Character building

wsc303The fortunes of Sheffield Wednesday and the club’s former chairman, Dave Richards, have differed wildly in the past 20 years, writes Tom Hocking

When Bert McGee, who had been the Sheffield Wednesday chairman since the mid-1970s, stepped down in 1990, it was left to a local businessman and fan of the club, Dave Richards, to continue his predecessor’s good work. Over the following two decades, Richards’s rise in football was as meteoric as Wednesday’s fall. The contrast has been so remarkable it prompted the Guardian’s David Conn to call Wednesday “the picture of Dorian Gray in Sir Dave Richards’s attic”.

McGee steered Wednesday from the old Division Three back up to the top tier of English football and, for the first few years of Richards’s reign, the club enjoyed their best post-war period. The 1991 League Cup was their first piece of silverware since 1935 and was followed by a third-place finish in the last season of the old First Division. The next year they reached an FA Cup final for the first time since 1966, another League Cup final and played in Europe.

They boasted a squad of internationals, including Chris Waddle, the 1993 Football Writers’ Player of the Year. They had the power to turn down a record transfer bid from Manchester United for striker David Hirst and beat Arsenal to the signing of the highly rated winger Andy Sinton. With Richards building on McGee’s foundations, the future looked bright for Wednesday.

Richards, who demanded to be called “Mr Chairman” by his employees, offered strong support for the introduction of the Premier League in 1992. The financial windfall from that, plus a £15.6 million investment from the venture capital firm Charterhouse, left Wednesday in a healthy financial position. Hillsborough was expanded and chosen as a Euro 96 venue, and spending on players increased.

Despite the huge amounts of money invested, success did not come. Managers were hired and fired as Wednesday stagnated and then began to slide. Meanwhile, Richards’s championing of the Premier League and its subsequent success had gained him many influential friends in English football’s hierarchy. By the time Paolo di Canio pushed referee Paul Alcock over in 1998, Richards had his foot firmly in the Premier League door. The chairman ostracised Di Canio, which won him more support from those in power. The Italian never played for Wednesday again and was sold to West Ham for £1.7m, less than half the £4.2m Wednesday had paid for him.

In 1999, backed by Ken Bates, Richards became the Premier League’s first paid chairman, earning £176,667 for the part-time role. A few months later, with Wednesday bottom of the Premier League, Richards left his position at Hillsborough. He left behind a club with debts of £16m, a poor youth system and a group of players on huge, long-term contracts he had negotiated – Wim Jonk’s deal included a clause that allowed him to pick up appearance bonuses even when he missed games through injury.

As Wednesday were losing 4-1 at Coventry City in May 2000, Richards was presenting the Premier League trophy to Manchester United at Old Trafford. The Owls’ inevitable relegation was confirmed three days later, following a 3-3 draw at Highbury. Their former chairman was not present. By 2006, Richards had received a knighthood for “services to sport”, while Wednesday were still struggling with the financial rot that set in under his tenure. When Wednesday came close to liquidation in 2010 there was no assistance or comment from the Premier League chairman on the club he purported to support when he 
took charge there.

Alongside the state he left Wednesday in, Richards has had an unremarkable business career. One of his companies, Three Star Engineering, went into administrative receivership in 2001, as did three other companies he has been associated with. Yet, until his recent exploits in Doha, where he suggested that FIFA and UEFA had stolen the game from England, his rise to power has been virtually unopposed.

Until now Richards has dragged English football’s image firmly through the mud without his suitability for the positions he has held being seriously questioned. If these most recent comments begin his downfall, perhaps it will coincide with the 
restoration of that Owls painting in his attic to its original glory.

From WSC 303 May 2012