25 October ~ As corporate raiders and "sovereign wealth funds" move into football club ownership, perhaps we will see the end of a feature of football boardrooms for many years: the family dynasty. Ironic, perhaps, that the most recent form of new ownership – "the sports consortium" – should turn up in Liverpool where the two largest clubs were in family control for many years: David Moores at Liverpool and Uncle John at Everton. True, in some cases the new money coming into football has family backing, but the likelihood is that more traditional family involvement – driven by civic pride, a sense of noblesse oblige or even long-term support for a club – will be a thing of the past.
Family control at Manchester United is not a new thing, and neither is its notoriety. "Champagne" Louis Edwards started buying up the club's shares in the late 1950s, gaining family control for the best part of the next 30 years. No leveraged purchase, just a simple routine: contact from Edwards – by representative or letter – a trip to his meat factory for a deal done in cash and, for the lucky ones, a few pork chops and a piece of beef on the side. Most of the small shareholders were not wealthy and Edwards's offer was too good to turn down. Over a period of six years Edwards was able to buy the club for around £40,000. By 1978, Louis and his two sons, Martin and Roger, owned around 74 per cent of the club.
Initially, perhaps, Edwards linked up with United as a piece of social climbing, but as his meat business struck hard times he saw opportunities to make money from football. When Louis died, in 1980, son Martin was elected chairman and was the first paid chief executive of a football club in 1981. Martin controlled the club until it was floated in 1991. As journalist David Conn put it: "The Edwards family became one of the first to live, very comfortably, off a football club."
Harold Needler's interest in Hull City as a football club, when he joined brother Henry on the board in 1945, was more obvious. As a family, the Needlers were well known in the town as manufacturers of boiled sweets, although Harold had a stronger association with the family construction firm. Needler, in charge for more than 30 years, oversaw a successful period for the club with the building of a new stadium and, in time, a winning team on the pitch.
Despite his undoubted generosity, some see Needler's reign, which favoured ground development to the detriment of investment in the team, as the start of the club's ills. The merits of those arguments are for the devoted to follow up, but the accusation that family ownership was often a very conservative stewardship is common. The Lees-Jones family, through their Lees brewery, controlled Oldham Athletic for 20 years and faced similar criticism.
The Hill-Wood association with Arsenal – characterised by Conn as a "monarchy-like hereditary succession" – has some of the same conservative characteristics. Samuel Hill-Wood took control in 1927. Give or take a ten-month break he remained as chairman until 1949. In 1961 Samuel's son became chairman and the succession continued in the early 1980s with Peter Hill-Wood. The recent history of Arsenal's boardroom has been of tension between an "old guard" – alongside the Hill-Woods, the Bracewell-Smith and Carr families had been board members for more than 50 years – and a more entrepreneurial group. Hill-Wood explained the family's approach to Conn: "For our family, when you've been involved in something for 50 years, you don't think of it as money."
There is an easy comparison with the Cobbold dynasty at Ipswich Town. The Cobbolds were landowners and brewers in Suffolk and had been associated with amateur football in Ipswich since 1878. By far the most famous of the family members, in football terms, was John who became a director in 1948 at the age of 21 and chairman shortly afterwards; his tenure covered the Bobby Robson years. For him the football club wasn't a source of income, it was a civilised social feature of his life; a crisis at Ipswich Town was when "the white wine ran out in the boardroom".
Family associations with football boardrooms inevitably carry with them more than a whiff of patronage, privilege and conservative stewardship. But the families might also have understood the position of clubs in local communities and the need to maintain them as social institutions. It's hard to see that continuing at the top of the game. As the big money moves in we might all come to regret the loss of another piece of the traditional fabric of football. Brian Simpson