Rugby Union: Merger Most Foul - Even as we won, we were lost

Part two of the exclusive inside story of the death of Richmond rugby club; John Kingston, Richmond's former coach, reveals how his team hit their peak not knowing they were already doomed
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The Independent Online
ASHLEY LEVETT was obsessed with changing Richmond's famous old colours of black, old gold and red. When the club was founded at the Cafe Royal 138 years ago, the colours were taken from a Belgian band who were marching down Regent Street. Instead he proposed an ugly red and black strip. Fortunately there were colour clashes and we would then switch to our alternate strip, which happened to be the traditional colours. Ashley exploded when he saw the team in their old jerseys. It was pathetic.

After winning our first Premiership game, putting 30 points on London Irish without conceding a try, we had to wait more than a month for our next home game, which showed the absurdity of the structured season. The fixture chaos infuriated Ashley and he had my sympathy.

The decision of the clubs to play league matches during the World Cup is ridiculous. On the one hand they are trying to cut costs and increase revenue and on the other they resolve to play without their biggest names. That not only means a larger squad and more expenditure but also public indifference towards a diluted product.

Despite the stop-start nature of the season, we had an outstanding 32- 15 victory over Leicester, a result which contributed to the sacking of the then Tigers coach Bob Dwyer. We proved that on our day we could beat anybody, a point reinforced when we travelled to Bath and knocked them out of the cup.

Even so, when Leicester offered a six-figure sum for Agustin Pichot, our Argentine scrum-half, the board wanted to sell him, although they did not discuss it with the player himself. Pichot told them he was not a "piece of meat to be thrown about," adding he was going nowhere.

A string of outstanding performances followed and we won our last six games. In our first season in the Premiership we finished fifth and qualified for Europe but, of course, we were denied the chance to play in the competition by the decision of the clubs to boycott the European Cup.

No sooner had we spent a fortune on building a new sports bar at the Athletic Ground than it became clear we would have to move. Ashley had secret talks with Harlequins and London Irish on the possibility of a merger. We finally did a deal with Reading FC to play at the new Madejski Stadium near Junction 11 of the M4. A huge marketing exercise in the Thames Valley drew crowds of up to 10,000. At the same time my budget was slashed, win bonuses of pounds 250 were dropped and the players were asked to take a pay cut of 10 per cent.

At the beginning of the 1998-99 season we christened the Madejski with a win over the champions, Newcastle, and Ashley had a pounds 20,000 bet on Richmond at 14-1 to win the championship.

However, a defeat by Gloucester, during which Craig Quinnell and Barry Williams were sent to the sin bin, drew an extraordinary response from Ashley. He told the players he was introducing a system of fines: two weeks' wages for a white card, four weeks' for a second offence and six weeks' for a sending off. There was uproar. In the middle of it, Ashley walked out. I said: "Is that it?" "I'm in charge," he replied. "It's implemented." At that moment any respect the players had for Ashley evaporated.

In another cost-cutting move, Ashley wanted a string of players put on the transfer list and salaries further reduced, despite the fact that we had saved pounds 200,000 by off-loading Scott Quinnell to Llanelli. I was required to do the dirty work while blooding eight youngsters from the Academy. The budget was cut from pounds 2m to pounds 1.3m and Ashley wanted to change the name of the club to Reading Lions. He also wanted us to train at Reading University and suggested that by selling our houses and moving down the M4 we could make good profits.

Saturday 27 February 1999 had been inked in my diary for well over a month. We had drawn Leicester in the quarterfinals of the Tetley's Bitter Cup. At one time I thought the best way to beat them was to keep the ball away from their pack and speed up the game. Now I was convinced the only way was to take them on at their own game with a huge forward effort, particularly in the scrum. I asked each player why we had to win and I had 22 moving responses. We were totally prepared. At the first scrum we drove Leicester back, the prelude to a 15-13 victory and one of the biggest upsets of the whole season.

This was one of our greatest triumphs, but Ashley was not in the directors' box to witness it. Twenty-four hours earlier he had told the board of his intention to withdraw his financial support. Asked if this would take effect from the end of the season he replied: "No, now." Further losses had been projected and Ashley had had enough.

I got the message on my mobile on Friday afternoon as I walked home from my meeting with the players. With the game against Leicester the following day I had no choice but to keep the devastating news a secret. As the principal shareholder he was entitled to cut his losses but it was the way it was done that was wrong.

It pushed the club into a corner from which it could not escape. Two weeks earlier he had told us to train at Reading to convince the community and the council of our commitment to the future; six months earlier he had signed a three-year deal to play at the Madejski, and above all, he had promised a five-year campaign. Even one or two months' warning would have given us breathing space. Sir John Hall had done that for Newcastle.

Ashley's men on the board, Robin Hutson and Walton Eddlestone, immediately resigned and the remaining members, Tony Dorman, Tony Hallett, and John Fenton, were advised to seek protection of the court with the making of an administration order. The alternative was liquidation with no rescue attempt. We would fulfil our remaining fixtures and seek new investors.

I invited Ashley to address the players but there was no response. Dorman and Hallett pledged pounds 20,000 each to launch a fighting fund. The game had already seen London Scottish, under another Monaco-based investor, Tony Tiarks, sell a stake to Bristol, as insurance to secure a place in the Premiership had Bristol failed to win promotion.

Heath Sinclair, one of the administrators, asked me to draw up a list of people who should be fired. I refused. Despite further wage reductions a number of players were made redundant as ruthless cuts were made throughout the club. The feeling was of intense anger.

Ashley finally emerged on 13 March for our home game against Bath. When he went into the bar he was shunned by the players. It was a terribly sad thing that a man who had given so much was being thought of so badly.

Now we were in a financial straitjacket, unable even to hire a team bus. On one occasion Pichot paid the fee of pounds 350. The squad was threadbare, and not surprisingly we lost our cup semi-final to Newcastle as other clubs began talking to my players, trying to persuade them to leave a sinking ship. Despite the uncertainty the players remained loyal. The exception was Craig Quinnell who was under pressure from the Wales coach Graham Henry to return to the Principality. Craig was more angry than most. He had arranged for the club to pay part of his salary into a pension account. It had not been paid for several months and he was pounds 6,000 out of pocket.

At the same time, though, serious pledges of support were being received from investors and Dorman and Hallett were so confident I was asked to offer new contracts to the players.

But by April the optimism was replaced by disbelief when we learnt that English First Division Rugby, the umbrella organisation of the 14 Premiership clubs, had offered the administrators pounds 500,000 for Richmond's share. If the offer was not accepted Tom Walkinshaw, the chairman of EFDR and the owner of Gloucester, threatened to invoke a clause that would allow the clubs to buy the share for pounds 1. When this threat became public it frightened our investors. People wouldn't put money into Richmond if they thought the club would no longer be in the Premiership.

The clubs were determined to reduced the league from 14 to 12 and concocted a deal whereby London Irish would "merge" with Richmond and London Scottish. The Mayfair agreement stipulated that 12 months' notice should be given to reduce the size of the Premiership and that it should be done via promotion or relegation. In the past Ashley had spoken of the need to cut out the weak and now others saw Richmond as a prime target.

The analogy used by Keith Barwell, the owner of Northampton, was that there was only so much room in the lifeboat and the weak would be thrown overboard.

Interview: Tim Glover

NEXT WEEK: THE FINAL CURTAIN

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