John Madejski: 'Without deep pockets you are wasting your time'
Having guided his club from relative obscurity to the top six of the Premiership, the Reading chairman is ready to sell up. He tells Matthew Beard why it could be good for the club
Saturday 09 December 2006
In a world where most owners of Premiership clubs tend to be reticent if not downright misleading when asked whether they could ever sell their team, Reading's chairman, John Madejski, comes across as a breath of fresh air. The club may have just fulfilled its greatest ambition by playing - and more than holding its own - in the top division but his answer is quite simple.
Yes, Reading is for sale, he says without a trace of embarrassment, so long as the offer is a good one.
"I am laying out my stall a bit," he says relaxing at his Berkshire mansion. "We've got to show progress. The brand is getting stronger all the time and if there is a billionaire who wants a nice accessory down the M4 [motorway] then come and talk to me. Apart from Manchester United, unless you've got a sugar daddy with really deep pockets, you're wasting your time. Competing against [Roman] Abramovich is getting more difficult and we are just seeing [wages] going up and up and up. I always thought that sooner or later they would come back into sync but they haven't - it's gone through the roof. It depends upon our fortunes - I might be chairman in five years' time."
Indeed, his claim that he would rather get out of the game than be forced to further bankroll the team is viewed with suspicion among some fans who feel Premiership glamour may come between the chairman and a divorce from the club.
Madejski, who got rich by selling off the car classifieds magazine Auto Trader, has seen his wealth more than double in the past five years to around a quarter of a billion, according to the weighty hardback Rich List that sits on the glass coffee table in front of us. "Inflation," he explains, before complaining about the lighting in the room and diverting to a brief talk on the Portuguese artist De Souza, whose oil painting of a naked bather hangs above the fireplace.
The tiger economies of the Far East have proved a lucrative market for Madejski's consumer titles, especially Malaysia, and he reckons the region may also be harbouring the future owner of Reading. "There's a lot of substantially wealthy individuals out there. Premiership soccer clubs are becoming the fashion accessory of the billionaire," he says.
"You can't keep Reading in the Premiership unless you get someone to spend these insufferable sums of money. It's hideous. In order to do that [you need to] bring in someone to pay their salaries. In the Thames Valley there will be a ceiling to prices. You couldn't possibly have the place full of toffs. I don't think anybody would come to Reading to put prices through the roof because it would negate the whole thing. I would hope that someone with deep pockets would maintain the status quo."
Rumours abound regarding a potential suitor, but Madejski says there's been "very little" serious interest so far. "If we survive the Premiership this season then there will be something next year. There's nothing serious yet. It will be serious when someone calls me directly."
Madejski is understandably reluctant to put a price tag on the club's assets, but, as a guide, he has invested £50m in the club. In the same way that the built-in wine racks in Madejski's kitchen at home cannot cope with champagne sent post-promotion from well-wishers, so the stadium bearing his name is struggling with capacity. Madejski hopes early next year to be granted planning permission for a "sexy" expansion to take the stadium capacity to 38,000 by adding an extra tier on three sides of the stadium at a cost of £15m-£20m.
"The dilemma is that we can fill out what we've got but we need to get more bums on seats to pay our way," he says. "If we were assured of spending several years in the Premiership then it's a no-brainer. However, it would be a big worry to me to spend that kind of money with a possibility of relegation. It is a problem."
Madejski claims to make a virtue out of not being a football fan - he says it helps him see sense in the transfer market - and, just as when Reading were in the lower divisions, he watches most home games but only occasionally travels away. On a recent trip to Anfield he was impressed by the "1970s time-warp" tradition and the friendliness but couldn't help noticing that, contrary to his expectations, the directors' lounge was "not that big".
As for joining the brethren of Premiership club chairmen, Madejski is not interested, although he is looking forward to hosting his friend, the Everton chairman and impresario, Bill Kenwright, who owns a Windsor theatre Madejski patronises.
Madejski never fails to point out his varied interests - he owns 18 companies, two hotels and is a renowned arts patron - and there is always a modicum of disdain for the game that has made him famous.
Of the appeal of finally reaching the Premiership, his first response is: "I do like the way the game is not always played on a Saturday which means I can have those free. There's a lot of weekends we have off because of internationals and that's nice because it makes life a lot more convivial for somebody like me who is not a total football fanatic."
Madejski says arriving, as the fourth oldest professional club in the land into the top flight, was a slow-burning affair since Reading were promoted with a record points total by March, but he admits there have been moments that have caught his breath. "We've had such a long time to get used to it because we got promoted in March but of course it's a thrill when you go downstairs and see people like Wayne Rooney or Thierry Henry coming out of the dressing room. It's a bit surreal. When you see these icons of football strutting around you can't help but be impressed."
Little over a year ago Madejski was complaining of poor attendances, considering they were in the process of running away with the Championship.
Since the turn of the year, however, there has hardly been a spare seat at the 24,000-capacity stadium that bears his name and the demand for Premiership tickets in Reading's introductory season in the top flight has attracted touts on matchdays for the first time anyone can remember.
Although Madejski continues to drop into the home dressing room shortly before kick-off to wish the team well, his pre-match laps around the pitch to whip up the hitherto impassive crowd are less frequent. In terms of supporter motivation, the man who has transformed Reading with his millions for almost two decades, considers that part of his work to be largely completed.
"I can't believe it's the same club, I really can't," he says. "The supporters now are probably some of the most vociferous in the country. That's been an enormous surprise to me because for 16 years I've been saying 'Come on! Get behind the team!' and there was this wall of silence. You give them success and they will do that for you. Sometimes you need to do that when you are not successful but that's the way things are."
Three months into the season and Steve Coppell's team are sixth. While today's visitors, Watford, and Sheffield United - the two other promoted teams - remain close to the bottom, Reading already have more than half the points deemed necessary for survival. Such progress is all the more impressive because the £3m South Korean midfielder Seol Ki-Hyeon was the only significant addition to the cut-price Championship line-up, while injury has reduced Dave Kitson to 45 minutes Premiership play.
Madejski believes that the 3-1 win against Tottenham last month, coming after three October weeks when they lost five games and conceded 14 goals (albeit against some of the division's big beasts) was crucial. "That win was the most important of the season," he says. "We always knew we were going to have that enormous period where we were going to be playing against the crème de la crème and we did ourselves proud."
He bristles at suggestions that the barren period was in any way a "wobble". "It's hardly been a wobble. The Premiership is about two divisions in itself and when you are playing the top half consistently then it can be a problem. It takes a stout heart to go out there and front those guys up but we managed to get something out of Manchester United, we scored the only goal in the Chelsea game [when Ivar Ingimarsson's own goal gave the champions a 1-0 win] and that could have gone either way. The only one where we got a drubbing was the Arsenal game. I don't think anyone would have beaten them on that afternoon. It wasn't funny and they played a tremendous game of football.
"We knew we were going into this period of attrition and we knew what our expectations were, which were not vastly different to what we achieved. I don't think anybody is expecting us to be champions."
Although Reading have made many friends in the top flight, the return fixture at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day is a potential grudge match. Chelsea won at the Madejski but the lasting memory is the controversy over injuries to their goalkeepers Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini. Jose Mourinho claimed that Reading's Stephen Hunt could have pulled out of the tackle that hospitalised Cech and then poured oil on troubled waters by criticising his hosts' medical back-up.
"We have never publicly remonstrated because we didn't see any point in saying anything," Madejski says. "I'm not going to jump into the arena and bring myself down to the level of trying to prove black's white when it's not," said Madejski of the tackle. He was prepared to be less reticent about the subsequent "catcalling" regarding the competence of the local ambulance service, which was forced into publishing a log of that evening's activities to refute the Chelsea claims.
"I have to take issue with that. I wish Cech every success with his recovery. Sadly, when football is played at this pace then accidents will happen. However, I didn't like the way the services are brought into question because they shouldn't be - they are excellent. They give us such a wonderful service at the football ground. It was up to their squad to demand what they wanted - and everything's there.
"As anybody knows at a function like that, an ambulance is in situ anyway. The whole incident is unfortunate, but I don't want to rake it up again. We've tried to hold a dignified silence because we didn't see the point in wading in and catcalling because we don't see why we should. As far as we're concerned we have done nothing wrong."
The Chelsea game did not even give him the rare chance of meeting someone richer than himself, as Roman Abramovich did not show ("I think he may have been out of the country - sorting out his bloody domestic situation").
Madejski could also be forgiven for wanting to sell up at a time when being from Reading is a source of pride rather than mild social embarrassment. Though he hails from the Potteries, he has lived in Berkshire's capital town as man, boy and multi-millionaire. "Reading has always had an inferiority complex. There's no doubt that being in the Premiership has lifted that. It's quite extraordinary. The spirit and the confidence of the place has totally changed. Hitherto it's been a satellite of London, a dormitory town. It's not had its own determination. People of Reading love it and I love it because I'm all about community - I'm not a football fanatic.
"There will be more kids weaned on Reading than before and that's great because they can identify with their community. In this day and age - when the family unit is breaking down - I think that football achieves an awful lot, there's not all bad things. We had a great fervour about making Reading a city. Big deal! It doesn't change anything. Getting into the Premiership - boy, it's changed!"
At the end of our interview Madejski slides his slight form into one of his Bentleys - not the one he arrived in an hour earlier - to get a puncture fixed at the local dealership (Pangbourne is that sort of place). "The dealer wants to show him something new," explains his assistant. "John has worked out he can get a free ride back home that way."
Typical Madejski - always an eye for the main chance.
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