Back in the 1970s my father met the chairman of a football league club. Having heard no end of abuse directed at then Boro chairman Charlie Amer, my Dad asked the man why he wanted to take on such an apparently thankless role.
“Well,” the man responded. “Think about it – there are 650 MPs, over 800 members of the House of Lords, but there are only 92 Football League chairman. It is the most exclusive club in the country.” He smiled: “Contacts, son, contacts.”
The type of contacts it brought in those days would have been very different from the ones you might expect today. Back then the chairmen and owners of Football league clubs were quite a different type of man (and they were all men, I regret to say). Most of them ran moderately sized local businesses.
These days oligarchs and billionaires predominate. Manchester City is owned by members of the Abu Dhabi royal family (estimated wealth $23 billion), but for most of the 1970s the club was controlled by Peter Swales who had a chain of TV rental premises in Manchester.
Burnley, one of England’s great sides, was the personal fiefdom of Bob Lord who owned fourteen Lancashire butcher’s shops. Louis Edwards who controlled Manchester United was also a butcher and pie-maker.
There’s no doubt that in the ‘70s, if you wanted cheap pork chops, or a portable black-and-white for the bedroom, Football league chairmen could help. If it was first class travel to a deluxe Far Eastern resort, well, you were probably talking about a luxury coach to Lowestoft.
These days top flight English football attracts a global audience. In terms of establishing brand awareness sponsors could hardly do better. So while there are a few chairmen like Boro’s brilliant Steve Gibson, genuine fans who recognise the important social function a football club has for the local community and act accordingly, there are others for whom football is simply a promotional opportunity.
Indeed, it’s rumoured the owner of one Premier League side bought it after he’d worked out that it was cheaper to do that and plaster the name of his business all over the stadium, than it was to pay for the equivalent amount of TV advertising.
On a smaller scale the same is true. Like most North-East fans of non-league football I’m aware of the fact that Ebac from Newton Aycliffe is the only company that manufactures washing machines in the UK, and that’s solely because Ebac sponsor the Northern League (and Newton Aycliffe!).
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, football even at the highest level didn’t have much reach beyond the local community. You can tell that by looking at old football programmes. In the Boro programmes from that era one of the main types of advertiser were cafes. The Emporium Café offered ‘Meals with a Difference’, while Spark’s Trocadero promised ‘Good food, quick service (open till 6pm)’.
This seems rather upmarket and sophisticated though compared to the efforts of a place called Garasheds which boasted of ‘a comprehensive display of garages, greenhouses, garden sheds and coal bunkers’ (Yes, I know, the Swinging Sixties, crazy times!).
In those days the nearest Boro’s matchday magazine came to promoting an international brand was when it proclaimed ‘At the end of the day, the fans all say, a Magnet Ale for me!’. Magnet Ale was made in Tadcaster.
It says something about the way big business’ relationship with English football has changed if you recall that when shirt sponsorship was introduced in 1979 many top flight clubs struggled to find anyone willing to pay for it.
These days you’ll find the names of businesses from all across the world on English club shirts, whether that’s Philippines bookmaker Dafabet or Chang beer from Thailand.
Hard to believe that In the 1980s West Bromwich Albion – a team that boasted stars such as future Boro boss Bryan Robson – couldn’t find a shirt sponsor at all and ran out each week with a big ‘no smoking’ sign on their shirts instead.