David Gold: 'I can't sleep at night. I lie there thinking over all the permutations - if we win, and Portsmouth draw, and West Brom lose...'
He is worth £535m but those riches cannot stop David Gold worrying about his side, which faces relegation from the Premiership this weekend. The Birmingham chairman talked to Glenn Moore about Pompey's luck, Steve Bruce's future and his troubled relationship with his father
Saturday 29 April 2006
An hour into our conversation the housekeeper interrupts with a question for David Gold, the Birmingham City chairman. "They want to know if you would like the covers taken off the helicopter," she asks. Gold looks out of the window of his Surrey mansion, past the banks of daffodils, to where the chopper sits, above the tennis courts and adjacent to his golf course.
"Why not? I might pop out a bit later." And you think, how stressful can the prospect of relegation be for a man whose fortune is estimated at £535m and who chairs a dozen companies. For a man, moreover, who in his 69 years has lived through the Blitz, tuberculosis and dysentery, who was threatened by anti-Semitic bullies at school, sexually molested by his step-uncle, menaced by mobsters, faced jail on obscenity charges, crashed his aeroplane and seen a murder?
Then you remember Gold started the conversation bemoaning the dismissal, the previous night, of Luis Garcia. "Portsmouth have had an amazing run of good fortune, and it's ongoing. Their last game is against Liverpool. On Sunday Liverpool beat the mighty Chelsea to get into the FA Cup final, so they'll be putting out their ladies' team against Portsmouth. Last night Liverpool had a player sent off, so he'll be suspended against Portsmouth. They've already faced Middlesbrough and West Ham's ladies' teams.
"As for us, we get a glimmer of hope when Alan Shearer is injured - though I'm sorry for Alan because he's been such a stalwart for English football - and now Michael Owen is back." Owen is expected to be on the bench at St Andrew's today as Birmingham play Newcastle United. And Gold, for all his wealth and life experience, will be racked by nerves.
"The emotions in football, the ups and downs, are completely different to anything else in life. It's like no other business and no other experience. I've been on the edge of my seat since we've been in the bottom three. That's where the pain is.
"I can't be logical, I've been logical and it's not worked. I can't sleep. I lie there thinking over all the permutations - if we win, and Portsmouth draw, and West Brom lose... and so on. I've got none of them right. "
Injuries have bedevilled Birmingham's season, endangering their status just as it seemed they had established themselves in the Premiership. If they fail to win today, and Portsmouth win, City are down. Then what? "The energy which has gone into staying up will be redirected into returning. Obviously we will lose some players who are out of contract but we will do everything we can to retain players because that gives you the best chance of getting back." And Steve Bruce, the manager? "He is doing a good job - you can't fault what he's done given the circumstances. And he has experience of getting us out of the Championship." Gold is convinced that, if Birmingham had been mid-table, he would have, indeed should have, received a phone call from the Football Association about the England manager's job.
"To offer the job to a Brazilian is an obscenity. I am absolutely distraught. While I think Sven is a very nice man and a very good football manager I believe it is inappropriate for England to have a foreign manager. I want an English manager of the England team the same way I want it to have an English centre-forward. I would urge Fifa to bring in a rule stipulating national managers should be qualified the same way players are. They represent our country. We spend more time listening to and talking about the manager than any player, there's more Sven than Beckham, with, of course, all his love life and sexual preferences."
When it comes to patriotism Gold has put his money where his mouth is. When the second FA Cup came up for auction last year he bought it for £488,620 rather than see it go to a Berlin hotel. This cup is a copy of the original which was stolen, in an irony not lost on the Birmingham chairman, while in the safe-keeping of Aston Villa.
It was awarded from 1896 to 1910. It is currently on loan to the national Football Museum in Preston but was previously at Gold's house. "I brought it out a few times at dinner parties: it's better than a vase of flowers. And it is quite a star, I'm staggered at the adulation for it."
Gold is delighted that West Ham, the club he supported as a boy, was offered an apprenticeship by, and tried to buy before investing in Birmingham, are in the final, but admits he cannot focus on it because of City's plight. His main ambition in the game is to see Birmingham win the Cup, which made the 7-0 quarter-final defeat by Liverpool especially painful.
"We felt we had a chance. The only time I've felt worse is when we lost 4-0 at home to Barnsley in the play-off semi under Trevor Francis. At half-time, 1-0 down, he went to three at the back. I thought, 'Trevor, what are you doing?' That's one thing I've not done under Steve Bruce. We are all managers, everyone thinks they can manage, but when Trevor did that I thought, 'We've done this before, it's never worked, they can't get to grips with it', you can see them looking at each other wondering, 'what am I supposed to be doing?'
After the 7-0, David Sullivan, with David and Ralph Gold a co-owner of Birmingham, and a long-time business partner, criticised the players. Gold did not join in but he defends Sullivan.
"We have earned the right, we have been there 13 years. David was instrumental in getting us involved here. I thought 'Birmingham?' After we bought it I didn't go to the ground for about three weeks, I was busy, busy. When I got there I thought, 'What on earth has he got me into? What is this?' It was all corrugated iron, the type you see at building sites. Incredible." St Andrew's has since been rebuilt on three sides.
"We have put our money into the club, we've not had any support from the council with the ground, unlike many clubs. All our council did was pay for the canapes when we won the Auto-Windscreens."
Gold did not get to take up that apprenticeship at West Ham because his father, Godfred ("Goddy") refused to sign the forms. He was motivated, believes Gold, by envy. Gold is an engaging conversationalist but when we start to discuss his father his eyes water.
It is a difficult relationship. Having been in and out of prison while David, Ralph and their sister Marie were brought up in desperate poverty Goddy returned to ruin his footballing dreams, then attempt to swindle the brothers in business. Finally he walked out on Rose, David's heroic mother, for a pregnant 16-year-old.
Now, though, it is David and Ralph who underwrite Goddy's nursing costs. "I don't look after him out of love, I do so out of a sense of parental responsibility. No doubt I'll go to my father's funeral, but to mourn the father I wished I had and deserved. I'm hugely disappointed I don't have the relationship with my father that I see other men have."
The estrangement meant Gold had little paternal support as he tried to build some self-esteem amid a childhood of attempted bullying (though small, he fought back effectively), his step-uncle's molestation and the embarrassment of being on welfare before the Welfare State existed. In his forthcoming autobiography, Pure Gold, he details his rise from market trader - he is one football man who knows what he is talking about when he uses the cliché "set your stall out" to millionaire.
He became a bookseller then, with brother Ralph, by accident, circumstance and opportunity, publishers of erotic literature. It was a censorious era but while regularly prosecuted under obscenity laws David Gold was never found guilty. They also avoided the gang wars of East London, though not without receiving an unsolicited social visit from the Krays and an offer they might not have been able to refuse from the rival Richardsons.
They were saved when their enforcer, George Cornell, was gunned down by Reggie Kray the night before he was due to meet Goddy. The brothers became very successful, through property as much as the sex industry, but it is the latter with which he is usually tagged.
Gold resents the term "pornographer" - as used by Simon Jordan, the chairman of Crystal Palace with whom he has been at odds since Bruce left Selhurst for St Andrew's. He does appear to have a strong, if individual, moral code. He has said he could not live with himself if he was involved in cigarettes or drugs but when asked if the sex industry is really "victimless" said: "Find me a victim, and I'll find you a fool." Callous? Or the judgement of a someone who, having dragged himself up from the streets, believes anyone can? Gold is also unimpressed at the attitudes of Roman Abramovich and Mohamed Al Fayed to their peers.
The Chelsea owner's refusal to wear a tie runs counter to accepted behaviour in most boardrooms with Birmingham's no exception. And he often ignores visiting dignitaries at Stamford Bridge. The Fulham chairman makes only brief appearances in the Craven Cottage boardroom, preferring to stay in a private room.
"The Premier League is an amazing institution. We all participate in it. It is like a club. But it is disappointing that the élitists, Abramovich and Mohamed, seem to regard themselves as apart from it. It might be shyness with Abramovich, it's not where Mohamed is concerned. He is outrageously gregarious. As a serene Highness I suppose you would have your own area and then come in... I found myself ready to curtsy when he came into the room.
"The whole point is that we are all equals. They make such an issue of it. They make an issue of giving you your single share. Wigan, Chelsea, Manchester United. All equal. Together we are a powerful unit, individually we not very strong at all. "Abramovich's dress has been discussed often enough amongst chairmen, I think he's got the message. He's not going to so many away games. What you do in your own club is OK, when you go elsewhere you should show respect. I always ensure I know the names of the vice-chairman, the directors, the chief executive, when I arrive at a club. It's just courtesy."
Abramovich is, of course, surrounded by bodyguards. Gold, though he has suffered threats and has high security at home, does not. "My drivers will all be very competent people but not bodyguards in the strictest sense." Abramovich's spending is another bugbear.
"When people like him get into a bidding situation they start off saying, 'we'd like to buy Shaun Wright-Phillips, here's £10m', which I think is what Shaun is worth. Then it ends up at £21m. Only someone like Abramovich can do that. I couldn't live with myself. If I buy a car I say, 'what's the discount?' I don't say, 'I'll given you twice as much'. It's money's no object. I think knowing the value of money is vitally important to all of us, whatever level you are. I would also rather give my money to good causes. There is waste when you spend £21m on a player who is worth at best £12m, then not play him."
Gold is better acquainted with Peter Kenyon, even describing him as " charismatic". It is not a description which usually leaps to mind in conjunction with Chelsea's chief executive but he explains. "I can recall having dinner one evening with Peter and he was very charismatic. I don't think he is on television, but in a one-to-one he was. Maybe he felt he could be himself. I've seen that with many people, in private they are one thing, in public another. With some it's shyness, with some intimidation. It might have been a half a glass of wine. It certainly helps me."
Another figure associated with Chelsea quickly became a friend. "For my first two years attending Premier League meetings Ken Bates was the most dominant voice and he has been missed, not by everybody, but certainly by me. He was a strong member who spoke his mind." Bates could be back next year, if Leeds gain promotion.
So who would Gold support if they met Crystal Palace, his local club, in the play-off final? "I'd be rooting for Ken Bates. I'll be torn, Palace is my local club, half of my staff are Palace fans, my local restaurant are supporters, from that point of view I'd be thrilled for Palace. But I think Simon Jordan has been outrageous and unforgivable, from that point of view I hope he gets relegated. It's gone to his head." Back to the gossip. Gold likes to shed a bit of light on the personalities who stalk the murky corridors of power and I'm keen to encourage him.
"A man I don't think is missed [at the meetings] is Peter Ridsdale[ex-Leeds] though he was very articulate. Rupert Lowe [Southampton] was vociferous but I wouldn't use the word strong. I would argue I'm quiet, but strong. Rupert is a public school, university chap with the highest of credentials, I failed my 11-plus, but I think I represent the average fan.
"Doug Ellis, of our neighbours Aston Villa, is the elderly statesman, respected, but not dominant any more. David Dein [Arsenal] is very prominent, he has lots of experience. David Gill [Manchester United] is relatively new, but very strong." As Gold mentioned, this is a powerful group. The question is, how much power do they desire? "I don't think the Premiership have any aspirations to run the FA. They do want to be sure the FA could not ever again do what happened under Adam Crozier, which was to disregard the Premiership as if it didn't matter. That was to his detriment, it probably cost him his job." It is clear Gold relishes the clubability of this exclusive élite and he admits "I will miss it dreadfully". Lest one think it is the swankiness he likes he continues, "because I think it is associated with success, and what drives me is wanting to be successful. But this is all assuming all is lost. I don't believe it is."
If City's players match the determination Gold has applied to his life it ought not be.
Pure Gold: The Ultimate Rags to Riches Tale by David Gold. Published 8 May by Highdown, £18.99 hardback.
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