Lunch with...The (ex) Football Chairman

Lunch with...The (ex) Football Chairman

Football : Lunch with former Swindon Town Chairman Jeremy Wray

Jeremy Wray is a former Chairman of Swindon Town Football Club. He is best known for his appointment of the 'flamboyant' Paolo Di Canio as manager, and the eventful period he presided over. 

Venue : The Pheasant Inn

Format : Lunch, long.

The Sporting Blog : It seems apt that we are having this chat bearing in mind Swindon have just been relegated. Firstly as a fan how does that make you feel and as a former Chairman, what are the implications of relegation to League 2 for clubs like Swindon?

Jeremy Wray : The first feeling is sadness really as it's very hard to get out of League 2. I've always subscribed to the view that in any league if you are looking to just stay in it, it's easy, but if you are looking to get out at the top end you have to do something very special. 

The biggest difficulty people don't realise is that if you are in League 1, you'll be able to attract Championship players as they can see a vision. They can buy into the dream. But no professional footballer believes he is a League 2 player. Therefore to create a budget for a League 2 side, means that it is then pretty useless for League 1 .

What you find is that you put together a team that is good enough for League 2, with maximum 2 year contracts, but many of the players are not good enough for League 1. Many of the League 2 players on longer contracts would not also not be good enough for League 1. So you have a Catch 22 in terms of consistency.

TSB : Are more clubs looking to simply survive? All clubs started out as a bunch of people wanting to play a game, is maintaining the status quo more the objective rather than actively hunting for 'success', however that might be defined?

JW : I think the truth is that there is a valid business model for every club in the Football league. The fans might not want to hear that model, and without being prejudiced in any way with regards north Vs south, some of the best run clubs I know are in the north, and they accept their limitations in terms of size of fan base and expectations. If they were down £100k at the end of the year the Directors would chip in the deficit. The fans might not get excited but it works.

TSB : How do you balance the expectations of the fans, and the commercial aspirations of the football club?

JW : It's really hard. An absurd example... listening to the radio the other day, they're talking about West Brom. A phenomenally successful business model in the Premiership. Each year they make a profit, yet listening to the pundits, they are talking about Rondon not scoring enough goals and how they need to spend money. The truth is if they dropped 10 points they'd be in the relegation zone, if they gained 10 points they'd not really be any better off (year on year). 

Look at the budget. They have a budget of £84 million. In order to do what the pundits suggest to compete with the likes of Everton or whoever, you're looking at £100m+. You're asking them to gamble on profits of say £10m to potential losses of £100m to go up a few places. That's the absurdity of the Premier League. It's tough from a fans perspective to deal with that reality. The fan base affects the size of the budget

TSB : And its aspirations...

JW : Absolutely. We had a view at Swindon, that properly run, we could get them to the Championship. That was commensurate with the size of the population of Swindon, knowing we could grow from the average crowd of 10,000 to 14-15,000 with some success. We thought this was sustainable as we knew that there were 50,000 plus people leaving Swindon every Saturday to watch a 'better standard' of football at Chelsea or wherever they were going. 

We knew if our product was good enough, we could get a stable crowd of 15,000 in the Championship and that was the clubs natural resting place. Obviously Swindon overachieved one year when it got to the Premiership and should have over achieved twice when it was robbed of its position in the old First Division. The truth is, it is a Championship club based on the status of the town, so it's very sad to see it drop back down to League 2.

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TSB :It is well known you were looking at buying Birmingham City, what is it that attracted you to owning a football club? Some cynics might see a real estate play, others cannot understand why anyone would want to get into such a precarious business, what was your drive?

JW : There are very few good opportunities around. The Birmingham deal simply came about by representing a client who had the funds and wanted to invest not only in the growth of the football club but inevitably in the property assets available. The irony with the Birmingham deal was that at the time the owner was imprisoned and not very easy to communicate with!

TSB : Are clubs like Birmingham, with big histories, passionate fan bases etc now reliant on people such as your previous client to get them back to former glories?

JW : Well in the case of Birmingham they had a huge advantage that people forget about. It's that they are called Birmingham. To overseas investors who don't necessarily know British football and it's heritage, they just see 'Birmingham', Britain's second biggest city. 

TSB : Interesting point, Nottingham Forests new owner constantly referred to the club simply as 'Nottingham'.

JW : Yes it is interesting. It is a club that I have looked at, the issue there is that the council is very fair in its treatment of the clubs both sides of the river and therefore that can lead to problems from an ownership point of view. It can make working with the community hard from an outside investors point of view. 

TSB : Our readers will often hear about agents being the scourge of the game etc etc, what's been your own personal experience with agents?

JW : Well I think the truth is at the lower levels they have less impact, as clearly there is less in it for them. An agent with a couple of Premier League players on his books is clearly going to be more focused on them. He could have 20-30 players in the lower leagues which he/she couldn't get as much out of.

TSB : But they can play a reasonable role when it comes to lower league football in terms of finding players for specific positions etc which frankly a Premier League club is ahead of the curve on.

JW : Yes they absolutely have a role, whether it is commensurate with the payment they appear to receive is the bit that sticks in the craw with a lot of people.

TSB : How do those costs fit in with your commercial models? Is there a big allowance made or is it just part of the capital cost of acquiring players?

JW : The difficulty is, and I'm talking really about the top end, is that the ultimate goal becomes the raison d'etre for the Chairman at that level. So they may not like it but they will pay the price if it gets them the player that they want. Look at the Paul Pogba deal, ultimately Man Utd had a call to make with regards the player's value which are likely linked to a whole load of things just as much off the pitch than on it. They would have come to the conclusion that paying the £85-90m was worth it, even if a lump of that did go to the agent. For all but a few clubs that is a complete anathema but the people that run Man Utd are not stupid. 

TSB : And in your own experience, talking of acquiring players, how close was the decision making for you between yourself and Paola Di Canio for example when it came to getting players?

JW : Well in the case of Paolo, when he arrived he was obviously not used to working with players of that level. So, there was a nervousness on his behalf. Also we'd had a big clear out of what had gone before, and the players that had taken us down and on that basis he was left with a squad of 6!

TSB : On that note we were going to ask about the ghosts and the shadows of what has gone before when starting afresh, are those cobwebs hard to clear?

JW : It largely depends on the player contracts that you inherit. Aston Villa getting relegated to the Championship... I'm led to believe they went down with player contracts totalling 37 years; Premier League level contacts, at hugely inflated prices. So if you want to clear the decks in that situation its very very expensive. 

At the lower levels... we had a lot of players out of contracts so we had a chance to wipe the slate totally clean. I knew quickly my role was not to decide who we should or shouldn't keep and left it to the manager to sink or swim accordingly. He quickly swam on the basis of putting together a successful team.

When it comes to clearing the decks and starting again there is a long hangover from previous aspirations. Swindon had that from their first flirtation with the Premiership, there were certain non-playing overheads that we just could not get on top of.  What I mean is that if you'd never kicked a ball at the County ground, you were still looking at a loss of £750k....a lot of clubs that have never been at a higher level don't have that sort of overhead.

TSB : So back to Paolo, you're well known for bringing him to Swindon Town. How did that come about, had he even heard of Wiltshire?

JW : He didn't come as far as Wiltshire for the first meeting! He came as far as Heathrow airport. It's well known I am a West Ham fan so was aware of him more than most people. The preceding season we had been relegated to League 2 and my predecessor had resigned. I had to go up to Tranmere for the last game. I had no appetite for this bearing in mind at the same time last year we'd lost the play off final to go up to the Championship.

Paolo's agent phoned me as I was on the way up and mentioned that Paolo wanted to get into management and would I meet him. So, I burst out laughing because the least I could do was spare 2 hours with a guy that I'd like to spend 2 hours with anyway. I took 2 people with me, one who had never heard of Paolo who would be neutral, and someone else who was far more objective than me. 

He came across so well, better than any interview we'd sat in. He knew all the players and had watched the videos and could tell you everything about any player. He was obsessive about things and was the same about that interview. He'd watched every game from that season on DVDs that he'd asked for.

TSB : So you'd never planned to bring in someone of that stature?

JW : When we got involved and brought in Andrew Black and the other key financiers, the idea of husbandry of a League 2 club was not something that floated our boat. We had a vision and it is well documented that I had a chat with my then best friend Andrew Black and we had a 3 year plan. On that basis the 3 year plan allowed us to approach Paolo and give him the budget to get out of League 2 and then League 1. 3 years to get to the Championship in other words.

So we had to get out of League 2 first time, which we did, and Paolo worked with a budget that seemed limited to him but it did allow him to buy the players necessary. A few mistakes were made but by and large he stayed within the budget and it was an exciting journey.

We then had a budget for League 1 that he stuck absolutely within. When I stood down at Andrew Blacks request we were top of League 1 so clearly Paolo had been a huge success. 

TSB : Are you surprised that his managerial career hasn't gone further to date?

JW : Well it was clear he was doing something special based on the fact that Ellis Short wanted to parachute him straight into the Premiership with Sunderland.

He kept them up but it's clear that Sunderland is it's own can of worms as proven by the number of managers that have come and gone.

TSB : Including one today! (David Moyes)

JW : Yes including one today! So, it's not straightforward. I feel for Paolo as his record is superb. By his own admission, he was cutting his teeth at Swindon and made a few mistakes along the way, probably my role was to smooth some of those out. I think he is a huge loss in terms of the contribution he could make somewhere.

TSB : Do you think some owners may be nervous of the sort of character that he is?

JW : That's possibly true. I've spoken to a couple since he left to go back to Italy. I am surprised he is not back in management. He has a very big role in Sky Italia, has businesses and is very successful in his own right. I know he would give all of that up to be back in day to day football. 

If I were to get back involved in football I wouldn't think twice about hiring him again.

As a man he has mellowed. There isn't a bigger critic of him than himself, an incredibly intelligent guy, well researched and on top of that is a fantastic coach.  


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