciting the CV of Heather Rabbatts CBE: graduate of the London School of Economics, of which she is now a governor, and London University; masters degree in international relations; qualified barrister; former deputy chief executive of Hammersmith and Fulham Council; chief exec-utive of Merton and Lambeth Councils; founder of the public-sector consultancy iMPOWER; head of education at Channel 4; BBC governor; director of the Bank of England and the UK Film Council; trustee of the British Council. And oh, head of broadcasting for New Moon, the film company whose award-winning video helped London secure the 2012 Olympics.

So what is a woman like her doing at a place like Millwall Football Club? "Good question," she laughs. "Trying to make a difference, I hope - and probably scaring the hell out of the fans as well."

For long described as one of Britain's most influential female powerhouses - she has been talked of as a future mayor of London, much to Ken Livingstone's concern, - Rabbatts was head-hunted by the club's millionaire plc chairman, Peter de Savary, as executive deputy chairman in May this year, which means she effectively runs the show. An exotic, even daring appointment, which thrusts the dynamic Jamaican-born mixed-race mum who admits to knowing little about football into what is still predominantly a man's world, and one in which Millwall are still trying to offload a reputation as a boondocks bastion of white male supremacy.

The infamous Old Den in Cold Blow Lane was where the original "Nobody loves us but we don't care" hardcore skinheads used to congregate, where The National Front, racism and violence flourished; the New Den is a somewhat more congenial environment, and Rabbatts says her role is as much about challenging perceptions as encouraging a more diverse, multiracial audience.

"I may not yet know the football business but I do know how to turn round places," she says of a job she views in three parts: spearheading regeneration in the area, modernising a company listed on the stock market; and trying to transform a football club which had what she calls "a challenging reputation".

"Because of my previous experiences I am very much drawn to those sorts of roles, but also my dad was a Peckham boy and I know this part of London well. The thing about football is that it is the global conversation, and I was really intrigued to find out how the business of football worked.

"I knew that Millwall had done quite a bit over a number of years to challenge their reputation, but getting the perception to shift always takes longer. My job is to pull these elements together."

Rabbatts came in as Millwall were relegated from the Championship. Less than three months into the season the Lions hover uncomfortably in the League One drop zone, and already she has had to take some tough decisions. At a Lambeth Council riddled with fraud and corruption, whose "Loony Left" image she eradicated, she became known as The Terminator after 1,000 redundancies.

At Millwall, there has been only one. The manager. Nigel Spackman, whom she had helped appoint, went two weeks ago. "Sadly, we had to let him go, but in the circumstances I think it was the right decision. We made a reasonable start but lost two key strikers. Then stuff happens and suddenly you are in a spiral of results that is hard to get out of. That was one of the reasons we took the decision we did with Nigel, a lovely man. They say this is the beautiful game but sometimes it can be very cruel."

She is hopeful Spackman's former assistant, Willie Donachie, who is acting as caretaker-manager, can pull things round. They had a home win against Bournemouth last Saturday but face a difficult game at Swansea today. "The gaffer - got to get used to this football language - has a fascinating approach. He is involved in yoga and meditation, which seems so totally counter-intuitive in terms of football managers, but he has this steeliness about him that is allied to a real calm. So far, touch wood, it seems to be working, particularly with the younger players."

She admits there have been some difficult meetings at fans' forums, "but on the whole they have been really welcoming. Their main concern seems to be whether we are going to change their club, and the extent to which I belong to that club and the extent to which I don't as I am not a fan.

"I remember one of them coming up to me and asking whether I had anything against white working-class people and I said no, my dad was born in Peckham, a white working-class boy [her father became an army officer and later a draughtsman], but he had the very good sense to marry a Jamaican woman. Did he have a problem with that? This rather large man then said no, he hadn't.

"What the majority of fans want to know is whether you care about the club. They under-stand and accept I am not a Millwall fan, and if they thought I was trying to be one I am sure they would resent it. Yes, there are still some fans who come to Millwall and let football down, but no more than in any other club, and now possibly less. We arrested a couple of people for racial abuse recently but that's an isolated incident."

She is involved in football's "Kick It Out" campaign and is hoping to get Millwall to the first stage of accreditation shortly, the club having been praised by the campaign chairman, Lord Ousley. But how has she been received by the "old boys' club" of football, in which there is only a handful of female executives?

There was the unnamed chairman of another club who seemed to have a fixation with her legs during a one-way conversation, but she is charismatic enough to handle their egos, and their prejudices. "Given football is the national game and such a huge part of our cultural life, women should have a bigger part in it. When you look at the people running it on the FA Council, where the average age is about 65 and there's only one woman out of 93, you think, 'Come on guys, get real. More and more women are going to football. Don't you need to embrace us?'

"I think I am viewed with a mixture of curiosity and 'What does she know?'. But there have been those, like Sir Dave Richards, who have been really supportive with their help and advice. In terms of leadership and management of the game football needs to take the next step move towards a more modern outlook."

She admits she can hardly bear to watch Millwall's games. "I feel unbelievable tension, completely different to watching it as a fan. I have begun to understand why for many people involved in the game it is compulsive, a consuming passion which eats into your blood. It is the last of the gladiatorial theatres.

"My vision for the club was to get it back into the Championship, but you know - the best- laid plans of mice and women - well, 10 games into the season, the manager has to go and we are fourth from bottom, but all we can ask is that the players play with their last drop of energy and commitment."

Feisty, certainly, but no strident feminist, she is married to Mike Lee, the former communications director for London 2012 and Uefa, so she is fairly cognisant with the sports world. Both have sons (hers aged 23 and his 13) from former marriages. She is a CBE, he an OBE. "But I try not to pull rank."

She says her inspiration was her mother, who was one of the first black women models on the New York catwalk. Her mother and father met in Jamaica, where she was born 50 years ago, moving to England soon afterwards.

"It was very tough. Initially we were in Army accommodation in Chatham. There were no other black people around and my mum went through some difficult times, as did we all, but it was particularly so for her. She brought me up with a real sense of purpose, to have independence. 'You should always have your own knicker money', she would say to me. 'And you can always be what you want to be'."

Astonishingly for someone of her accomplishments, Rabbatts says she never felt she was particularly bright, failing her 11-plus and leaving school at 16. But further education was the making of her, leading to the Bar (via a stint working with David Blunkett), where as a woman barrister she was a crusading contemporary of Cherie Blair and Helena Kennedy, taking on "lots of no-hope cases".

She defended the Greenham women peace protesters, and when she was on her way to becoming a QC she suddenly switched career to take on "the worst job in local government" at Lambeth.

Now, some tell her, she has the worst job in football. Predictably, she is unfazed. "My track record has always been about pushing back the boundaries and that's what excites me. I have this saying: 'It is better to live one day as a tiger than a hundred days as a sheep'." Or better still, perhaps, a Lion.

LIFE & TIMES

NAME: Heather Rabbatts, CBE.

BORN: 6 December 1955, Kingston, Jamaica. Moved to Kent aged three. Father English, mother Jamaican. Lives in north London.

EDUCATION: London School of Economics, London University: BA (Hons), MSc.

CAREER: Became barrister 1981; worked in local government '87-2000 as deputy chief executive in Hammersmith and Fulham, chief executive in Merton and then Lambeth. BBC governor '99-01. Head of education at Channel 4 '01-06. Executive deputy chair of Millwall plc and FC May '06.

SPORTING TIES: Husband is Mike Lee, former spokesman for Uefa and London 2012. Stepson Alex, 13, is an Arsenal fan.

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