Diamonds are a millionaire's best friend

Nationwide kick-off: The League's new boys are a family club fashioned in the image of a cheerful family man. Max Griggs prefers a modest football club to a luxury yacht
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The Independent Football

There is only one League club in the land who can boast hanging baskets of flowers on their stadium walls and Max Griggs is touchingly proud that Rushden and Diamonds belong to him. Nor, he points out, is there a single squiggle of graffiti on the walls at Nene Park as last season's Conference champions prepare to start life in the Third Division.

The Diamonds are as well prepared as any club could be for that step up: an excellent, modern stadium and the devoted backing of a man who made his millions turning Doc Martens from bovver boots into fashion footwear. The 6,500-seater ground sits, graffiti-free, at the heart of an 80-acre site containing training and conference centres as well as one of the company's four shoe factories, with plans in hand to add a golf course, hotel, health club and cinema. All in the middle of nowhere at the very heart of England.

"When people come here they say, 'Where's the town?'" said Griggs over a coffee in one of the stadium's nine executive suites. "They want to know where the chimney pots are. But being in the country means we have no problems with neighbours complaining about anything. I suppose it was a bit of a gamble to put up a ground on a green-field site, but we have found out that people are happy to travel if you give them what they want and they have somewhere to park. And I have noticed a few other clubs doing the same sort of thing lately."

This former director of Northampton Town, a local man whose only experience of playing football was at a Newport Pagnell boarding school as a boy ("all I remember about it was that we all had chapped knees, it seemed as if we only ever went out in fog, frost or snow"), got involved with his new venture in 1992, agreeing to take over a merger of Irthlingborough Diamonds, whose ground the site was, and Rushden Town. The new club's first game, in the Beezer Midland League, drew a crowd of some 250.

Nine years and three promotions later, Rushden and Diamonds are in the Football League. When he became chairman, Griggs had allowed that it would be "nice" to achieve that status by the Millennium. They missed out by 12 months, without the slightest fuss or complaint at his manager, Brian Talbot, or managing director, Mark Darnell.

A feeling that the man himself might be a walking, stomping version of those bulky boots could not have been more wrong. At 63, Mix Griggs is gentle, cheerful and quietly spoken, a local man who is the most modest of millionaires. He has driven the same car, a Land Cruiser, for the last six years and is happy with the arrangement by which he travels to away games on the team bus. "I had a couple of Rolls-Royces once ," he smiled, "but I don't like 'em. You slip around too much."

Nor is Max Griggs the private jet or yacht sort. "I don't want a yacht, I would be bored on one. This club is much more challenging. I like something that keeps the adrenalin flowing, more cut and thrust. You need a few worries and knocks even if you have everything in life. Beyond that, what else can money do for you unless you can help others or enjoy it yourself in your own way, which is what I do? I am at a time of life when I am interested in building and creating at this club, which gives me a buzz. Also, I never have to pay to come in, though I suppose I pay a big price already."

He certainly does. The figure of £20m is frequently bandied around, and Griggs does not disagree, though he points out that this is what it cost to get everything, factory included, on the site. He has put in about £2m every year to keep the football club afloat, and for each of the past two seasons the printing of Doc Martens name on the front of West Ham's shirts has cost his company another million-plus.

"We have a good family business," he stressed. "Doc Martens has been a success story and the business is number one priority before the football. Also the family. I wouldn't dream of putting my personal assets into football. But if the business is successful and the family is not affected, what's wrong with spreading it around a bit? I won't necessarily run out of money but for sure I will eventually run out of time, like everybody else. So enjoy it while your time is here, I say."

Griggs gives every appearance of having enjoyed it from the start. One of his early suggestions was to build a 1,000-seat stand, though attendances were not exceeding 250 at the time. "People asked me why and I told them if we didn't build it we would never know if people would come. So we built it in time for a pre- season friendly against Northampton and sure enough a thousand people came and sat in it. So from then on we were convinced the potential was there to offer something nice to the community. It wasn't necessarily about the team, it was about the facilities you offered as well.

"There are those who say the money I have put into football is mind-boggling, but all we have done is turn the money into assets. Nowadays the rules say you have to have a proper ground and all the facilities, so over the nine years we have been building, as well as having success on the field. The football won't run at a profit, but we offset that with other things, like corporate functions, Rotary lunches, weddings.

"To have League status is of value to the area you live in," said the man who sent his team a Clint Eastwood card with the inscription "thanks for making my day" when they won promotion. "Now we must survive and consolidate but I can afford to relax a little. I don't have to prove anything now. I know the fans want us to keep on winning but we need to keep our feet on the ground and realise there will come a day when we get turned over a few times. I'm prepared for that."

Despite his input, Griggs insists he is not a hands-on chairman. "Brian Talbot is in charge of the football club and nobody interferes with his department. Obviously I have had faith in him, though we have had some hard times, and people calling for his head. When Brian came he said he would need three or four years to make it into a professional club good enough to be in the League. And sure enough, it took him four years to do it.

"Now we have put another two years on the remaining year of his old contract. I never said to him that if we didn't get promotion he would have to go. Why should I put pressure on people ? If I have given someone a contract, let them get on with it and prove they are good enough.

"I stand in the background but my presence is there. It's not what I say and do, just that I am there. I travel with them on the coach and feel my contribution is my presence rather than telling everybody what to do." For Saturday's opening game at York, however, Mix will not be on the team bus. "This year the wife suggested that when we go to nice places like York and Torquay there might be times we could go away together for a few days. So that's what I'm going to do."