David Conn: Richards a silent monarch of all he surveys

Former chairman of Sheffield Wednesday has become one of the game's most influential men since presiding over the Owls' decline
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Dave Richards, chairman of the Premier League, member of the Football Association's 12-man main board, director of Wembley National Stadium, the Football Foundation and the Football Stadia Improvement Fund, is furious at suggestions that he in any way initiated the clandestine "Phoenix League" breakaway talks by the First Division's self-styled "big six".

Or, rather, he is said to be furious – Richards, formerly Sheffield Wednesday's chairman and a key football figure, does not talk to the press. Instead, the Premier League press office telephoned yesterday to say it would not confirm Richards' role in the breakaway talks, but it fell short of pro-activity. For background, a spokesman said, Richards does great work for charity and is truly sorry about what happened to Sheffield Wednesday.

Richards' Phoenix League silence follows his near-complete anonymity during the battle between the game's authorities and the Professional Footballers' Association, which was settled last week with the PFA promised £52m over the next three years. Just when football needs firm leadership, to keep it together and solvent during what could be its final years of boom, Richards remains an ineffective figure on the periphery of the public's consciousness.

Except in Sheffield, where many Wednesday fans are still bitter that he resigned as chairman in February 2000 with the club on the brink of relegation, owing close to £20m, to be confirmed as the Premier League's chairman. In July this year, Richards' business, Three Star Engineering, went bust owing £3m. More than 120 people lost their jobs.

"Richards took this club to the brink," said David Coupe, the chair of Sheffield Wednesday Shareholders' Association. "Rather than stand and fight, he baled out and left for his cushy job in London. I don't understand his qualifications to be Premier League chairman and on all these boards, running the game."

Richards, 58, has been media-shy and given almost no revealing interviews during his 11 years in football. He narrowly beat the local Labour MP Joe Ashton to become a Wednesday director in October 1989, shortly after the Hillsborough Disaster at the club's ground in which 96 Liverpool supporters died. In March 1990 he was the surprise choice to succeed the chairman Bert McGee, who was said to have been broken by the disaster.

The club was held culpable in the official report into the disaster by Lord Justice Taylor, who found that Hillsborough was unsafe and that the club's safety certificate was 10 years out of date. Under Richards' chairmanship, Wednesday persistently refused requests by the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Sheffield City Council and supporters' groups to erect a memorial to the disaster at the ground. This caused pain and bitterness among the victims' families until the club finally unveiled a memorial in 1999, more than 10 years after the disaster.

On the field, fans remember that in 1992, when Leeds won the First Division in the final season of a united Football League, Wednesday finished third, qualifying for the Uefa Cup. "Leeds have since had shrewd leadership and become a big club," sighed Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield Attercliffe and a Wednesday fan. "We've been mismanaged, frittered our money away and sunk into crisis."

Richards' Premier League spin doctor claimed the club enjoyed their best 10 years ever under Richards – a strange claim given they won successive League Championships twice, in 1903 and 1904, and 1929 and 1930, and have won the FA Cup three times. Under Richards, they won the League Cup in 1991; two years later they reached Wembley twice but lost in both the League and FA Cup finals. Thereafter, they slid.

In 1997, with clubs in the breakaway Premier League looking to cash in on Sky's TV money and the City's brief flirtation with the game, Wednesday sold 36 per cent of the club for £15.6m to a venture capital firm, Charterhouse.

"The idea was terribly simple," a Charterhouse spokesperson said. "Invest relatively cheaply, get Sheffield Wednesday among the top six clubs, fill the big ground, then two years later float at a massive profit. But it all went horribly wrong."

The money was spent on mostly unsuccessful players transfer fees and wages. Work on the South Stand ran over budget and has piled on debt rather than made promised riches from entertaining and banqueting.

In 1999-2000, Wednesday's disastrous start, which included an 8-0 defeat at Newcastle, led to Betts, Ashton and two other local MPs, Bill Michie and David Blunkett, controversially meeting Charterhouse privately to discuss the club's future.

Richards had already become the acting Premier League chairman, when the former chairman, Sir John Quinton of Barclays Bank, was removed after the clubs discovered that two former BSkyB executives, Sam Chisholm and David Chance, had been given a fat contract to negotiate the Premiership's 2001 TV deal. In February 2000, with Wednesday doomed to relegation, Richards resigned to take up a three-year appointment as the Premier League chairman.

Joe Ashton, himself a former director, was ready with a quip: "It's like the captain of the Titanic being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty."

Reports at the time quoted his salary at £120,000, although the Premier's latest accounts are not recent enough to verify this and the Premier League refused to confirm it yesterday. He is understood to work between one and two full days per week.

Wednesday went down with four players, Gerald Sibon, Gilles de Bilde, Simon Donnelly and Phil O'Donnell, on four-year contracts believed to pay them between £800,000 and £1m per year. Only De Bilde has left, on a free transfer to Anderlecht, the rest swell Wednesday's current £13.4m wage bill – higher than the club's turnover. Wednesday's debts are around £16m, they lost £9m last season. The club secretary, Alan Sykes, said they hope to break even this year, but they will from next year be further imperilled by losing the £4m per year "parachute payments" from the Premier League.

"The gap between the Premier and Nationwide Leagues is massive and we have had discussions about ways to bridge it," said Sykes of the so-called Phoenix League.

The City's interest in football burned away, the value of Wednesday's shares plummeted, the flotation never happened and Charterhouse sold out earlier this year to three Wednesday directors for around £2m, a serious loss.

The directors, Dave Allan, Keith Addy and Geoff Hulley, gifted 9.4 per cent of the shares to the Wednesday Supporters Trust, which has over 1,000 members, a full-time chief executive, John Hemmingham, and is working to help the club.

In July, Richards' business, Three Star Engineering, went bust, citing problems with engineering generally and a strong pound. The main creditor, the Co-Op Bank, suffered, according to the receivers, "a significant shortfall" in their £1.5m borrowings. Trade creditors of close to £1m are unlikely to receive anything, and the wages and redundancy payments for over 120 staff laid off have been met by the Department of Employment. Companies House records show Richards is involved in three new ventures, one registered at his home, but otherwise his main activities are his array of seats at football's top tables.

As Premier League chairman, insiders say his chief quality is that he is inoffensive to the often warring factions. However, during the PFA dispute, the chairman of one big club said: "Where is he when we need a strong voice? He's left it all to Richard Scudamore [the Premiership's chief executive]. He should be out there." Now, over the Phoenix League, a concept born of desperation by debt-laden fallen clubs, he is silent again.

Among the assets of Richards' holding company, Globalfare, also in receivership, are 237,000 Sheffield Wednesday shares, up for sale. Richards estimates they might realise £38,000, 16p per share. The shares in a relegated club held by a bust company make an eloquent statement themselves, about football's performance in its boom years and the stirring quality of its leadership.