There are few people in lower division football for whom more vituperation is reserved than Graham Westley. The Preston North End manager has a reputation for management-speak and self-aggrandisement that is well known, but such character flaws are hardly unfamiliar in football management – even at its lower levels. Westley’s unpopularity runs deeper than that, though, tapping the sort of raw nerve amongst the supporters of other clubs which can render even the most placid and level-headed amongst us incandescent with dumb, impotent rage. As the manager of Stevenage Borough, he took the club into the Football League and then into League One whilst also beating Newcastle United in the FA Cup before moving on to join Preston North End, but his achievements as a manager remain somewhat tarnished by events that took place more than a decade ago.
Westley was, prior to the beginning of his managerial career, an accomplished non-league player who might have had greater success on the pitch had he not apparently had such as restless nature and been so unlucky with an injury that ended his playing days at just twenty-eight years of age. In eight years as a player, he played for thirteen different clubs (including four in one year in 1990), but he never fully recovered from a serious injury picked up whilst playing for Kingstonian during the late 1980s. His managerial debut came at the same club, but he lasted just five months before being sacked and replaced by Geoff Chapple. Another truncated spell in charge of a club would follow on the other side of the capital at Enfield, where he would remain in charge of the club for just nine months before leaving.
Westley had been involved in business since before the end of his playing career. Founded in the 1940s by his grandfather, the J&D Organisation developed into a supplier of services to building contractors as a contract cleaning company before moving on to carrying out a wide range of contract services. The company grew from having an annual turnover of £1m a year to £20m in the six years between 1991 and 1997 and in 1995 Westley became a director of a new company called The Aimita (for Attitude is more important than ability) Corporation. Never shy of self-promotion, he told The Independent in 1997 that, “Since I got involved with football I have made results much more visible. All the people in the company are far more competitive.”
In 1999, this business success allowed him to buy a controlling interest in Farnborough Town of the Isthmian League Premier Division, and shortly afterwards make himself the manager of the first team. Farnborough had been in financial distress at the time of Westley’s arrival and there is little question that he changed their fortunes on the pitch, achieving a mid-table finish and winning the Isthmian League Cup in his first season in charge before getting the team promoted into the Football Conference in 2001. Alarm bells over his methods and motives, however, were already starting to sound. He changed the club’s colours from its traditional yellow and blue to red and white, and he encountered opposition from some Farnborough supporters when he changed the name of the club’s home ground, Cherrywood Road, to The Aimita Stadium. These, however, were merely cosmetic in comparison with what was to follow at the start of 2002, when he proposed a merger between Farnborough and the club that he had previously played for and managed, Kingstonian.
Westley had, during his brief period as the manager of Kingstonian, suggested changing the club’s name to “Kingston Town” and its traditional strip of red and white hoops to all red. Since his departure from the club they, like Farnborough, had also managed to snag themselves a place in the Football Conference, but at Kingsmeadow the costs of flying that high had caught up with it, and Kingstonian collapsed into administration in October 2001. The club was in a bad financial condition, but it did have one asset that provoked a considerable amount of interest from potential suitors – the Kingsmeadow stadium itself. Built in 1989, it was one of the best new facilities in non-league football, and for those that weren’t much interested in football its location made it prime real estate if it were to be redeveloped for other use.
In February of 2002, Westley signalled his interest in buying Kingstonian from the administrators and merging the two clubs to form “Kingston and Farnborough United.” According to Westley, neither club were “big enough to survive in the Conference” on their own. “Both have tried and nearly gone under in the process,” he added, without apparently taking into account that perhaps not all clubs are big enough to earn and hold onto a place in the Football League. He cited Rushden & Diamonds as an example of what could be achieved, said “imagine if Manchester hadn’t United all those years ago”, which conveniently overlooked the fact that Manchester United hadn’t changed their name as the result of a merger and suggested Kingstonian and Farnborough were “in closely located, growing towns… i.e. the same conurbation”, despite the fact that almost thirty miles separated them and the clubs had no previous links. Administrator Nick Hood of Begbies Traynor advocated acceptance of the merger by Kingstonian’s creditors and shareholders, but he was more or less the only person to do so. The intention was for the club to play at Kingsmeadow while Cherrywood Road would be used as the merged club’s youth academy, and even issued a joint statement with Westley to that effect:
We are working to bring together two clubs with different strengths but with one common thread. Kingstonian has invested in its stadium and brought it up to League standards, whilst Farnborough has invested in its team. Both have already succeeded against the odds and are determined to achieve the next goal of league football. We firmly believe that that success on and off the pitch will be made possible as a result of the proposed merger.
The stumbling blocks, however, proved to be insurmountable. Opposition from both sets of supporters and the interest of other parties eventually killed Kingston & Farnborough United before even got the chance to gain any momentum, but the ramifications of this blue sky thinking would come to change his career. On the pitch, Farnborough Town had a reasonably successful first season in the Football Conference, ending in seventh place in the final league table. Away from it, however, seeds of distrust between Westley and the club’s support had been sewn, and those that had been suspicious of his motives were proved right in February of 2003 when Westley departed from Cherrywood Road in the most acrimonious and high-profile way possible. Rumours had been circulating since the start of the season that 2002/03 would be his last at the club, but this didn’t seem to distract the team, who beat Molesey, Harrogate Town and Southport to claim a Third Round trip to Darlington in the FA Cup.
When the club won by three goals to two at Feethams, the Fourth Round draw set up a home match against Arsenal at Cherrywood Road. According to Westley, Cherrywood Road wasn’t capable of safely hosting an FA Cup match against Arsenal, an opinion which overlooked the fact that the ground, while a little rough around the edges, could still hold 4,000 people. What, many wondered, was the difference between 4,000 supporters for a match against Arsenal in the FA Cup and 4,000 people for any other match? If Cherrywood Road couldn’t hold the capacity that it was stated to be able to, perhaps it shouldn’t even having been hosting Conference football in the first place. Critics felt that the desire to move the match to Highbury was motivated more by the estimated £500,000 that could be made from switching venues in comparison with the £50,000 that would be raised from ticket sales if the match was played at their own ground. The switched of FA Cup matches would subsequently be banned by the Football Association.
This match, however, was switched to Highbury, and over 35,000 people saw Arsenal win by five goals to one. What happened after the match, however, was as swift as it was unexpected. At the post-match press conference, football journalist Ian Ridley – then writing for The Observer – noted that “something didn’t smell right” as Westley prevaricated and deflected his way through some uncomfortable questions. The rationale for switching the tie had changed – according to Ridley, “the Farnborough chairman and manager then insulted his club secretary Vince Williams by saying that it was really because ‘the ex-postman’ was unable to organise a capacity home game properly” – and the writer’s conclusion, a conclusion which had reached by many Farnborough supporters earlier in the season, was that, “my gut feeling was that Westley was about to decamp, having used the whole occasion as an opportunity for self-promotion and to procure the maximum return on his investment.”
Three days later, Westley did indeed decampel to another Football Conference club, Stevenage Borough, taking seven players with him and leaving the club essentially potless. Farnborough were left unable to sign any new players after being left under a transfer embargo as a result of the club’s refusal to pay wages owed to centre-half Jim Rodwell, who was sacked by Graham Westley, whilst the departure of the players to Stevenage was overseen by the aforementioned former post office employee Vince Williams, and secretary Richard Robinson, a partner in a Richmond law firm. Westley, it was rumoured, had considered passing his shares in Farnborough to his wife before realising that this would be against FA rules and subsequently stated that he would give back his shares to those that held them prior to his takeover without doing so. Eventually, the club passed to Vic Searle, who took over the club at the end of March 2003. Searle later commented that, “There was a reported £500,000 made out of the Arsenal game. As far as I’m aware, none of it came into the club.”
Of the goings-on at Cherrywood Road after Westley’s departure, the FA’s then-compliance officer Paul Newman would only say, “It is not something we can be involved in unless issues of concern are drawn to our attention by the Nationwide Conference.” Westley was never brought to account for what happened after he left. He went to manage Stevenage, Rushden & Diamonds and Kettering Town before returning to Stevenage. Having take the club into the Football League and then into League One, he signed a three year contract extension with the club in the summer of 2011, but in January 2012 he left for Deepdale, to manage Preston North End, where he remains to this day. Preston are currently in fifteenth place in League One, while Stevenage are seventh place in the same division. Westley, meanwhile, remains a company director, although The Aimita Corporation has since renamed itself ‘The Innoventive Group.’ For Farnborough Town, though, there would be no happy ending. Relegated at the end of the 2003/04 season, the club lurched on until 2007 when, unable to enter into another CVA, it folded, to be replaced by Farnborough FC, who currently ply their trade back in the Blue Square Bet South.
Unlucky as a player and clearly talented – if likely to invoke loathing in others – as a manager, Graham Westley’s visions for Kingston & Farnborough United came, thankfully, to nothing, but for Farnborough Town supporters the events of February 2002 would turn out to be a signal of what was to come. If Westley’s ambition had outstripped that club, then he might at least have earned some grudging admiration from others had he left it with the money that it made from its 2003 FA Cup run and its playing squad. Westley, however, chose the dishonorable path instead, asset-stripped it is the most transparent way possible and left it, effectively, for dead. That it managed to cling on for a further four and a half years before finally succumbing to death’s sweet kiss doesn’t absolve him of culpability in this respect. And what galls about this story is that the impotence of the FA and the Football Conference at the time allowed him to get away with it all, to walk away scot free and into a managerial position without every really facing the consequences of his behaviour during his last few weeks at Farnborough or the ridicule that he deserved for his attempt to merge that club with Kingstonian. As somebody who had been involved in non-league football for the previous decade and a half, that he should have acted in such a way to is all the more disappointing. At least, we might console ourselves, there’s little chance of him pulling such stunts again while he’s still involved at Preston.
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