100 Owners: Number 76 – Ken Wheldon (Walsall & Birmingham City)
The 1980s were a period of decline for football in the West Midlands. A decade which had started with one of its clubs, Aston Villa, winning the Football League Championship and the European Cup in successive season soon saw several of its most notable clubs hit hitherto unseen low points in their histories and one man, a scrap metal dealer from the Black Country, seemed to be at the centre of much of the tumult of the decade, with vitriolic anger being hurled his way from the supporters of two different clubs at which promises of a brighter future were lost amid desperate struggles to keep failing businesses afloat. At both Walsall and Birmingham City, Ken Wheldon is remembered with little great affection, but to what extent was Wheldon responsible for his own legacy and to what extent was he a victim of an era of rapid decline during which he was involved in the game?
Wheldon’s arrival at Walsall’s Fellows Park in 1972 was greeted with enthusiasm and some relief by the club’s support. He was a local businessman made good, and Walsall was a club that had slipped into financial difficulty with the decline which followed the game’s post-war boom in attendances. For the first few years of his time in charge of the club, it looked as if Walsall might even be able to establish itself in the top two divisions of the English game. In 1975 they beat Manchester United on a run which took them to the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, a run which was matched three years later, whilst in the summer of 1979, during a period of hyper-inflation in the football transfer market, he smashed the club’s record transfer fee in paying £175,000 to bring Alan Buckley back to the club after a brief spell with Birmingham City, although this was no more than Birmingham had paid Walsall for him eight months earlier. Buckley, who had scored in the aforementioned match against Manchester United four years earlier, would go on to score a goal every other game for the club in a further two hundred and forty appearances. Shortly after his return to the club, he was appointed player-manager of the club. He would remain in this position until after Wheldon’s departure from the club.
Walsall’s problems, however, were mounting. The extent to which the game would slip further into recession might have been unforeseeable in 1979, but the dilapidated state of Fellows Park wasn’t and in 1982 Wheldon announced his intention for Walsall to move in to share Molineux with Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves themselves had found themselves in financial difficulty at the start of the decade, and the arrival of former player Derek Dougan as the head of a consortium to take the club over provided someone at that club who was happy to talk over the possibilities of such an arrangement with Wheldon, while a change of the control of the local council, who had even put forward the possibility of buying shares in the club to prevent such a scenario from being played out in full, meant that this possible course of rescue action was now off the menu. Walsall supporters, however, were having none of this and quickly organised themselves into a protest group called the Save Walsall Action Group. Prior to the team’s final home game of the 1981/82 season, a thousand supporters marched, peacefully but in protest, against Wheldon’s manoeuvrings. Wheldon, in turn, fired broadsides at supporters groups. Within weeks, however, he was starting to play down talk of the club moving to Molineux.
In one sense, the club leaving Fellows Park made sense. Situated handily between the town centre and a junction of the M6 motorway, the site of the ground was of considerable interest to property developers while a location for an alternative half a mile away, on the site of a former sewage works in Bescot, could be redeveloped. Fellows Park, meanwhile, had fallen into disrepair in previous years, and the extent of this decay was shown up on Valentine’s Day in 1984, during one of the biggest matches in Walsall FC’s history. Having beaten Arsenal at Highbury in the Fourth Round of the League Cup that year, Alan Buckley’s team then beat Rotherham United to set up a semi-final with Liverpool. After a shock two-all draw at Anfield in the first leg of the semi-final, a crowd of almost 20,000 people turned out for the return match. This pressure, however, proved to be too much for the creaking stadium. A wall at the Railway End of Fellows Park collapsed under the pressure of the huge crowd, and more than twenty people were injured. Play was held up for thirteen minutes and Liverpool won the match by two goals to nil, but this was something of an irrelevance in comparison with the tragedy that was only narrowly avoided that night.
Within two years, Wheldon had left Fellows Park, but he didn’t travel very far and his influence would continue to hang over Walsall FC for a while, at least. If the mid-1980s were a crisis period for English football, then the extent of that decline was, perhaps, best encapsulated ten miles away from Walsall at St Andrews, the home of Birmingham City Football Club. The collapse of a wall during riots at the match against Leeds United on the last day of the 1984/85 season had been a tiny bit reminiscent of the events fifteen months at Fellows Park a year earlier. The day had been meant to be a day of celebration for Birmingham supporters, who should have been celebrating the return of their club to the First Division after a year away, but a sense of decay around the club continued into the next season when, burdened by a – very substantial at the time – £3m debt and attendances which had, as they had at so many other clubs at the time, plummeted to the lowest levels in something approaching living memory. By Christmas of 1985, the Blues were only being kept off the bottom of the First Division table by the even more hapless West Bromwich Albion and the Coombs family, the owners of the club, were quite content to hand over the club to Wheldon in December 1985 – just two months Wheldon had attempted to buy into Wolverhampton Wanderers before being told that the club wasn’t for sale – for the princely sum of twenty-five pence if he took responsibility for the club’s debts.
Eyebrows started to raise at the close relationship between Birmingham City and Walsall soon thereafter. It was announced that the two clubs were to share Birmingham’s training ground at Elmdon, whilst a request was put to the Football League that the two clubs’ fixtures for the following season be alternated and the two clubs would, from now on, share a groundsman. In April of 1986, following talk of a three-way ground-share between Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion and Walsall, Wheldon said what many had been expecting him to say – that two clubs using two grounds in disrepair ten miles apart didn’t make any sense and that Walsall should move to St Andrews and ground-share there. The Save Walsall Action Group was again pressed into action. With the support of the local press, peaceful protests returned to Fellows Park and finally, after a meeting of the Football League Management Committee held in Newcastle, the League blocked Wheldon’s hopes of Walsall moving to St Andrews, and on the first of August 1986 the London-based businessman Terry Ramsden took ownership of the club, but Walsall’s woes didn’t end there. That, however, will need to wait for another chapter.
Birmingham City, meanwhile, could hardly be described as being in the pink themselves. They ended the 1985/85 season relegated back to the Second Division with just twenty-nine points, with manager Ron Saunders having departed for West Bromwich Albion within weeks of Wheldon’s arrival at St Andrews in January 1986. His replacement was the former Norwich City and Manchester City manager John Bond, but Bond was unable to keep the team up and the following season the club’s fortunes barely improved. He departed in May 1987 with Birmingham only having narrowly avoided relegation for a second consecutive season by one place and two points. Cost-cutting at the club was already rife, with redundancies having been made amongst the club’s administrative staff, but in 1988 the Elmdon training ground was sold for £350,000 plus 30% of the development profits in an attempt to stabilise the club’s finances while the club again finished two points above the Second Division relegation places under new manager Gary Pendrey.
The following season, Birmingham City sunk without trace, finishing second from bottom in the Second Division table and getting relegated to the third tier of the English game for the first time in its history. Although in a general sense attendances had start to recover after the record lows of the middle of the decade, crowds at St Andrews continue to flat-line. By the 1988/89 season, crowds at Birmingham had plummeted to an all-time low average of just 6,289 people, with just 4,026 people turning out to see them beaten at home by Swindon Town in April 1989. Meanwhile, the club was knocked out of both the Full Members and League Cups by Aston Villa, conceding thirteen goals over the course of the three matches, and scoring none. For Ken Wheldon, time was up as the chairman of Birmingham City. In April 1989 he sold his controlling stake in the club to the Manchester-based Kumar Brothers, about whom yet another chapter in this series will be dedicated. Ken Wheldon died just four years later in May 1993, at the age of sixty-eight.
At the end of the 1980/81 season Aston Villa became the champions of England for the first time since 1910, whilst West Bromwich Albion finished in fourth place in the First Division and Birmingham City finished in thirteenth place in the table and Wolverhampton Wanderers made the semi-finals of the FA Cup. By the end of the 1988/89 season, Villa would be just above the relegation places in the First Division, while West Bromwich Albion would be in the Second Division (and destined for worse) and both Birmingham City and Walsall would be relegated to the Third Division. The decline of English football during the 1980s has been well documented, but this decline seemed more accentuated in the Midlands than in most other parts of the country. How much of this was something that could be said to fall within reasonable probability, or was the apparently close relationship between those running several of its different clubs a malign influence across all of the clubs that ended up coming under this sphere of influence?
At Birmingham City, there may be a case for suggesting that Ken Wheldon did what he had to do to in order the keep the club alive during one of the most turbulent periods in its history. The rot started under the the Coombs family and bottomed out with the Kumar brothers, but the club did pull through even if it did end up in the third tier of English football for a while. Walsall supporters, however, might well be a little more unanimous in their opinions of him. Their club would go on to have difficulties which would lead to a chain of events which continues to this day and, if we were feeling generous, we could attempt to argue that notions of ground-sharing, mergers and the like were very much part of the culture of football club ownership at the time. Having said that, however, the ferocity of the protests against those who sought to “rationalise” the Football League during this period suggests that such behaviour was as unacceptable to supporters then as it seems today. Rather than seeking to make their grounds safer or actively engage in their communities, there were football club owners who planned ground-shares and mergers and in a lot of cases they came close to killing football clubs that had existed for more than one hundred years. The chain reaction that started with Ken Wheldon in the early 1980s continues to have ramifications for Walsall Football Club to this day.
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