BY JIM WEEKS
“Whatever the fans want you to do, you should do the opposite,” Ron Noades said when recalling his time in football. During the second half of the 20th century, Noades became the unwanted renaissance man of the English game: he was an owner, a scout and a manager, roles seemingly at odds with his frequent attempts to uproot the clubs he controlled or merge them with their neighbours.
Noades was a mainstay of London’s football scene for 30 years, buying and moving upwards like it was a game of Monopoly, though he never managed to get his hotels on Mayfair. He had dreams of a South London super club and regularly invoked one of football’s dirtiest words – merger – in his quest to create one. He was, perhaps most significantly, a thoroughly hands-on custodian. Noades cheerily pled guilty to the single greatest sin an owner can commit: picking the team himself. There were occasions when his judgement paid off handsomely, but others where he clearly needed to return to his seat in the directors’ box.
Born in Kilburn in 1937, Noades had made his money as a property developer, a fact that must have sent shivers down the spines of fans at the clubs he came to own. While obviously adept in his chosen profession, Noades did not personally manage to sell the grounds belonging to any of the clubs he owned – though not through a lack of trying.
Despite his business interests, he certainly possessed a long-standing passion for football, though he was not a supporter of any of the clubs he would eventually preside over. He was, in fact, a Derby County fan in his younger years. According to the journalist and author Steve Tongue, Noades chose the Rams by sticking a pin into a list of First Division sides. Not the most romantic story, but love blooms in strange places.
Noades’ first foray into club ownership came in 1974 at Southall, a team based in the London Borough of Ealing who at the time played in the Isthmian League. Noades displayed his fondness for change by having them rechristened Southall & Ealing Borough, though they reverted back to plain Southall in 1980.
By this time Noades was long gone, having shifted his interests south of the river to non-league Wimbledon in 1976. The South-West London club had been formed as early as 1889, playing in a number of local divisions before pitching up in the Isthmian League in 1921. They won eight titles over the next 42 years, including three on the bounce from 1962 through ’64. That prompted a move to the Southern League, where they continued to thrive, and in 1976 Noades purchased a majority shareholding for £2,800. The Dons were proving more than a match for the Southern Premier by this time, winning a hat-trick of titles in 1975/76/77, prompting Noades to launch a vigorous campaign to have the side elected to the football league (there was no promotion from non-league football). It proved successful and in 1977 the Dons took their place in the old Division 4. Over the next decade, they would embark on an incredible journey through the leagues and all the way up the steps at Wembley.
Noades was not there to see this however, having once again cashed in a smaller club to buy a more established one. He departed Plough Lane in 1981 – though not without attempting to get Wimbledon out of there first.
In 1979, Noades purchased Milton Keynes City FC for £1 and installed a group of Wimbledon directors – including future owner Sam Hamman – to similar roles at the smaller club. Noades later recalled that he had entered talks with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation about merging the two outfits. The plan was to move the Dons to Buckinghamshire, adopt the Milton Keynes name, and retain Wimbledon’s place in the Football League. It did not come to fruition at the time and Noades sold Milton Keynes City just a year later. Though only worthy of the local papers back then, it takes on new significance given Wimbledon’s hugely contentious move to Buckinghamshire almost a quarter of a century later. Noades left the club soon after the failed merger, selling his stake to Hamman in 1981, though his involvement with Wimbledon was not finished yet.
His next destination was Crystal Palace, another South London side and one with considerably more Football League experience than the Dons, albeit with little to show for it.
It would be fair to say that Noades is not a hugely popular figure among Palace fans – to this day, they still sing a song which asserts that his mother was a sex worker – and there are rational reasons for their dislike, if not their choice of lyrics. Nevertheless, it was under Noades’ stewardship that the Eagles secured their highest ever league finish, an FA Cup final appearance, and some much-needed decoration for their trophy cabinet.
Noades purchased a club that was sliding towards relegation from the old First Division. They duly went down in 1980-81, then spent the next few years in the lower reaches of Division 2 while changing managers on an annual basis.
Then, in 1984, Noades made a decision that almost every Palace fan looks back on approvingly: he appointed Steve Coppell as boss. The former Manchester United stalwart would become closely linked with the Eagles, eventually managing them on four separate occasions. The first spell, lasting from 1984 until 1993, was the most successful.
After three successive finishes in the top six Palace finally went up in 1988-89 by finishing third, though it must have been galling for Noades to watch Wimbledon sail past on their way to the top-flight in 1985-86, and positively horrendous to see the Dons lift the FA Cup in 1988 (two of the players who won the trophy at Wembley had been signed under Noades’ ownership). Then again, perhaps it was seeing someone else pack the club off to Milton Keynes that really hurt.
Still, there were good times to come at Selhurst Park (a ground Noades had made a point of separating from the club, which goes some way to explaining fans’ mistrust). Palace would come remarkably close to emulating their fellow South Londoners in English football’s grand old cup competition, while also retaining their top-flight status. Coppell’s side won an incredible semi-final against Liverpool, which witnessed three goals in the last 10 minutes of normal play followed by an extra-time winner from Alan Pardew (Noades later recalled that the future manager ran up to him afterwards and quipped: “Best seven and a half grand you’ve ever spent!”)
Coppell’s side came agonisingly close to beating Manchester United in the final, only for Alex Ferguson’s team to force a replay that they went on to win 1-0. There were more good times to come, however. Palace finished an astonishing third in the top-flight the following season, fired up the table by the prolific pairing of Ian Wright and Mark Bright. They also went back to Wembley, albeit for the rather less prestigious Full Members Cup. Palace lifted the trophy by beating Everton 4-1. It may have been a fairly minor honour that England’s top sides eschewed, but with 52,000 people at Wembley few Palace fans cared.
And yet the owner who led them there is not universally popular. Noades is viewed as a speculator, someone who came to Palace looking to make money and, if it fitted the business model, achieve success on the pitch too. He was also perceived as someone who threatened the club’s independence.
In 1987, it emerged that he and his old business partner Hammam were discussing merging Palace with Wimbledon. “In fact, Wimbledon, Palace and Charlton talked about merging,” Noades later recalled, “but nothing came of it.”
There was also his treatment of Selhurst Park. Noades sought to monetise the ground to the greatest extent possible by renting it out, first to Charlton and then to his old club Wimbledon, moves that did little to quell fears of a merger. He retained ownership of the ground even after selling the club, leading to a long and unedifying dispute with Simon Jordan.
Third in the table was as good as it would get for Palace. They lasted until the first season of the new Premier League – of which Noades was an enthusiastic supporter – but went down that same year. They became a yo-yo club, coming straight back up and immediately going down again. Managers came and went: Steve Coppell, Alan Smith, Steve Coppell, Dave Bassett, Steve Coppell, Attilio Lombardo. Then, in 1998, something strange happened: Noades took over as manager.
It lasted only two games, with the experienced coach Ray Lewington alongside him, but the fact remains: the owner of a Premier League side was also calling the shots from the touchline. It is probably not a coincidence that a takeover was in the offing; Noades was taking the plunge as a Premier League manager while he still had the chance. It was not an entirely unforeseen turn of events, however: Noades had held FA coaching badges since 1978 and always involved himself in first-team affairs at Palace.
Following the recent passing of Graham Taylor, one of the former Watford boss’ quips about working with pop star owner Elton John resurfaced: “We had an agreement,” said Taylor, “that if he didn’t tell me which team to pick, I wouldn’t tell him which songs to sing. It worked well.” By all accounts, the arrangement at Selhurst Park was quite different.
The owner later said that he spent “the majority” of his time at Palace in a scouting role. Though that is probably an exaggeration, there is little dispute that he spent time searching for new players and was responsible for finding a number of very useful additions. In particular, he is credited with spotting Geoff Thomas at Crewe Alexandra and convincing Coppell that the midfielder would be a worthwhile buy. Thomas was an instant hit at Selhurst Park, winning the supporters’ Player of the Season award in his first campaign and helping them earn promotion the following year. Noades also recalled spotting another future Palace star: “Mark Bright I saw come on as a sub for Port Vale away at Southend.” It was the manager who discovered Palace’s greatest diamond in the rough, though Noades footed the bill. Coppell had a youngster in on trial and, though he felt him to be unpolished, believed he’d seen real potential. Noades agreed to pay the lad’s expenses – around £30 per week – and in doing so they added Ian Wright to the squad.
Noades later recalled of his scouting trips: “The frustrating thing for me was that I then had to convince the manager that the player was good enough, because I would never buy a player if I didn’t have the manager’s support. If you do that, you find the manager will always come up with a reason not to pick him – there’s no point foisting players on managers if they don’t want them. ”
He added that this thinking is what led him to his next club, Brentford
“I wanted to manage,” he explained. “I wanted to decide myself who I wanted to buy, and the big advantage of doing both roles is that you speed up the process so much. I could buy a player within 24 hours when other clubs were talking about sending out their chief scout to see them, after that the manager and then after that trying to persuade the chairman to buy him. While they were still poncing about, I’d bought him.”
With Palace sold to Mark Golderbeg for £22.8m in 1998, Noades purchased Brentford for £650,000. This saw him go back across the river after more than 20 years in South London, taking on a club that had just been relegated to the fourth tier.
And this time there was to be no confusion: upon purchasing the club, Noades also appointed himself manager.
“I’m 60, so it’s now or never,” he said of the new challenge. Curious as it may have seemed, Noades actually made a very good fist of management. With Lewington joining as his assistant, the club won Division 3 at the first time of asking. It stands as a strange and remarkable achievement, one that shows Noades was not simply a wealthy man with no understanding of football. Whatever fans may think of him, to successfully steer a club through a full season and to the title is no simple task.
It could not last, however, and Noades stepped down as both manager and chairman the following season following an FA Cup defeat to Kingstonian. He blamed fan pressure, saying at the time: “They have put up posters saying I am wanted for the murder of Brentford FC.”
He did not sell the club, however, retaining ownership for another six years before Brentford was finally acquired by a fans’ trust. Continuing his tradition of trying to move his clubs, he’d also been keen to get Brentford out of Griffin Park, their home since 1904. The problem was that a suitable new ground could not be found. At one stage, Noades looked set to move the club to Woking, a town which is, quite frankly, nowhere bloody near Brentford. As another fallback, an option was taken out to share Kingstonian’s Kingsmeadow ground. This already had a tenant, however: AFC Wimbledon, the side formed from the ashes of Noades’ old club, who had finally completed the move to Milton Keynes that he first mooted in 1979.
Brentford were Noades’ final football club. His involvement with the game dwindled as his remaining assets were sold off, and he began to focus his efforts on developing golf courses. He died of lung cancer on Christmas Eve 2013, aged 76, despite being a non-smoker. In a letter to the Croydon Advertiser, a paper that had covered his memorable moments at Palace, Noades’ wife wrote movingly of her husband: “There is a void and I cannot imagine how it will ever be filled,” she said, a reminder that football club owners exist beyond the confines of stadium and boardroom.
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Profile pieces on Noades often refer to him as a “colourful character”. That seems fair. We have not even found time here to mention the fact that his home in Purley was used extensively in the TV show Footballer’s Wives, nor that it is now owned by Palace winger Wilfried Zaha.
It would also be remiss to ignore the comments he made on a 1991 TV documentary. The year after Palace went within touching distance of the FA Cup thanks to an ethically diverse team, Noades said: “The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.” While his ideas for developing clubs could be forward thinking, in this instance Noades showed himself to be rooted firmly in the past.
This should not be excused. Nevertheless, one of the more interesting aspects of Noades is how appearances could be deceptive. He had the look of a fairly fusty and conservative man, fitting the bill of a typical London boy done good: Noades drove a Bentley with a personalised number plate, rolled up the sleeves of his pink shirts to show off an expensive watch, and married a beautiful woman many years his junior.
Yet Noades also possessed something close to an obsession with change, forever trying to alter names, attempting to force mergers, switching grounds, and generally shaking things up. Perhaps he’d call it regeneration. Noades’ approach to football ownership certainly bore resemblance to London’s frenetic form of urban redevelopment.
From a business perspective, perhaps the idea of consolidating three reasonably successful outfits into one South London super club made sense. But a cursory understanding of football – and the deep tribal roots that exist in the English game – should have warned Noades off. He knew full well that moving or merging clubs was anathema to the fans, but was willing to do so anyway. Some owners could have been forgiven for not understanding this, but Noades more than others had spent time at the coalface, and relished it, climbing from the Isthmian League to the Premier League. He was, then, a contradiction: a proper football man from the old school, on one hand; a moderniser who was willing to sweep away longstanding traditions in the name of “progress” on the other. Ron Noades was undeniably a “colourful character” and one who played his part in creating the capitalist behemoth that is the modern Premier League.