Lindsay: Demon or driving force?

Simon Kelner, in an extract from a new book about the making of the Super League, looks at the game's main man
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The Independent Online
This weekend a year ago, Maurice Lindsay would not have been more recognisable as a demonic figure to many rugby league followers had he suddenly sprouted horns. In the three weeks between the first draft of the Super League and the final agreement which consigned to the dustbin (for the time being, at least) proposals for enforced mergers of clubs, rugby league's chief executive was reviled by supporters who felt their game was being dragged somewhere it didn't belong.

There were protest marches, poster campaigns, and banners at matches that proclaimed Lindsay and Rupert Murdoch (the man whose money brought about the Super League) to be twin forces of evil. Lindsay stood firm, unshakeable in his conviction - "It didn't worry me when I saw banners saying `Lindsay is a wanker' and they couldn't spell Lindsay or wanker," he says a year on.

Only one incident shook his faith. It came on Cup Final day at Wembley on Saturday 29 April 1995. The Wigan team whose rise Lindsay had orchestrated had just beaten Leeds to win their eighth successive Challenge Cup. On his way out of the stadium, he exchanged pleasantries with the jubilant Wigan fans before returning, with his girlfriend, to his Jaguar (registration number, M1 RFL). Lindsay inched his way out of the car park, and then stopped at a zebra crossing. A middle-aged man, his wife and their son were on the crossing, man and boy wearing Castleford shirts. (Under the original Super League plan, Castleford were one of the clubs to be merged.)

The man stopped halfway across the road, noticed Lindsay in the driver's seat and simply stood there unleashing a volley of abuse. lt was ugly enough to stop the traffic on the pavements, never mind the road. He continued to shout at Lindsay for several minutes, before his wife shook him and pleaded with him to stop. "It was extremely upsetting and embarrassing," recalls Lindsay. "It wasn't just the language he was using in front of the child, it was also the way he was brandishing his son and asking repeatedly: `Why are you ruining his future?' I couldn't explain that what I was trying to do was consolidate his son's future. Like it or not, rugby league was going. A lot of people didn't want to admit it, but it was. Something had to happen. What also upset me about the incident was that I felt I hadn't got my argument across to the fans," Lindsay explained. "There were many people who thought the News Corporation deal was the death knell for rugby league, when all I had done is brought back all these good tidings."

Today, Lindsay shows few scars from the struggles he endured bringing Super League to fruition. He quoted Disraeli's rebuke to those who jeered him: "You are not listening to me. The day will come when you will have to listen to me."

THE only child of Ann and Nicholas Lindsay, Maurice Patrick was born in Horwich, Lancashire, on 8 May 1941. He was educated at Thornleigh Salesian College, a distinguished Roman Catholic grammar school in Bolton, and it was here that the young Maurice was first introduced to the game that was to shape his life.

"Until the age of 12, I had never seen a rugby league match," he explains, "but the lads at school were fanatical about it." Curious, Maurice went to a game at Central Park, the home of Wigan, on his own. It was 1953, and he took the No 16 bus from Horwich to see Wigan lose heavily to the redoubtable Oldham team of that period. That first experience left a deep impression on Lindsay, and probably informed much of his later professional life. "There was a big crowd there, and I stood at the corner. I have a vivid memory of a spiv standing near me. Five minutes before the game started, he shouted: `Anyone want to back Wigan? l'll back Oldham at levels.'All the local diehards who were around him jumped in and bet anything from a half-crown to 10 shillings. The Oldham man cleaned up." Even at 12, Lindsay, who later became a successful bookmaker himself, realised that, with nerve and some nous, there are enjoyable ways to make money.

After getting his O-levels and completing a four-year accountancy apprenticeship with British Rail, Lindsay joined a local plant hire company. It proved to be the last time he would be in someone else's employ. Within seven years, he had risen to become general manager. "Even so, my real desire was to work for myself," he says. In 1970, together with two senior colleagues, Lindsay left to form his own plant hire company, Lee Lindsay Ltd. And 18 months after that, he sold out to his two partners and formed the Lindsay Group, a conglomeration of companies dealing in plant hire and site accommodation. He prospered into the Eighties and sold out again. He is now a wealthy man.

The only other line of business that attracted Lindsay was bookmaking. In 1974, "just to fill in the evenings", he started a company which dealt in football coupons and took bets on horse racing and would dash from meetings at his plant hire company to take up a position on the rails at northern racetracks.

Now more than ever, Maurice Lindsay finds it impossible to slow down. He sleeps very little, maybe three or four hours a night and is invariably awake to watch the 5am news bulletin on Sky.Work is the drug for Lindsay, and his non-stop schedule - personal calls from anywhere in the world can be put through instantly to his car or mobile phone, he told me proudly - allows little time for self-analysis. But what would this driven man like his epitaph to read? Lindsay thought for a few moments. "He did have a go," was his answer.

In the winter of 1979, Lindsay, by now a successful businessman in Wigan, arrived late at work. There, pacing up and down outside his site office was Harry Gostelow, chairman of the town's rugby club. Wigan, a once great club with a Test-match ground and the potential to attract huge crowds, were in decline, on their way towards the Second Division.Gostelow's mission was to invite Lindsay to join the Wigan board; the club had just sacked two directors. "Within a week, I had been made vice-chairman and they put me in charge of the finances," recalls Lindsay. "The first thing I did was telephone one of the sacked directors, who was a chartered accountant, to answer some queries. I remember him saying to me: `Maurice, you'll never make it go at Wigan.' I never embarrassed him with that any time later, but I have always remembered it."

His first ambition was to streamline the 12-man board. "Wigan were being outstripped by other clubs, like Widnes, Hull, and Hull KR. I was friendly at the time with Ossie Davies [then chairman of Warrington]. They had a small board of directors who, together with the coach Alex Murphy, were making instant decisions, buying good players, and having a good deal of success. At Wigan, we were meeting from six in the evening until midnight and achieving bugger all. There was no single plan that we could all agree on, and the factions were still there. We had to have a new management structure. That meant a small board. I knew that was the way forward." As Lindsay took his place in the Wigan boardroom, the other vacant seat was taken by Jack Robinson, who went on to succeed him as chairman of the club. Lindsay saw in Robinson a fellow believer. "We were like-minded in many respects," explained Lindsay. "We were both relatively young at 38, we were both businessmen with very similar philosophies." They worked on a plan to put before shareholders that, in return for a loan of pounds 100,000, they would get control for 15 years. Lindsay's achievements at Wigan remain the most powerful testament to his abilities as an administrator. During his period at the club, they won enough trophies to fill a removal van and, as the crowds flocked back, Wigan gained world-wide renown as the model professional organisation.

In 1991, Lindsay was appointed president of the rugby league and was chairman designate for the following year. Towards the end of the 1991- 92 season, he was in the French city of Albi for a Great Britain international. On the eve of the match, he went into town for a meal with Bob Ashby, then chairman of the league. They began to discuss who would replace David Oxley as chief executive when he retired later that year. Ashby suggested that Lindsay combine that job with the role of chairman. "I didn't really want to do it ," says Lindsay. "I thought I would just be setting myself up to be shot down. But I'd had 13 years at Wigan and I did fancy running the game."

The position was advertised, 102 applications were received, and the board of directors spent three weeks interviewing candidates. At the end of the process, Lindsay was the unanimous choice and started work on 2 November 1992. The difference from the old regime was marked. As one of the staff at rugby league headquarters said at the time: `It was like going from a holiday camp to a concentration camp overnight'."

Harry Gration, former PR executive at the Rugby League, says that Lindsay "made it very clear that he was going to revolutionise the game. He was determined not to preside over its demise". At 11.10am on Tuesday 4 April 1995, Lindsay took a telephone call in his office. It was from Sam Chisholm, the chief executive of BSkyB. The call set in motion a chain of events that led to the birth of the Super League and indelibly franked Lindsay's name on the blueprint for his sport's future. Not even Rupert Murdoch, with the millions he has stumped up, has more at stake in the success of the Super League than Maurice Lindsay, the man who had a go.

`To Jerusalem and Back', by Simon Kelner (Macmillan, pounds 16.99), will be published on 10 May.

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