Dave Allen is frustrated. Middle-aged and suited, with white hair smartly parted, he leans back in his chair and shakes his head at the TV cameras.
“You know, you can’t believe these people.”
Allen is chairman of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Together, he and fellow directors Geoff Hulley and Keith Addy own a controlling interest of 30% of the shares. Their latest attempt to sell those shares has failed. A bigger chunk of shares might be more attractive to a potential buyer. Allen knows where he might get some, maybe cheap.
Wednesdayite are the Sheffield Wednesday supporters’ trust. They run coaching courses for primary school children; their “smile” initiative buys match tickets from the club at full price and gives them to deserving people who would otherwise be unable to afford them; they donate money to local charities. Wednesdayite receive no funding from the club and no individual member can profit from their activities.
Allen works under no such limitations. Six years ago, he gave Wednesdayite a 10% shareholding saying, “The Sheffield Wednesday supporters are our greatest asset. They come to the matches, buy our shirts and do everything possible to support us. Their loyalty and commitment holds the key to our future. It is in recognition of this that myself, Mr Hulley and Mr Addy wish to make this gift.”
Now he wants it back. In return, he is offering to put £500,000 towards the acquisition and payment of players. The value of Wednesdayite’s shares is not clear, but is estimated to be in the region of £1.9m. Wednesdayite have declined.
Allen is displeased and has called a press conference.
“Ninety to 95 percent of fans of this football club are very happy with what’s going on, it’s just that lot that'll never be happy. You only want to come to the AGMs and listen to them…”
Cutlers’ Hall sits in the heart of Sheffield. A Monday night in November and people are gathering outside its extravagantly decorated main hall. They pause, blocked by the crowd. Squeezing through, they emerge into an aisle between two blocks of seating.
Above them a large chandelier dominates the elegantly corniced ceiling, while all around them giant formal portraits of past Master Cutlers are separated by marble-effect Corinthian columns. They scan the seats, 500 in total. All are taken. They return to the back of the hall and burrow in, standing wherever they can, facing a stage at the far end. There sit the directors.
This is the home of the trade guild of metal workers. Built in 1867 it is tonight the location of the Annual General Meeting of Sheffield Wednesday, a club formed in that same year and winners of four league championships and three FA Cups.
They have just sacked their manager, the ninth in as many years. They are £27m in debt. They are mid-table in the second tier of English football.
Dave Allen remembers: “By the way we were doing well.”
The meeting begins with the perfunctory execution of administrative tasks before questions are invited from shareholders.
Darryl Keys is the unpaid chairman of Wednesdayite. He was once a merchant bank director with responsibility for sports finance. Keys is concerned that, commercially, Wednesday are not as agile as they could be. He presents statistics illustrating how Wednesday’s revenue is significantly lower than comparable clubs at the same level. He provides examples of how those clubs maximise their income. He wonders whether Wednesday have room for improvement.
In reply, Wednesday’s finance director, Bob Grierson, rejects his advice, referring to the failure of Keys’ own business. He addresses none of the issues raised. Jeers rise up from the floor and a shout is directed towards the stage. “Shame on you.”
Dave Allen remembers: “These people who call themselves fans are nothing but a bunch of cretins, and I hope you’ve got that word right, cretins, cos that is what they are.”
A dark-haired woman walks, head down, to the front. Small and middle-aged, she tentatively approaches the microphone. Her eyes dart around the room, down to her hand-held notes, then around the room once more. She gives a small cough. Initially her voice is quiet and hoarse but soon she is speaking eloquently and passionately. Irma Kennedy has supported Wednesday for 40 years. She is not there to represent Wednesdayite. She talks as a supporter and as an individual shareholder.
“He (Allen) has told me I know nothing about football. While I do not profess to be an expert, I think I have earned the right to have an informed opinion and to have that opinion respected. It’s time you put aside your petty views and looked to rebuild your relationship with all fans.”
Her speech is reported in the Sheffield Star as “the most impassioned plea of the night”.
As she makes her back to her seat, applause fills the hall. Shouts merge together into an indistinct rumble of encouragement.
“You must stop insulting people like me,” she said.
Dave Allen remembers: “There was one woman stood up, the most venomous bitch I’ve ever come across in my life, she’d got three pages of diatribe to read out about me, it was just absolutely appalling.”
Allen again shakes his head and searches for the right word to describe his customers and fellow shareholders.
Dave Allen remains as chairman of Sheffield Wednesday.
Dave Allen’s comments can be seen in this news clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78AsOlC4E-I