Rugby Union: Merger most foul

As curtain rises on new season, we begin a three-part inside story on the death of a famous name; John Kingston, Richmond's former coach, tells how Ashley Levett promised to make the club a major player
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I CAN'T forget the time or the place. It was ten to three on Saturday 30 September 1995. I was giving Richmond their final instructions before playing Rotherham at Clifton Lane when Vinny Codrington, the club's director of rugby, came into the changing-room, asked how things were and added that he was flying to Monaco the next day to meet a guy who wanted to buy the club.

Ashley Levett, a man who had made a fortune from copper trading, wanted to acquire a rugby club following the game's sudden move to professionalism.

Rob Andrew, my close friend from Cambridge University days, had already received a call from Sir John Hall in my home town, Newcastle, to transform Gosforth into one of the most successful clubs in the country. Rob had given up a good position, not only with Wasps but in the property business in London, to make the move and at the time I questioned how the money could be generated to sustain a rugby club in such a passionate football town.

Eight months later I was in the same boat. We had a young and exciting side but we were in Division Three and the modern era had seemed to pass us by. We were the archetypal amateur club and it was hard to imagine why anybody would want to invest a fortune in us.

Soon, though, there were positive vibes throughout the club. Ashley wanted a 76 per cent stake and the security of the ground. The fact that the Athletic Ground is owned by the Crown Estate, was shared with London Scottish and was subject to many planning restrictions didn't seem to matter.

My job was to win promotion. Without that there wouldn't be any deal. Club officials were getting excited. Ashley, they said, was a real rugby lover who was going into the game for the right reasons. He had already provided investment in his local club, Winchester, transforming the ground with a new clubhouse. He also had an agreement with Ben Clarke. The Lions, England and Bath forward would play for whatever club Ashley invested in.

I met Ben and Symon Elliott, who would take the role of chief executive, at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond. As I arrived, Lawrence Dallaglio was leaving. Lawrence had agreed a deal to leave Wasps and team up with Ben at Richmond. I was told that Ben would be made captain and I began to wonder what the hell the coach was supposed to do if this sort of recruitment continued.

While my relationship with Ben flourished I began to have serious concerns about Symon and whether he had the experience to run a professional club. He had worked closely with Ashley in the City and his background was in banking.

When Symon chaired a meeting about recruitment, he said: "OK, let's start with full-back. What about this guy Joubert?" I couldn't believe it. Andre Joubert had been one of the Springboks' heroes in winning the World Cup in 1995. Other famous names were mentioned. When I was asked about full- back I jokingly suggested Gary Connolly. Symon asked me who he played for. "Wigan," I said. He made a note and said he'd contact them. If Richmond were simply going to recruit a World XV, what on earth was the coach going to do? Ring in for results?

At that point I was a partner in a property agency in the West End of London and had no intention of going into rugby full-time. In any case the man being lined up as director of rugby was John Hall at Bath. One minute I was meeting new players, the next trying to ensure the existing side gained promotion. I applied for the job of director of rugby.

When he isn't in Monaco, Ashley lives in a mansion - Buyton Manor, near Winchester. I used the tradesmen's entrance at the back and his wife Tracey showed me into the library. The room was so large it would have covered the entire ground floor area of my house. The first thing Ashley asked me was whether he was doing the right thing. I said there were obvious handicaps, having to ground-share with London Scottish and that any attempt to develop the Athletic Ground would be resisted.

Ashley said he was not going into the game to make a quick buck and that his plans for generating income ranged from theme bars in Richmond and central London to having our own merchandising company. He said that Richmond had what he called "a golden share" at the Athletic Ground that would enable the club to have a controlling interest.

I thought we had an investor who loved the game, was full of ideas and who was committed to the club for a minimum of five years. I was offered the job of director of rugby on a one- year contract and began to work with Ashley and his associates, a group affectionately christened the "Winchester Mafia".

It quickly became apparent that their lack of awareness of how a rugby club worked meant that, at board meetings, it became a question of them and us. Nevertheless, I, like the majority of members, thought it was a great opportunity to put Richmond back in the forefront of the game.

At an extraordinary general meeting, Ashley took the chair. His vision was to make Richmond the best side in Europe within five years. He added: "You have my word that whatever happens I will leave Richmond in no worse state than I found it." In May 1996, with pounds 30,000 in the bank, Richmond committed itself to a commodity trader.

With Ben Clarke locked in, recruitment was made easier. My first signings were the Welsh half-backs Adrian Davies and Andy Moore, from Cardiff. When the Dallaglio deal fell through, my priority was a powerful ball carrier and the name of Scott Quinnell cropped up. Coincidentally, I got a call saying Scott might be interested in leaving Wigan. Ashley put his money where his mouth was. For a transfer fee of pounds 250,000 Scott signed a five-year contract. Half-way through, we sold him to Llanelli for pounds 130,000.

After Scott, I signed his brother Craig. And so it went on. I was never given a budget but when St Helens asked pounds 250,000 for Scott Gibbs, I thought it was too much. Instead I got Allan Bateman, who was playing rugby league in Australia, for a far more modest sum. My dream team was taking shape, but then I received a nasty shock. I was told my budget for players salaries that year was pounds 800,000 and I had exceeded it. I knew I hadn't. The deal with Ben, who was on pounds 200,000 a year, had always been a private affair and outside my budget. Now I was told that it was part of my expenditure.

At least the signing of Brian Moore, who had left Harlequins, cost me next to nothing in terms of money. It did, however, cost me the friendship of Tony Rodgers, my coach at Cambridge. His son Stefan was at Richmond. He was a useful hooker but didn't really fit in and Tony and I have not spoken a word since Stefan's departure.

Meanwhile Vinny, despite securing an excellent sponsorship deal with Oracle, agreed to leave at the end of the first year when it became clear that his relationship with Symon was becoming increasingly fraught. To my mind this was a big loss and a setback for the old guard.

Having won promotion to the Second Division my brief was to get us into the Premiership. We won 13 league games in a row, scoring an average of 50 points a match. The run was only interrupted by a narrow defeat at Sale in the Cup during which Brian Moore got sent off. He received a 60- day ban but returned in time for the last match, a victory which sealed the championship. I took him off two minutes from the end so he would receive the personal ovation he deserved. When he finally got a cheque from the club he didn't cash it.

In early 1997 our budget for the Premiership squad would be pounds 2m. Most of the top clubs had a coach as well as director of rugby. I had already tried and failed to get Les Cusworth and I went for Dick Best, the former England coach. I was told we couldn't afford him. Instead we wasted pounds 130,000 on turning the famous Long Bar at the Athletic Ground into an American style sports bar, the design of which meant it was virtually impossible to get a drink. That wasn't the only reason why it was a waste of money. We would shortly be leaving the Athletic Ground to share the new Madejski Stadium near Reading.

On the field we had a successful pre-season tour to Ireland; off it there was a huge turnover of staff and changes on the board with the departure of Symon Elliott, who was replaced by Tony Hallett, the former secretary of the RFU.

Our first Premiership match was a 30-point victory over London Irish. Two years later, in what was described as a merger, but which was nothing of the kind, the Irish would swallow Richmond and London Scottish. Abruptly deserted by our benefactor, we would be sacrificed by the other clubs in a most cynical fashion.