Sometimes, providence can find its way to a football club by the most unusual routes. When the 488th richest man in the world, the 69 year old chairman of the Rich Products Corporation, Robert Rich Jr (a name which in itself may have sent some people off to checkon their calendar that it isn’t April Fools Day already) started tracing his family tree, it set in motion of sequence of events that may irrevocably change the fortunes of a football club in the First Division of the Northern League forever. Rich traced his heritage back to the Bedlington area of Northumberland, which in turn led to his wife buying him the Lordship of Bedlington.
Rich has a keen interest in sport, which can be traced back to trials for the USA 1964 Ice Hockey team. Rich Food Products was passed to him from his father, who in 1945 created the world’s first non-dairy whipped topping (the most famous example of which in America is “Cool Whip”). Rich is also the owner of three baseball teams in the USA, so his sporting interest is undeniable, and his first investment in the club is a £30,000 electronic scoreboard that is being flown over to Northumberland from America. What, though, can he expect from his involvement with the Terriers?
Like so many teams playing at the level at which they ply their trade, life for Bedlington Terriers is very much a hand to mouth existence. The players are paid expenses only and the club’s ground, Welfare Park, holds just 2,000 spectators. The First Division of the Northern League is at Step Five of the non-league game (four promotions from the heady heights of the Blue Square Premier), but the league does contain several names that might ring one or two bells amongst neutrals. Bishop Auckland were ten times winners of the FA Amateur Cup, whilst West Auckland Town beat Juventus 6-1 in 1911 to win the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy and Tow Law Town was the first club of the future England international Chris Waddle.
Bedlington Terriers themselves joined the Northern League in 1982 and won the First Division championship five times in a row between 1998 and 2002. Their greatest season came in 1998/99 when, on top of winning the league, they trounced Colchester United 4-1 in the First Round of the FA Cup (before losing to Scunthorpe United in the next round) and also made Wembley, where they lost by a single goal to Tiverton Town in the FA Vase Final. The club had its share of difficulties in the middle of the decade, but has managed to regroup and currently sits in seventh place in the table, although being already fifteen points off the leaders Spennymoor Town may mean that ambitions for promotion will have to wait until next season, at least.
Mr Rich may well be a billionaire with deep pockets, but the early impressions are that he is not going to crazy with his involvement with the club. Comments such as this can certainly give us cause for cautious optimism over his motives for getting involved:
I want to help Bedlington Terriers. I’m still learning about British football, and I understand that if they do well on the field it can move up in divisions. If this is the dream the community has, I want to help. I don’t want to become an owner – I just want to help.
Some might regard the easy thing for him to do to be to throw money onto the metaphorical bonfire that is the club’s wage budget and buy their way up a couple of divisions, but this carries inherent dangers for both the wallet of Mr Rich and the long-term wellbeing of the club. Football is littered with the corpses of clubs left for dead by well-intentioned owners who saddled their clubs with bills that they ultimately couldn’t pay – Colne Dynamoes, St Leonards Stamcroft, Sittingbourne and Gretna spring immediately to mind. If the club is to genuinely benefit from his interest, having an amount of money to spend in itself is not necessarily helpful. That money needs to be spent wisely.
If Mr Rich wishes to benefit the community of Bedlington, he doesn’t need bottomless pockets. A lick of paint for the clubhouse would enable the club to maximise its revenue from it and some modest ground improvements would mean that they don’t have to worry about that sort of matter should they be able to build a team good enough for promotion. Developing the club’s youth programme would directly benefit the local community, as would investing in other community projects. A little cash could go a long way towards making Bedlington Terriers a hub for the community and this would bring benefits to the football club itself. Increased crowds and bar money may be able to allow them to spend a little more on players. The sky may not be the limit, but having a football club that benefits the whole town is certainly and obviously not beyond his means. It will all come down to where the priorities of all concerned lay.
Vanity can often be mistaken for altruism and vice-versa, and it is too early to say what the prognosis will be for a club the size of Bedlington Terriers will be should this particular windfall come to fruition. It is, however, certainly an opportunity for the club and if they get it right they can benefit in ways that no-one would have thought possible just a few weeks or months ago. Careful management, however, is the key and it is to be hoped that those running the club are sensible enough to appreciate that. If Robert Rich’s legacy to the town from whence his ancestors came is a small football club which benefits its community and which that community is proud of, well, it’s not a bad gift to give.
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