Football: The fan who now calls the shots

Phil Soar has pulled Nottingham Forest out of the financial fire after masterminding a pounds 16m takeover of the club he has supported since a boy. He may find it harder to keep them in the Premiership. Phil Shaw talked to him

Phil Shaw
Saturday 22 March 1997 00:02

In many respects, Phil Soar's quest to buy control of Nottingham Forest was the antithesis of the slick corporate takeover. It led him to stand in the snow handing out leaflets, spend Christmas Day on the phone searching for someone with a spare pounds 15m, and work all night typing letters and sticking down envelopes. For six months, Soar admits, by way of an apology to his family, that he was impossible to live with.

A month ago the Forest shareholders finally accepted the pounds 16m offer from the five-man consortium which Soar, a director of several publishing companies, had put together with Irving Scholar, the former Tottenham chairman. The bulk of the money was provided by Nigel Wray, whose empire extends from Enid Blyton's back catalogue to Saracens rugby club.

Their prospectus billed them as the team to lead Forest to flotation, though their entrance was hardly that of financial high fliers. Turning up at the City Ground the morning after taking over, they "stood around like prunes", Soar recalls, until someone was found who knew the code to open the doors.

In the ensuing weeks the numbers have burned into his brain as he has greeted a wave of arrivals, among them a general manager, Dave Bassett, and Forest's record buy, Pierre van Hooijdonk. Soar, perhaps best known as the author of the best-selling Encyclopedia of British Football, has supervised this frenzied activity in his new role as chief executive.

As Forest face two critical six-pointers in 53 hours, at Sunderland and Middlesbrough, his interest in avoiding relegation goes beyond the kind any fan of four decades might feel. The books Soar must now concern himself with will be millions light in the income columns if they do not stay up. Lost television revenue would be an instant blow. They also risk missing out on a pay-per-view bonanza.

"It's a bad time for anyone to go down," Soar says. "My view, and it's a purely personal one, is that we will soon have a Premier League of 16 or 18 clubs. I also believe that if the trapdoor (to the First Division) doesn't close completely in the next five years, it'll narrow considerably.

"We're going to get much closer to the American football or baseball system where you have a certain number of teams, a closed shop, and that's your league.

"Now the whole history of this club is extraordinary. No city remotely the size of Nottingham has ever won the European Cup, as we did twice. Forest didn't even become a limited company until 1982; the members paid pounds 1 per share and everything - the stadium, the trophies - was achieved on the back of pounds 209 capital!

"We have to preserve our unique heritage while making sure we're not left behind as the rich get richer.''

If Stuart Pearce and his players display the resolve that Soar showed in pursuing his dream, Forest should survive. In a sense, the deal had its origins in the afternoon that his father, who worked variously as a postman and a window cleaner, took him to his first match on Boxing Day, 1954.

"Forest lost 2-0 to Birmingham, though as a seven-year-old I didn't understand what was happening. I thought we'd won 3-1. We stood on the Bridgford End. That's why our consortium was called Bridgford plc.''

While his list of writing credits grew (he also penned the official histories of Arsenal and Spurs, where he met Scholar), Brian Clough was taking Forest into the realms of fantasy. Soar is still tickled by the thought that they have been European champions twice as often as Manchester United or Barcelona.

"In theory, those finals were the most memorable or significant matches. But if I could live 90 minutes again it would be from pre-Clough days, the FA Cup quarter-final of 1967. Forest beat Everton 3-2 and Ian Storey-Moore, who's now our chief scout, scored a hat-trick. A wonderful, emotional experience.

"I had lunch with Ian recently and we agreed that while the whole European Cup period was marvellous, it had a strong feeling of unreality. When Liverpool and United won it, they'd been building towards it for years. With us it happened so fast that the city seemed to be in a permanently astonished state.

"When we won the shareholders' vote on 24 February, I made a short speech. I said if we'd been meeting here 20 years ago tonight, we'd have been discussing a defeat by Luton which left us eighth in the old Second Division. Two years and three months later, we'd won the European Cup.

"I was asked whether the takeover was the most important event in Forest's history. I said no. That was the day Brian was appointed manager.''

However, Forest faced a bleak future if the impasse had dragged on. Their overdraft was pounds 7.9m, all outgoing payments except wages had been stopped, and selling the best players seemed the only way to appease the bank. Since they were already in the bottom three, it is easy to see why Soar feared a "Doomsday scenario".

The vote of 189 to seven in Bridgford's favour suggests a comfortable ride (an offer required 75 per cent approval to be successful). Yet it was never one of the three bids recommended by the directors.

Along with Scholar and their original principal backer, Lawrie Lewis, Soar had first looked into buying Forest last autumn. Undaunted by the board's endorsement of rival bids, they set about mounting a PR campaign. "It was basically like local politics. Not quite kissing babies, but getting to know the people with the votes.

"We had to convince them we had their best interests, and the club's, at heart. So we targeted key journalists in the local and national media, in the financial and the sports pages. They're the opinion formers.'' Then, on the penultimate working day before Christmas, Lewis pulled out. "We had to get someone else on board," Soar says. "But the sort of person who might have pounds 10m or pounds 15m to invest in football was the kind who was in Barbados or Australia for the holiday.

"Irving and I spent the next two weeks ringing everyone we knew. We could hardly get hold of anybody and those we did invariably said: `We'll get back to you on 6 January', the day most companies went back. The snag was that the Extraordinary General Meeting was set for that night.''

Eventually they were put on to Wray, who slept on it before pledging part of his estimated pounds 60m fortune. Another hitch: the Forest board was backing Sandy Anderson's consortium and refused to let Soar outline their proposals. "I told him we'd stand outside and hand copies to the shareholders as they arrived.''

When Anderson joined two other bidders by the wayside, Forest set a three- week deadline for fresh offers. Albert Scardino, an American, withdrew the Saturday before the vote, but victory was still far from assured. Scholar had to convince sceptics that a "Spurs man" could have honourable intentions towards Forest. And hadn't Anderson fallen short when his was the only bid on the table?

In the event, the combination of Forest's plight and a lucrative offer overrode any lingering doubts. The vote opened a new chapter in Forest's 132-year history - what Soar calls "the post-Clough era" - with a towering Dutchman signed from Celtic for pounds 4.5m as its most potent symbol. "We sold 2,000 shirts last Saturday, many with Pierre's name on. Happily there are lots of letters in Van Hooijdonk, which means more money for the club.''

A laugh indicates that he is only semi-serious. He is intent on heeding Blackburn's benefactor, Jack Walker, who advised him this month that the soul of a club must not be sacrificed to corporate imperatives.

Now that he is an insider, do Forest hold the same sense of romance? "Not as much," he replies candidly, with a hint of regret. Does the fan in him still come out? "Oh yes. My 10-year-old daughter sat with me at the Liverpool game last week. When we equalised I leapt up screaming. She was saying: `Sit down, dad, you're embarrassing me'.

"But you rarely get an opportunity in life to do something so personally significant. Fortunately, my wife and children understood that.''

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments