Football: The wolves in sheepskin coats: Rich man's indulgence or ego trip disguised as philanthropy? Simon O'Hagan studies the changing face of chairmanship

Click to follow
BRIAN CLOUGH once said that 'football attracts a certain percentage of nobodies who want to be somebodies', and the history of football club chairmanship is to a great extent one of self-importance, greed, power-seeking, and personal gain masquerading as philanthropy.

'It's basically an ego trip,' says John Camkin, a former secretary of the Football League Executive Staffs Association - now renamed the Institute of Football Management and Administration - which is the body that looks after the interests of non-playing club employees. 'I'd say about 10 to 15 per cent have a genuine love of the game, probably more in the lower divisions where there's not much honour or glory. For the rest, it's just a way of acquiring a position in local society.'

If you had to come up with an identikit football club chairman, he would have a meat-pie business, a large selection of sheepskin overcoats, a car that was almost too big to get through the club gates, a cigar in one hand and a large whisky in the other, and a son who would take over the business when the stairs leading up to the oak-panelled boardroom became a bit too much.

And although status was what he lived for, a certain remoteness was also in order. Even today, chairmen seem a little reluctant to divulge their full identities. A trawl through the latest Rothmans Football Yearbook reveals the first names of only nine of the 92 chairmen. For the rest it's the formality of initials - and not just before the surname. If you've got some to put after it, then you should do so, as the chairman of York City - D M Craig OBE, JP, BSC, fICE, fi, MUN E, FCI ARB, M CONS E - will doubtless tell you.

Such flourishes were commonplace among football's founding fathers - men like Joshua Parlby, a leading figure in the establishment of Manchester City. Known as Falstaff on account of his beard, girth and loud humour, there were other aspects of him that have an even more contemporary feel.

According to Simon Inglis's League Football and the Men Who Made It, Parlby would promise win bonuses that never materialised, and eventually earned himself a three-year ban from the Football Association for illegal payments.

If Parlby merely helped shape football's tradition of notoriety, others carried it on with equal gusto - none more so than Robert Maxwell. The merger schemes, the flying in the face of League regulations, and not least his propensity for wearing an Oxford United pork-pie hat, make Maxwell an ogre figure like no other in the annals of the game.

Not all chairmen have been like Maxwell. Probably none of them has. There is another strand to this history, a much more respectable and dignified one embodied by some of the great club- owning families like the Hill- Woods at Arsenal or the Cobbolds at Ipswich Town. It was John Cobbold who spoke for this breed of chairmen - patrician, utterly sure of their place in the world -when he said that 'the only crisis at this club is when the boardroom runs out of red wine'.

Other names became synonymous with their clubs - Moores at Everton, for example, or Cairns at West Ham. John Camkin even goes so far as to compare Everton under the Moores family - with their millions from Littlewoods pools -with Juventus under Agnelli, owner of Fiat.

If you didn't have that sort of wealth, you had to impose yourself by sheer force of personality. One thinks of the outspoken Bob Lord, scourge of the League and proud defender of all things Burnley; or the ebullient Stan Seymour, a reminder that Newcastle United had great days long before Sir John Hall came along. Seymour's sports shops hardly put him in Sir John's financial bracket, but his passion for both club and game went hand- in-hand with Newcastle's successes of the early 1950s.

And then there have been the sheer eccentrics - usually fans whose love of their club was matched only by their riches. Elton John and Watford spring to mind, and 19-year-old Spencer Trethewy, 'saviour' of Aldershot. And what about Bruce Osterman? Remember him? He was the Californian lawyer who read about Tranmere Rovers' plight in the early Eighties, and stepped in to save them, more for sentimental reasons than any great love of football. Indeed, he knew little about the game. His indulgence was to join in training sessions with the players.

Some would say that eccentricity was an inevitable quality in any football club chairman, certainly in the lower reaches of the League where it is hard to see quite what the rewards are. Bernard Baker, chairman of struggling Gillingham, says frankly that 'there are no attractions. It's just the challenge of trying to keep the club going.'

The one thing nearly all chairmen have in common is that they are self-made men, whether it be Manchester United's Louis Edwards with his string of butcher's shops or David Evans MP, whose office cleaning business and draconian ways at Luton Town made him a Thatcherite hero. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with being a nobody who wants to be a somebody. It's just the way so many of them have gone about it.

(Photograph omitted)