Dr Martens owner hangs up his football club boots

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The Independent Online

As the favoured footwear of football fans for decades, it was perhaps fitting when the owner of Dr Martens boots decided to indulge his lifelong passion for the game and start a club.

As the favoured footwear of football fans for decades, it was perhaps fitting when the owner of Dr Martens boots decided to indulge his lifelong passion for the game and start a club.

Business was good for Max Griggs back in the early 1990s: his air-cushioned-soled DM was the fashion statement with attitude for everyone.

Within 10 years, his team, Rushden and Diamonds, had been promoted to the Football League, cheered on by workers from the local Dr Martens factory.

But then the dream went sour. The shoes fell out of fashion and the business started haemorrhaging money. The football club began to flounder - there was no longer enough cash to pay the players.

Yesterday, the final chapter of the story of Dr Martens and Rushden and Diamonds was slammed shut when the loss-making team was handed free of charge to its own supporters in a ceremony at its Nene Park ground.

For Mr Griggs, 65, the day was an emotional one: he will now watch games as a paying spectator.

"It was quite a sad day really but I'm happy that the club is going to a supporters' trust," he said.

He has given the club a chance of survival. Losses once running at £3m a year have been stemmed and Mr Griggs has given Rushden and Diamonds a dowry of £750,000 for next season.

Yesterday, Dr Martens was keen to highlight the generosity of the deal, which includes a new stadium, conference centre, car parks, offices, restaurant and bar, two training pitches and, of course, the players. "The debt-free handover of a club to a supporters' trust in this way is unprecedented in modern British football history and stems from the love held for the club by Max Griggs," said the company.

Others in Northamptonshire are less pleased with Mr Griggs' behaviour. In October 2002, the company announced it was closing its factory at Irthlingborough, throwing 1,000 workers onto the dole. Production is being transferred to China, where the workers could be paid a fraction of the wages.

The revolution was the work of David Suddens, the troubleshooter hired from the clothing company William Baird to prevent Dr Martens going bust.

By then, the company had experienced a near-cataclysmic reversal of its fortunes. Pioneered by a German doctor at the end of the Second World War, the brand had been immensely popular in late 20th Century Britain, first as a work boot and later as a fashion.

Football fans wore it on the terraces; skinheads wore it to gigs. Mods wore it, punks wore it, psychobillies wore it and then it was adopted by indie kids and grungers.

But then Liam Gallagher of Oasis and fellow pop stars started wearing trainers. Dr Martens, which had failed to change its image or the shoe itself, became outdated. In three years, the private company lost more than £100m.

Mr Suddens began a vicious cost-cutting programme, which didn't stop at the gates of the football club, which was increasingly looking like an unaffordable extravagance.

Mr Suddens recalled yesterday: "The time came in 2001 when we had to do a major restructuring.

"We had to find a new owner for the football club or close it down altogether."

The club was relegated from Division One in 2003-2004 after a fire sale of its players. Wary of selling out to an asset-stripper, Mr Griggs decided to hand ownership to a not-for-profit trust run by fans. They are likely to have a tough time: last season Rushden and Diamonds only avoided the drop to non-league football by six points.

Mr Griggs, who ploughed at least £20m into the club, said: "I don't suppose it's wise to put your money into football. But when I did it the company was doing well and I could put something back into the local community. But I've got no regrets. I've left something behind: I've left them a little Football League club in north-east Northamptonshire."

Meanwhile, Dr Martens has been nudged back to profit. The Griggs' losses slowed to £9m last year and the group's unaudited accounts to March this year will show a profit. Mr Sudden said: "It's out of a crisis. It's repaid an awful lot of debt and it's making money."

The capricious nature of business shows the perils of a club relying on a bankrolling Mr Big.

David Conn, a football writer and author of The Beautiful Game?, said: "We've seen Roman Abramovich buying the Premier League for Chelsea and Malcolm Glazer taking over Manchester United but Rushden and Diamonds provides an almost perfect illustration of the danger of a a single benefactor owning and running a club."

A history of DMs

* 1945: German doctor Klaus Maertens injures his foot in ski accident in Bavaria and devises air-cushioned sole

* 1959: R Griggs, in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, agrees to make the shoes, with anglicised name

* 1960: Dr Martens 1460 working boot is launched

* 1960s: Mods wear Doc Martens for their clashes with rockers at Brighton

* 1970s: The Damned and other punks adopt the Doc Marten look

* 1980s: Boots become de rigeur for students and so the business booms

* 1992: Dr Martens owner creates Rushden and Diamonds FC from Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds

* 1994:"Dr Martens Department Store" opens in Covent Garden, London

* Late 1990s: Dr Martens fall out of fashion

* 2001: Rushden & Diamonds win promotion to Football League

* 2003: Dr Martens makes massive losses, closes factory and moves production to China.