Peter Coates: The man who sold all the pies finds recipe for success

The Stoke chairman sees halcyon days as fulfilment for years of risk, belief and trying not to get his fingers burnt
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The Independent Online

Long before he launched the hugely successful online gambling business Bet365, Peter Coates sold meat pies, Bovril and Wagon Wheels to Alex Ferguson. During his first incarnation as Stoke City chairman he sold the manager's job to Harry Redknapp, or thought he had. After today's visit to Wembley he hopes to be selling FA Cup final tickets.

Stoke, managed by Redknapp's friend and former assistant at Bournemouth, Tony Pulis, face Bolton Wanderers in a semi-final which, after yesterday's Mancunian extravaganza, will see the directors' seats occupied by local men steeped in their clubs rather than American or Middle Eastern arrivistes.

In the tranquility of his company's boardroom, Coates's sense of anticipation is palpable. "It's a 50-50 game. If we were playing United or City it would probably be 30-70 or 40-60," he says. "We were so unlucky in our semi-finals against Arsenal in the 1970s. Let's hope the footballing gods smile on us this time. An FA Cup final would be amazing for the club, the supporters, the city."

If Stoke do reach Wembley, there will be dignity as well as delight. Experience, which includes fans invading a suite during a 7-0 home defeat by Birmingham in 1998, jostling and yelling at him and his family, has made Coates, 73, "a member of the Kipling school". Despite a background in catering, he is referring not to exceedingly good cakes but to the poet's adage about treating triumph and disaster the same.

A contributor to The Oatcake fanzine recently wrote that just as he once "stormed the Waddington Suite to scream abuse at Mr Coates, I'd now like to storm it to give him a big man-hug". "I do meet and get letters from people saying 'I got it wrong'. It's actually a good area, with decent, hard-working people."

Coates controls wealth estimated at £400m and has bankrolled Stoke to the tune of £50m, building up Pulis's squad, developing the training ground and buying the Britannia Stadium. But he was born and bred in the mining community of Goldenhill, the youngest of 14 children. His mother died when he was two and his father worked "down the pit".

Following the Potters has always run in the family. His post-war heroes were Stanley Matthews, Neil Franklin and Freddie Steele, England stars born within two miles of one another. Now he calls Ricardo Fuller "the great man" and hails the "old-fashioned" Jon Walters, "who came up the hard way and doesn't need mollycoddling like a lot of them".

Coates's company, run by daughter Denise and son John, is now Stoke-on-Trent's biggest private-sector employer. But he made his first, smaller fortune selling fast food to football clubs in the 1960s and '70s. "Manchester City was my first contract. And I recall selling pies and the rest to St Mirren, where the manager did everything, from marking the pitch to the laundry. It was Alex Ferguson."

After doing business with Stoke, where he became friendly with the manager Tony Waddington, he was invited to join the board. "Usual scenario: short of money. The 'entry fee' was £50,000." He held the reins for 13 "largely frustrating" years, including Redknapp spurning Stoke in 1991. "I interviewed Harry at a hotel near Birmingham when he was at Bournemouth. He was very impressive. I thought he'd come but he decided to stay put, which was disappointing."

Hostility towards him intensified when Stoke crashed into the third tier in 1998 during what he calls "the troubles... I make it sound like Northern Ireland". He adds: "The protests were very hurtful. You accept criticism in football, but I saw the pitch invasion [against Birmingham] and thought, 'What's the point?' It was no good for me or, more importantly, my family. To them I was Dad and they tended to think I was a decent human being."

An Icelandic consortium bought control but by 2006, after seven years' treading water, they wanted out. "If we weren't quite in freefall we were certainly sliding." Bet365's profitability enabled Coates to buy back the club. "I had unfinished business. My family doubted my sanity but they're big supporters of me and the club. We were low in the Championship but I felt we could reach the Premier League. I never said it publicly – people would've thought I was daft – but I gave myself five years to do it."

The sense of community, instilled in Goldenhill, informed his thinking. "I believed it would help the area, which has taken a battering; make life better. Two billion people watch the Premier League, the best and most exciting league in the world. They would all hear the name Stoke."

"Stokies" were sceptical, to put it politely. "People talk about the need to have supporters on club boards. Am I not a fan? I've supported Stoke all my life. Bolton have a local chairman, Phil Gartside, who's the same."

And there was "less than universal approval" when his first move was to reappoint Pulis, who left after falling out with the Icelanders. "I first saw him at Gillingham and thought: 'This guy's special.' My belief in him has been justified a million times. Tony was guarded and nervous when I asked him. We knew it was a risk and would not be popular. But in football you must back your judgement. The supporters are now delighted he returned."

Stoke won promotion within two years and, for all the long-ball stereotypes, they look good for a fourth season in the elite. Coates cannot remember a more exciting time. "There are different ways to play the game. We should laud variety. It would be boring if everyone played like Barcelona or Arsenal. I'm very comfortable with the way we play. I love to see the ball going wide and crosses coming in.

"People ask me, 'What's your mission statement?'" says Coates, chuckling as he builds to a pay-off line which is simultaneously self-mocking and a swipe at Stoke's critics. "I always say: 'Kick and rush'."