Celebrating Football’s Greatest Chairman
With the recent protests against the government so far peaking with half a million protestors marching with the TUC to Hyde Park last Saturday, we have decided here at twohundredpercent that we will spend April looking at some of the figures within football who have sought to smash the system over the years. Later in the month Gavin will express his admiration for Trade Union Shop Steward turned Premiership manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and Ian will profile the iconic commentator Alan Green. First of all, Rob Freeman will sing the praises of the one chairman to challenge the establishment more than any other, in some respects the anarchist’s chairman – Ken Bates.
Kenneth William Bates was born in West London, and celebrates his eightieth birthday later in the year. Ealing-raised in the humble surroundings of a council flat, Bates grew up as a supporter of his local club – Queens Park Rangers – and like most young fans harboured hopes of playing the game full time, but as with the majority of youngsters in love with the game, a playing career never materialised. Not to be put off from entering the ranks of football through the playing side, Bates set his sights on entering the game another way – through the boardroom. Bates’ earliest years as director and chairmen in the 1970s at Oldham Athletic and Wigan Athletic were fairly quiet, especially in comparison with his later years, but like all greats in their field, he would essentially spend his first few years as an apprenticeship.
After a few years away from the game, Bates re-emerged onto the football scene in 1982 as the new owner of Chelsea, having bought the then debt-stricken club for a pound. Times were tough at Stamford Bridge at the time – the club was in danger of dropping into the Third Division, and had a sizeable hooligan following, and this was a problem that Bates, a true pioneer of the game, had the answer for – electric fences. Electric fences designed to keep the spectators off the pitch, and away from the successful car parking venture that Bates had installed behind the goals.
Sure enough, authority baulked at such innovative ideas, and this was the first of many running battles between underdog Bates, and the establishment – this time the General London Council citing “Health and Safety”, at other times, Bates would clash with other club other chairmen such as Arsenal’s David Dein – a veteran of several FA Committees. In 1992, the feud between Bates and Dein reached its high point, as Dein looked to broker a deal in selling the exclusive television rights to the new Premier League to ITV – a channel that had regularly featured Arsenal, yet had never shown a league game featuring Chelsea – at the last minute, Bates helped broker a record-breaking deal with Sky Television, thus enabling the breakthrough of satellite television in the UK. Such a deal has been nothing but a benefit for football and football fans across the country, and despite the establishment wishing to saddle us with a lifetime of domestic football presented by Elton Welsby and Bob Wilson – such victories have been plentiful throughout the career of Ken Bates.
All things must come to an end however, and having taken Chelsea from being a debt-riddled club with mountains of debt to a club regularly qualifying for the Champions League, Bates would sell the club to Roman Abramovich, looking for a new challenge. Chelsea’s loss was Leeds’ gain, and once again Bates would take the club to new places (such as Yeovil), as he fought, and beat more establishment types, this time in the form of HM Revenue & Customs, and former Conservative minister and then Football League chairman Brian Mahwhinney, who disgracefully docked the club a total of twenty-five points, because of debts racked up by Bates’ predecessors. Unfortunately, the chance of a final face to face at the end of the season with Mahwhinney was not to be however, as Leeds heart-breakingly missed out on the play-offs, and the following season, fearing a future situation of Bates getting the upper hand in public, Mahwhinney announced he was stepping down as Football League chairman, just as it looked as Leeds would return to the Championship, so as to avoid presenting his nemesis with the League One title. Norwich eventually pipped Leeds to the League One title, but Leeds returned, almost debt-free to the Championship as runners-up, with Bates masterminding the recovery.
The establishment critics remain, however, but with Bates about to lead Leeds back into the Premier League where they belong, but who could truly argue about the positive contribution that Bates has made, since he first entered football over forty years ago.
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