Glad all over

One man has changed the face of sponsorship in non-League football. Craig Ellyard explains the Victor Gladwish phenomenon

In the world of non-League football, Victor Gladwish is making as big an impact as Roman Abramovich has done in the Premiership. In a matter of months Gladwish has become non-League football’s biggest financial benefactor, his clout being felt all the way from the south coast up to east Yorkshire.

The 59-year-old Gladwish is the author of over 200 books on matchbox labels (do an internet search on phillumeny and open up a whole new world for yourself). But it wasn’t his prolific output as an author that made Gladwish sufficient cash to allow him to plunge upwards of £1 million into non-League foot­ball. His fortune came from buying and selling small plots of agricultural land to speculators hoping to cash-in on the house-building boom. Now, over 30 clubs count Gladwish Land Sales as their main spon­sor, while the Hellenic League will carry the GLS branding next season.

After testing the water with a small sponsorship at Herne Bay, Gladwish’s first big splash was in August last year when he handed Dr Martens Premier Division club Crawley Town a contract worth £250,000 – a huge sum for non-League football. And, after announcing in the press that “Any club who wants sponsorship only has to ask”, Gladwish was soon handing out £160,000 to Gravesend and £95,000 to Horsham. The list went on and on and Gladwish even tried to set up his own cup competition, but the Football Association refused to sanction the event. “It was a fob-off,” he claimed. “But we have used the money earmarked for the GLS Cup to sponsor even more teams.”

So, what made the self-made millionaire and Chelsea supporter begin his philanthropic trawl through the lower levels of the game? “I love football but enjoy the friendliness of non-League,” said Gladwish. “And when I learnt Crawley Town were looking for a sponsor we decided to get involved. The deal was good for the club and for me and, with my businesses running themselves, we looked around for other clubs to help.”

Other clubs were quickly recruited to the GLS stable, each professing thanks for the generosity of their benefactor. But, as the Gladwish name become ever-more prominent in the non-League media, so the sniping, though muted, began. Critics claimed that far from it being a love of football that is motivating him, it’s the love of making a buck which is spurring on the self-made millionaire. Gladwish himself makes no bones about it: “It’s an advertising thing. I want ex­posure so I can sell more land. That’s why we put our name on teams’ shirts. But I’m not an endless tap. I need to get something back.”

The setting up of his new company, GLS Football Ltd, would appear to be an attempt to do just that. Clubs can buy accessories such as kits, goals and even floodlights from Gladwish and also earn spon­sorship on a commission-style arrangement.

Many in non-League football believe that the FA should take a leaf out of Victor Glad­wish’s book and spread more of their own money around the lower reaches of the game. Unibond Prem­ier Division club Bridlington Town have signed a £28,000 deal with GLS and chairman Gary Wilkinson said: “The FA have all the money in the world yet they expect people like myself and Victor Gladwish, who just happens to be a very nice man and a lover of football, to come along and bail clubs out. Why should it be like that? The FA rave about grass-roots football yet they don’t help the clubs at all.”

It’s a view echoed by Crawley director Vic Marley. He said: “In times when the FA have halved the prize money in the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, he [Glad­wish] is spreading his money around lots of clubs, which is good news for non-League football.”

But even the altruistic Gladwish has been known to say no. “The Sussex FA wanted £50,000 a year for me to sponsor the county cup, for which they usually ask £3,000,” said Gladwish. “Now that is taking the pip.”

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month