Some chairmen fancy themselves as being bigger than the club they own. This is not a new phenomenon, as GARY THACKER discovers in this look at a straight-talking, egotistical northerner who played by his own rules.
Arthur Hopcroft, in his book The Football Man, described the late Bob Lord, chairman of Burnley Football club, as ‘The Khrushchev of Burnley’. Unfortunately, in researching this article, I’ve failed to find any reference to Bob Lord removing his shoe and banging it on a table, as the former Soviet premier once did at the UN, but if I had, it would hardly have been a surprise.
Those of a certain vintage will remember the days when many football clubs were the fiefdoms of the local mercantile made good; when a collection of butchers, bakers and perhaps even the odd candlestick maker sat in the chairs now occupied by faceless accountants answerable to the interests of American groups, Russian oligarchs or Middle-Eastern emirs. These autocrats were the movers and shakers in football. Picture Ken Bates during his time at Chelsea, multiply it by several factors, and you get some understanding of the way it was when such dinosaurs ruled the football world – and the T. Rex of those times was surely Burnley’s Bob Lord.
Born in the town in 1908, Lord revelled in calling himself a ‘butcher’s boy’ but he ended up owning more than a dozen butcher’s shops in the area. He was the epitome of the local boy done good; a success story. Whether it was down to his hard-nosed business brain, or his upbringing in the Lancashire town, Lord’s public persona was very much of the straight-talking Lancastrian who stood no nonsense, said what he thought and let the consequences fall where they will. Reputedly, when actor Timothy West was looking for a personification of bluff businessman Bradley Hardcastle in the television series ‘Brass’ he took Lord as his inspiration. I’m not sure how true that is, but it certainly fits with the image.
It’s well-documented that Lord was a lifelong Burnley supporter and in 1950 – by this time a successful and wealthy businessman – he sought to join the board of directors at the club. His move was blocked. Not used to such rejection, there’s little doubt that in the face of such a reverse Lord would surely have redoubled his determination not only to accede to the board, but also to take over the entire club.
In 1955, another seat on the board became vacant, and this time, with Lord the sole applicant, he was duly appointed. Once safely ensconced within the decision-making process, he set about applying both his business and considerable political skills to achieve his aim of assuming control. Bob Lord was not the sort of man to be denied, and within four years, he had achieved his ambition. He was chairman of Burnley FC. At the time, the Turf Moor club were reasonably comfortable, recording fairly solid lower to mid-table positions since their promotion to the old First Division just after the war. Such ‘respectability’ was not the sort of achievements that Lord had in mind, however.
In the following nine years, Burnley did not finish outside of the top ten in the league and were crowned champions of England in 1960, finishing as runners-up in both the league and FA Cup two years later. For a club with such a small catchment area, surrounded by much ‘larger’ clubs, this was notable success indeed. Some may argue that Lord was fortunate to be in charge during such a heady time and that his influence and control had only minimal influence on the club’s playing success. It’s not difficult to imagine the sort of retort that the notoriously spiky chairman would have given to such a theory.
Many would characterise Lord’s approach as traditionalist and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned in his outlook. In some ways, that was surely true. He was, however, not averse to pioneering new ideas if he was convinced that they would benefit his club. At a time when many more ‘illustrious’ neighbouring clubs were still training on public parks or even concrete car parking areas at their grounds, Lord commissioned the construction of the Gawthorpe training ground to give Burnley the best opportunity to attract and develop young talent in the area. As the www.clarets-mad.co.uk Burnley supporters’ website said in 2001, “Whatever anyone thought of him (Lord) certainly put our great little club on the map.” As a group of people who had a turbulent relationship with their chairman, for fans to offer such a tribute reflects a clear and genuine admiration. Outside of the Turf Moor faithful, others may take a different view.
In the early sixties, nearby Accrington Stanley fell on hard times. As a successful neighbour, Lord was invited by the then Accrington vice president, Sam Pilkington, to offer advice on how the club could survive and turn round its perilous state, short of funds and adrift at the foot of the fourth division. In a move that some may consider to be somewhat out of character, Lord apparently agreed to help out. At a creditors’ meeting in March 1962, however, it became clear that the debt against the club, totalling some £62,000, was well beyond what Lord had originally been told. He made it clear that Accrington Stanley was beyond redemption and advised resignation from the Football League as the only logical step.
The advice was accepted; Accrington sent the appropriate letter to the league, stating that the club would cease trading and be unable to fulfil its remaining obligations as a member of the Football League. Shortly afterwards, however, perhaps more mature counsel suggested that such action may have been precipitous and other less terminal measures were available. This caused the club to seek to rescind their original letter. The League’s secretary at the time, Alan Hardaker, refused to accept this move and declared that the original letter must stand. Accrington’s fate was sealed.
As with so many things, there are two ways of looking at this. Apologists for Lord would say that here was someone prepared to offer advice to a neighbour in trouble. Upon learning the true extent of the problem, he then offered sincere and sage insight on appropriate action. Of course, some could claim that alternative action may have saved Accrington, but even with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, such opinion is merely that; hypotheses never saved anyone. Accrington Stanley are now reborn and back within the league structure, but I’ve seen a number of comments from their fans that suggest an element of skullduggery may well have been at work during the club’s troubled episode back in the sixties.
It’s hardly disputable that Lord consistently had the interests in Burnley Football Club high on his agenda – probably second only to his own. Therefore there has to be, at the very least, some suspicion he had calculated that having a neighbouring club removed from the equation would have a positive effect at Turf Moor. Just how philanthropic were Lord’s actions? If less than perfectly so, the thoughts and opinions of Accrington Stanley fans are unlikely to have kept him from sleeping at night. This is hardly surprising when the feelings of Burnley’s own fans were apparently considered by Lord to be a mere trifling affair.
Jimmy McIlroy joined Burnley from Glentoran in 1950, and in the dozen or so years he played at Turf Moor, he became a firm favourite of the fans. He was talented and inventive, yet with the determination required to make the most of his assets. It was, therefore, a shock to all concerned when the club sold him to Stoke City. Despite twelve years of service, there was little sign of any diminution of his powers, and after nearly 500 club appearances, the decision was as swift as it was puzzling – at least initially. Acutely aware of McIlroy’s importance to the club, manager Harry Potts was reluctant to sell. After being summoned to a meeting at one of Lord’s businesses, Potts was informed in no uncertain terms that the player was to leave, and if Potts had a problem with the decision, the door was open for him to follow soon after.
The Burnley fans were in uproar when hearing the news that one of their favourites was being shipped out of the club for no good reason. If the full truth of the matter had been known at the time, it’s difficult to imagine the levels of anger that would have been expressed – but more of that shortly. Petitions were raised to have the deal reversed. Unsurprisingly, they fell on deaf ears. Fan demonstrations at the ground elicited a similar response. Some reports even suggested that parts of Lord’s property was vandalised. Whatever did occur failed to alter the decision.
Legend has it that the player himself only found out about the deal upon reading a local newspaper. Prudently, however, he kept his counsel. In 1999, almost 20 years after Bob Lord had died, McIlroy let it be known that the decision to sell him had been Lord’s response to news that the Northern Irishman had a friendly relationship with the family of Reg Cooke, a former vice-president at the club. For reasons that are unclear, Lord detested Cooke, and having a friendship with him was treachery of the highest order in Lord’s eyes.
If the McIlroy episode was the clearest illustration of Lord’s contempt for the opinion of his club’s own fans, it was hardly an isolated incident. The www.clarets-mad.co.uk website relates at least two others. One relates to the first game of 1981. As Lord sat occupying the front seat on the team bus, a young fan, described as being around “seven or eight years old” stuck his head around the door and said ‘Happy New Year, Mr Lord.’ The chairman apparently gave no reply so the youngster repeated the greeting. Again, no reply. The boy then climbed onto the first step of the bus before speaking once more. Lord then offered the sort of response that feeds a legend. “Get off this bus,” he apparently snarled.
The second occasion relates to a time when fans at the club were seeking to organise an official Burnley Supporters Club. Hardly controversial stuff you’d have thought. Bob Lord didn’t quite see it that way declaring that, “We are not having an official supporters’ club at Burnley. They cause a lot of problems because the people who run them eventually want the football club power.”
Like most people often described as curmudgeons, Lord may have felt that his actions were entirely understandable given the way that the fates conspired against him and his club. Paranoia has a voracious appetite and it feeds on both fear and loathing in fairly equal measures. Back in the early sixties, Lord was acutely aware how the invasion of money into football could harm his club and he fought tenaciously against it. Burnley had secured the league title in 1960, but just one year later, Jimmy Hill’s campaign for the abolition of the £20 maximum wage for players came into force. For clubs such as Burnley, it spelt nothing but trouble as richer clubs could now outgun them financially.
For a while it seemed that Lord’s forward-thinking business acumen may pay-off. The Gawthorpe facility, designed to produce a regular flow of young talent for the club, was bearing fruit. For example, when England wide man John Connelly was sold to Manchester United, the club brought through Willie Morgan to replace him. Some years on, when Morgan also decamped to Old Trafford, Dave Thomas was promoted from the ranks. Later, he too was sold as the club seemed be fighting to plug a number of holes in the financial dyke but simply had insufficient fingers. Additionally, other clubs were catching up on the value of developing youth policies themselves and improving facilities. Burnley’s advantages were seeping away through those unplugged holes in the dyke. However, Bob Lord was not done yet.
Jack Butterfield was a former Burnley player and was introduced to the club by Lord to launch what was to be labelled as the Turf Moor Development Association. Although such things are common-place at most grounds these days, especially in the lower leagues, raffles, golden goal and match ball competitions were a fairly new innovation at the time. They were Lord’s attempts to gain enough financial stability to remain competitive. Suffice to say, it was hardly the sort of thing the irascible chairman wanted at his club, but the revenue requirements made the introduction necessary.
A further innovation offered a source of income, but was something Lord decided was simply beyond the pale. He firmly set his stall against televised football and remained entrenched in his opposition. For a five-year period between 1964 and 1969, he banned television cameras from Turf Moor citing that they would, “damage and undermine attendances.” Later, in more outrageous terms, he repeated his feelings at a Variety Club event. His comments so enraged the Leeds United chairman Manny Cussins that he vowed that if ever Lord should walk into the boardroom at Elland Road, he would walk out. It was a feud that would grow. If Lord believed his boycott of television access at Turf Moor would be taken up by other clubs, he was to be disappointed. Whilst Burnley decided to forego the television exposure and money on offer, other clubs were cashing in. It was a grave error by Lord, but one he was never likely to admit to.
Never the easiest party to negotiate with, Lord had many run-ins with various media outlets. During one particularly virulent episode in 1974, he had decided that the BBC could not cover a particular game and wanted their cameras removed. “If the BBC don’t shift their cameras from Turf Moor I’ll be down there myself and will personally burn them. They are on the ground without our consent and I don’t care if even Harold Wilson (then Prime Minister) has given them permission.” It was a battle he won, but part of a war he lost.
Although Lord continued to prosper in the corridors of the game’s administration, joining the Football League’s Committee in 1967, Burnley’s fortunes were less favourable. The financial realities of the game were undeniable. Bob Lord, however, was determined to leave his mark on the club. In 1974, a new stand was completed and officially opened by former Prime Minister, Ted Heath. The new £300,000 construction was christened as ‘The Bob Lord Stand.’ The chairman declared that this was “a complete surprise to me.” Knowing Lord, others were less surprised. Within weeks, one of the club’s brightest prospects, midfielder Martin Dobson, was sold to Everton for £300,000. To many the stand is known as ‘The Martin Dobson Stand.’ There’s a footnote to the episode. In September 2012, a Burnley press release related that, “The Bob Lord Stand at Turf Moor will now be sponsored by the Lancashire-based electronic cigarettes company, and will now be known as the ‘Totally Wicked Bob Lord Stand’.” The old chairman’s response would have been ‘interesting’ to say the least.
Remarks that Lord may have considered as straight-talking, were considered as callous and offensive by others. An example is his reported description of Manchester United players as “Teddy Boys” when Burnley defeated them 3-0 a matter of weeks after the Munich Air Disaster. With understandable public empathy towards the Old Trafford club, the remark was insensitive at best, inflammatory at worst, but Lord did not apologise. Public remorse was not his strong suit. Eventually, he settled on blaming an unauthorised journalist as the cause of the problem, for recording his comment – albeit accurately.
One of Lord’s many feuds was with Leeds United’s Jewish chairman, Manny Cussins. Using an ethnic slur during a rant against television coverage, Cussins was duly offended, and made the ‘walk out’ threat mentioned above. Lord, however, opted for attack rather than compromise. He ordered his board to boycott Burnley’s visit to Elland Road as a result of Cussins’ threat. The move may have backfired as the Turf Moor hierarchy missed the opportunity to revel in a victory on the pitch. Burnley won the game 4-1.
Ken Bates had an ‘educational’ run-in with the Burnley chairman back in 1964. Luther Wilkinson had attempted to sell his shares in the club to Eric Cookson. Wilkinson was the father-in-law of Jimmy McIlroy. With the history involved therefore, a block on the deal was always a strong possibility. It was duly delivered. Later, Wilkinson again attempted a sale this time to a young aspiring Bates. Again, Lord blocked the deal. Bates displayed the sort of front-foot attitude that was to become his trademark when he took over at Stamford Bridge. Condemning the move, he raged, “It’s a disgrace that a public company can restrict its share transfer.” Adding that, “I have written to the board demanding an explanation and if I don’t get a satisfactory answer, I will regard this as an unwarranted slight on my character and take the matter further.”
Bob Lord’s response illustrated that if you’re going to poke the tiger with a stick, you’d better bring a very large stick indeed. In intentionally blunt terms, he declared “If he wants to take this to the Football League, Mr. Bates can do. If he wants to take it to the Football Association, he can do. If he wants to take it to the Board of Trade, he can do. In fact he can take the matter just where he likes as far as we are concerned. We must emphasise that the articles of association of Burnley Football and Athletic Company Limited clearly state that the directors may refuse to register any share transfer without giving a reason.” A couple of years later, Bates assumed control of rival Lancashire club Oldham Athletic. He appointed Jimmy McIlroy as the club’s manager. He had learned the lesson well, and a measure of payback was duly delivered.
Another of Lord’s enemies was Fulham chairman Ernie Clay. One cold January evening in the late seventies, Burnley were entertaining the west London club at Turf Moor. It’s unclear precisely what was said, but Lord took umbrage to one of Clay’s remarks and had him unceremoniously ejected from the ground.
When he stood for the position of President of the Football League, he was confident would win the vote comfortably. However, the completed ballot showed he had lost out to Newcastle United’s Lord Westwood. To Lord’s further chagrin, the result did not reveal which of the votes promised to him had been switched to his opponent. It’s difficult not to have the impression that there was an element of revenge in those that were. True to form, Lord adopted an attacking stance, calling the decision a disgrace and declaring that the reason he had lost was the fact that ‘Lord’ came at the end of his name, rather than the beginning.
The decline of Burnley was, by then, already in motion. After a brief renaissance in the mid-seventies, things began to fall apart. Following yet another row with Lord, Jack Butterfield walked out and Jimmy Adamson, who by now had replaced Harry Potts as manager, was sacked. Player discontent was growing and many agitated to leave. In 1976, Burnley were relegated from the First Division, and as things at the club deteriorated, so did Lord’s health.
In 1981, Lord apparently recognised he was fated to lose his biggest battle – against cancer – and sold his shares in the club. Ironically, after a poor start to the season, on the day the deal was announced, the Clarets won and transformed their season by going on a 20-game unbeaten run. Lord died in December of that year; Burnley’s recovery was not to last, and by 1985, they were in Division Four. It was an indignity Bob Lord was spared.
GARY THACKER – @All_Blue_Daze