Football: Why Sir Jack still makes advances with Wolves

A rich knight of football is risking even family bliss for a golden day in the sun. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
The suffering could not be be etched more distinctly on his face as Sir Jack Hayward talks of his first, and enduring, love. It is as though he is tormented by an all-consuming desire for a mistress, except this is a man intoxicated not by perfume but by players' embrocation, the pungency of which first overwhelmed him in the late Twenties as he listened to the cheers and groans at his childhood home adjacent to Molineux. It is sheer masochism, he agrees, but there is nothing he won't do for her, even when most benefactors would have long given up taking their chances with Wolves.

Like last season, when he went for a scheduled triple by-pass heart operation in the 21 days between two rounds of the FA Cup. The owner of Wolves had just witnessed his team's 1-0 defeat of Leeds in the quarter- finals. The following day, he flew to Los Angeles for over seven hours of surgery. "Afterwards, I had recuperated enough for the surgeon to allow me to fly back in time for the semi-final game against Arsenal. Apparently, sitting on the plane near me was the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I do find rather attractive, but I didn't even notice her, which shows how bad I was feeling. The following day we went to Villa Park. I wasn't too strong anyway, but then we had to walk about a mile to the ground, because our mini-bus couldn't get through the crowd."

To Sir Jack, every bit of stress with which he punished his body that day was justified, even though, not for the first time, that infatuation was not reciprocated. Wolves lost 1-0, a defeat that this eternal optimist is convinced Wolves can avenge in today's third-round renewal. It tells you everything about the profundity of Sir Jack's feeling for his beloved Wolves, and perhaps hints at why he is suing the younger of his two sons, Jonathan, over alleged financial irregularities when the latter was chairman. Even blood ties come secondary to ensuring that those famous gold shirts are not tarnished under any circumstances.

We met the same day as those revelations had appeared in the Independent. His lawyers had counselled him to maintain silence until the case is heard in the summer, although it has been evident that the Haywards had got themselves in something of a pickle ever since Sir Jack demoted Jonathan to deputy chairman - he subsequently resigned - in the autumn of 1997 and assumed control himself. "It's very upsetting, particularly for my wife Jean, but the club will go on," he restricts himself to saying. "It's more important than me, Jonathan, Rick, Sue [his other son and daughter], anyone. We've all got to put aside our personal feelings for the sake of the club."

His elder son Rick is now on the board and Sir Jack also places great faith in his managing director, "King" John Richards, the club's former prolific striker. "I think the children will take over from me eventually," he said. "But I've every intention of carrying on myself until the Grim Reaper comes. However, I would like the fans to have more say. If we can balance the books, I'd like to organise a flotation so that the supporters can buy a share of the club."

Even without the present schism you wonder how the old ticker bears up to the strain every Saturday. The Bahamas-based entrepreneur who has made the 6,000-mile return journey for a quarter of Wanderers' games this season, has listened to the remainder on the "Empire Service", as the staunch patriot refers to the BBC World Service. "You normally only get score flashes, so sometimes if we're, say, 1-0 up and there's five minutes left I can't resist phoning the girls on the switchboard. I demand to know `What's happening? Put me out of my agony'."

Earlier, Sir Jack had hurried along to our meeting place in Knightsbridge, central London, with a gait that belied his 75 years, applying an electric shaver to his chin as he does so. "Don't believe in wasting any time," he explained in a voice slightly reminiscent of Wilfrid Hyde White. He doesn't fulfil the stereotype of a man reputedly worth pounds 175m and the country's 125th wealthiest as he arrives by conveyance of his one pair of "lucky" desert boots. He prefers to use his pensioner's bus pass rather than take a cab. And no, he doesn't own a yacht. "I have a football team," he says with a justified world-weariness. "That takes all the money I have."

At least pounds 40m of it has been lavished so far, nearly half on the club's splendid stadium, the remainder on players. The former Second World War RAF bomber pilot, has counted them in and counted them out. Unfortunately, rather too many of the former, and too many of doubtful quality. The fact is that after eight years Wolves are 11th in Nationwide Division One, almost precisely where they were when he bought the club for pounds 2.1m in May 1991. Thoughts of recapturing their status of the Fifties when they secured three championships under Billy Wright's captaincy remain mere fanciful notions.

At the start of the 1993 season, when we last met, Sir Jack had declared: "I'll throw money at this until it works." He concedes it had given the wrong signals. "It was a silly remark. I'm sure when we came on the phone and said we were interested in a player, lights started flashing in the manager's office of the other club. The conversation probably went something like, `How much do we want for John Smith?' `Well, we asked pounds 100,000 the other day, but it's Wolves, so ask pounds 1m.'"

Last weekend epitomised his frustration when Wolves were held to a goalless draw at Molineux by a Watford team, assembled for less than the pounds 700,000 it cost to buy their latest acquisition, the Norwegian international Havard Flo.

The irony is that the opposition manager, Graham Taylor, had been hounded out of Molineux by the supporters. His departure still distresses Sir Jack, who also authorised the dismissal of Graham Turner, whom he had inherited, the hiring and firing of Mark McGhee, and the installation of Colin Lee, who is on trial until the end of this season. "I still believe that if we'd persevered Graham could have turned it round, but our fans are impatient and have great expectations."

There is a bewilderment and sadness in his voice with his recognition that the rules which applied when he successfully established the Grand Bahama Development Company, which now employs 1,500 people, don't apply to football. "We've learnt our lesson that money doesn't necessarily buy success. It hasn't got us to where we should be - in the Premiership. Blackburn and Derby have succeeded, but they have obviously spent their money wisely. Careful purchases and a youth policy are the answer."

Although Jonathan, when chairman, was responsible for the day-to-day running of the club, Sir Jack accepts overall responsibility for the club's failure to equate progress with extravagant outlay. "I'm the provider of the funds and I should have been stricter," he says. "But it was moral blackmail." He recalls a typical scenario. "I'd be overseas and I'd get a call from Jonathan, saying that they wanted to buy Don Goodman from Sunderland. `Why do they want to sell him?' I'd say. `He's on the bench, dad.' `Why?' `He's not scoring enough goals'. `Why isn't he?' `I don't know, but a change of environment would probably do him good.' `pounds 1.1m is an awful lot of money, Jonathan, for somebody on the subs' bench.' `Well, do you want to go up to the Premier League or don't you?' `OK, go ahead.' Mind you, Don was a good servant; too many weren't."

He added: "We do pay pretty horrendous wages, for the First Division. Our wage bill is about pounds 100,000 a week; yet, we've been beaten this season by teams like Bournemouth whose wages are pounds 20,000 a week. There's something wrong somewhere."

Sir Jack is that rare football owner, one whose aspirations are purely altruistic. Few would begrudge him the success he craves. The Premiership is the priority, although Wembley would be a suitable compromise. But there is Arsenal to overcome first. "I hope Tony Adams is playing, because he's the only name I know," says Sir Jack, who harbours a fervent antipathy for all things European. "All these Viallis, Vieiras and Viagras." You explain that the only one who would be liable to cause his team any trouble on Sunday, Patrick Vieira, is suspended for the game. It doesn't really appease him. "I don't know who they all are these days. I like names like Cullis and Wright.

"I don't know anything about soccer, but I go to the matches and pretend I do. I haven't even caught up with all this 4-4-2 yet. I'm still into full-backs and right-halves, wingers and inside-forwards. I once said to Graham Taylor, `Why not play like that and confuse the opposition?' It's traumatic but, like a drug, you go back for more. I can't wait for Sunday to get my fix. I'm on a sentimental trip, not an ego trip."

It promises to be quite a Hayward family get-together today, even though his children's future legacies have continued to disappear into the pockets of rival clubs and the players they have sold to Wolves. Sir Jack does not appear too concerned. "Yes, their inheritance is going, but luckily they know where their next meal's coming from and they get a lot of kick out of Wolves. I know Susan will be there on Sunday, even though she is always saying, `I see you've bought another player for a million. When are you going to stop, dad?' " Something in his manner tells you she shouldn't hold her breath.