Back in the romantic past of football’s yesteryear the game was soulful and pure and your club could win things. In those times, the man at the top -Mr. Chairman- knew his place though that isn’t to say that he wasn’t respected.
Having made his money in washing machines, drapery, haulage, stocks or some such business, he progressed to a life of civic function. Here, his success could be recognised, though after too many executive dinners and far too much time spent on the fairway he soon sought a new role; one worthy of a man of his civic status and business prowess. The football boardroom awaited.
Of course the historic chairman was also a man of your city or town; a man who more often than not supported the team. He brought his support along with his money though profit was not his goal. In his honorific custodianship of your club he was simply there to balance the abacus or to stretch the cloth as far as it would go. His job was to say yeah or nay, based on how much money the club could muster, not to query the logic of the signing or spout his own footballing philosophy into the managers ear. He did the deals, he signed the players and shook everyone’s hand and then he and the board would retire with their cigars to debate the worth and virtue of the manager and his current stock, based on results. Simple.
Most importantly, other than his name and his face, none of the fans knew anything about him or cared to. He was simply a suit behind a pair of double wooden doors who made decisions with a bunch of other suits who no one cared to know either. Occasionally he’d be photographed at a charity event, his overly tanned wife on his arm, or at the unveiling of a new signing, the club’s scarf hung around his neck as he read out a statement welcoming the next Bobby Dazzler down from Scotland and then he’d go back to his abacus and cigar never to be seen or heard from again. No one called him up asking him to make a statement on the direction the club was going in or to lay down the club’s philosophy, or demand he reassure the fans or comment on the conduct and performance of the manager. Why would they? He was the chairman and not a footballing man. If they wanted to know about that sort of thing they’d ask the manager. As it should be.
In years of glory past, the likes of Brian Clough took Nottingham Forest, a second division provincial midland club to the summit of European glory and the late great Sir Bobby Robson elevated tractor boys Ipswich to FA Cup and UEFA Cup victories. Smashing stuff. Indeed, a club could come from nowhere and conjure the sort of seasons, the likes of which football dreams are made of. Now, unless you are a football academic or club aficionado you will not remember or care who the chairmen were back then. Why would you know or want to remember that Patrick Cobbold was chairman of Ipswich Town in the year they won the FA Cup or that S.M Dryden was Chairman of Forest when Forest achieved the impossible- back-to-back European Cups?
The modern game has undoubtedly changed our expectations of the men and women at the top, for matters off-field are now radically different than the 70’s and 80’s. The game has now flooded with TV money, leading to the glossy, billion dollar product that is now beamed around the world, from New York to New Zealand. With it, an endless demand for stories, editorials and pieces about every microcosm of the beautiful game. A digital world of football porn was thus born in which anyone accessible, from the club doctor to the blind referee, from a quick thinking ball boy to a tantrum throwing striker, is fair game fodder as the football media attempt to stuff their 24hr rolling information frenzy. Naturally, the modern Chair has been inadvertently cast into this consuming limelight and as a result, he or she has become an incontrovertible and unavoidable spotlight figure. They may or may not court publicity though they are, more often than not, controversial and much maligned. Certainly, Chairmen like Bill Kenwright and Jeremy Peace, seem to be last of a dying breed, men who steer their club with passion and sensibility. They are surely the minority. Goodbye then to S.M. Dryden and all that and hello to Roman Abramovich et al. So what does all this mean?
The camera pans to the chairman, who sits on his red leather, personally engraved seat, watching his opulent and most entertaining of toys- his football club. He’s a new kind of chairman. He doesn’t come from your town and he certainly didn’t make his money in washing machines. His money will now come from off shore trading or the murky waters of foreign finance because to own a club that has any realistic chance of challenging for anything, the chairman must be a billionaire.
The Billionaire Chair is an unstable fish though. He will throw money at your team one season then claw back his loses when the trophies and the big European pay cheques fail to come in the next, leaving him with a gigantic wage bill and a group of cocktail swigging footballers who have grown apathetic and filthy rich on his excessive wealth. This is a sight he hates to see because he likes his money and doesn’t want to see it being enjoyed by some two footed hot head from Bolivia who has gone from footballer to satellite launcher. As a result, the Billionaire Chairman is a roller coaster in full summer tilt and is likely to fire your manager as though he was born with a target strapped to his back- not because it makes sense but because he can; because he doesn’t tolerate failure or some upstart with a designer beard and an algorithmic training model from France, who believes that he needs a right winger who is 22.5% faster in the last 12% of the game.
The Billionaire Chair is the real manager and if he wants to fall in love with his club again and spend £40 million on a striking prodigy from Luxembourg then you’d better hope that the next manager who comes in gets the best out of him or he’ll be for the chop too. Of course all this will happen because he isn’t just the chairman but the owner as well, a man whom the fans believe has an inalienable duty to spend his billions sending their club to the promised land, last experienced by them when dinosaurs ruled the earth. The fact that it makes no financial sense might not matter to him because he has more money than sense in the first place. Then again he might decide to turn off the tap completely and sell your beloved club in a cut-price deal to a toy manufacturer from Guangdong province, simply because he wants rid. After all, the same principle applies because anything is possible for the he or she who has -yes you’ve guest it- more money than sense.
Of course, some of these new style supremos aren`t here for the game; they’re here for the gravy train of cash it generates. Arise then, Profiteering Chair and why not? After all, they’re skilled, highly successful business people who can smell a profit margin in a capital venture from the centre of a volcano. Further, they don’t live in your town and they don’t want to. Why? Because your town is rubbish and full of rain. Your club is simply a highly valuable asset in which they are the principal shareholder and they are going to take their slice of the action whether you like it or not because it’s a gold mine league and there is money to be made. Thus, any manager who can ensure that the gravy keeps coming is all right by them. You can sign a Japanese whaler and stick him in midfield if you think he’s good enough. Just keep the money coming and don’t damage the brand -and good luck with that whole soccer league thing whilst you’re at it.
Of course, both the Billionaire Chair and the Profiteering Chair are likely to appoint a middleman, a Chief Executive or Director of Footballing Operations or some such highly paid intermediary who acts as both buffer and communicator, padding out the gaps between football manager and chairman, ironing our the ruffles that develop when a footballing philosophy meets a business strategy. The intermediary is a PR guru and a freshener who presents the chairman’s vision. Of course, the manager now has to fly out to meet the chairman in such far flung places as Singapore, Abu Dhabi and India as and when he is needed. If the chairman/owner fires the manager he can at least be be guaranteed a 20,000 mile journey home.
Of course, we have not as yet mentioned the Celebrity Chair – the individual who can’t get enough of the limelight. He or she will gatecrash the managers interview after he engineers a last minute defeat of the club’s deadliest rivals and will appear on every phone in show or punditry based programme that can spare a chair or a phone line. He or she is bursting with anecdotes, pearls of worldly wisdom and advice for his or her manager as though it was their God given right to give it. They’ve been there and done it and were instrumental in taking the club from their old ground in the back of Granddad`s garden to where they are today. The poor old manager can’t get a look in.
Finally, the Dynastic Chair who is not only a Billionaire Chair but the head of a dynastic family backed consortium, whose wealth and power is derived from foreign oil, often middle east based. Their acquirement of your club is part of a sporting project that is destined to lead to silverware and excellence whilst promoting the business and corporate interests of their various commercial ventures. Money is no object. FFP and proposed changes to Premier League financial rules will be nothing but a hindrance, although loopholes can be and will be strategically employed to ensure the trophy cabinet gets full. Within years a galactico assembly of world footballing talent will leave your club looking looking like an ragbag band of donkey farmers..
As the stranglehold on the League continues and four or five clubs cement their sporting monopoly through finance, more and more will be asked of the Chair, who now represents the commercial and fiscal power of your club. It is that power and his wielding of it that will determine whether the Ecuadorian Midfield Genius your club desperately needs gets signed, even if the club itself cannot afford him. Cries of ‘sign him up’ will ring out this January and so the Chair must once again decide if he will underwrite that £20 million purchase and the extravagant wages that will follow. One person will make that decision and if he or she will not make it then your club must cut its cloth accordingly. As fans we can either like it or lump it.
Of course, the consequence of competing within a footballing monopoly has meant that we have gone from needing respected millionaires to philanthropic billionaires- and all within a generation. The chair is now morally expected to spend his own brilliantly assembled fortune in a bid to satiate the club’s fan base and its desire for success, no matter how precarious or unsustainable such a practice might be. It is though his money is now rightfully their for the club to spend and we are all doing that -even if it be in our heads.
Some fans would point out that it’s not even silverware they are after but the chance to enjoy a competitive game over a pie and a pint though competing with the likes of Man City, Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and Man Utd is starting, in itself, to cost the earth. Along with the historic Chairman, the historic game has gone with it.
Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe a day will come when the Chair is once again a largely anonymous unknown figure though I do fear that those days are now sadly gone. Indeed, the role has changed so significantly that the Premier League should take note of it if they wish to stem the growing tide of financial brinkmanship and fiscal escalation and return the league to sporting parity.