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The FWA Interview: Ian Ridley

Ian RidleyYOU HAVE TO KEEP YOUR NERVE WHEN FANS TELL YOU TO SACK THE MANAGER says Ian Ridley

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

IT IS tempting to say that the chairman stormed in the newspaper office, sought out the person responsible for the outrage against his club and gave the poor hack the hairdryer treatment, albeit the non-league variety.

But it would be top-spin of a kind not even England’s cricketers have experienced in recent months. And Ian Ridley doesn’t do storms.

The award-winning football writer and author is chairman of St Albans City who play in the Southern League Premier Division, his two jobs giving him an insight into the sport from both sides of the divide few have experienced. A long-serving member of the Football Writers’ Association, Ridley knows the value of local newspaper coverage to a non-league club.

The Herts Advertiser is where Keith Perry, the former Daily Telegraph sports editor, and Niall Sloane who took over as ITV head of sport three years ago, cut their journalistic teeth. “It used to be a big paper,” said Ridley. “But it’s now a freesheet and two weeks ago they made their St Albans reporter redundant.

“I had to have some stern words with the group’s sports editor because they weren’t covering us properly. No other organisation in St Albans attracts crowds of nearly 500 and they weren’t bothering to send a reporter along.”

It was another victory for St Albans as Ridley’s persuasive tones saw coverage totalling a page and a half the following week.

Wearing his FWA hat, Ridley, who celebrates one year with the Saints in June, writes press releases for the club’s web site – “quite often they appear word-for-word in the local paper.” The secret, Ridley revealed, is not to write them as club statements “but as a news story…then you are more likely to get them in.”

Ridley receives no payment for his role at St Albans while he took no salary for being chairman of his beloved Weymouth until his departure in 2004.

His involvement comes from his deep-lying affection for football which stretches beyond the usual fan’s love affair with the beautiful game.

Ridley said: “I was chairman for 18 months in 2003 and 2004. The club were in a mess and I wanted to do something about it. Steve Claridge came in as manager but then a guy [Martyn Harrison] with a lot of money took over and it was downhill for the club. In 18 months the debts were £3 million which for a non-league club is amazing. He pulled the plug and since then Weymouth have been on a downward spiral.

“I returned in 2009 to help but illness prevented me from staying more than six months.”

Restored to full health, Ridley was asked to perform a Red Adair role with the Saints, the club having suffered relegation from the Conference South last season. To add to their troubles, they were also handed a £10,000 penalty for financial indiscretions. Having lived in the area for over 30 years Ridley had a natural affinity with St Albans – “a lovely little club with a good history.”

“Lawrence Levy and John McGowan who bought the club last May, came to me and said that people around the town had told them I knew about football and had experience of being a chairman…could I help them?”

It was an offer Ridley could not refuse. “I’m more a director of football. I work closely with the manager, David Howell, who was Barry Fry’s assistant at Birmingham City. What he can do is to bring us players at the right price.

“It’s taking up a lot of my time at the moment as the season reaches a a climax. My job has been to try to send out a competitive team on the pitch, to raise gates which have increased by 25 per cent and to bring in more commercial deals.

“Since Christmas we have the best record in the division and we are seven points shy of the play-offs at the moment but we can get back in there if we beat Weymouth at home.

“There’s a real buzz about the job. When the team wins it is a terrific feeling and the supporters are very appreciative. Someone said to me when you are in football you want to be out of it and when you are out of it you wish you were involved. It gets under your skin, especially at non-league level where you tend to know everyone.”

Ridley believes the problems involved in running a club are, in principle, the same at this level as the Barclays Premier League, only the scale of things differs.

He said: “There are politics at every football club. The same things go on at all levels. People within clubs have their own agendas and the job of chairman is to hold all these factions together.”

Ridley is not quite in the Roman Abramovich class when it comes to dressing-room visits but admits to twice going to see the team in what is traditionally a no-go area for chairmen.

He said: “Before the first match of the season I went to welcome the new players to the club. I also went in the dressing-room the game after we’d lost an FA Cup tie – with the manager’s blessing I hasten to add. I didn‘t scream or shout, they thought they were going to be given a bollocking but they didn’t get one, I just asked them what we could do to get them to perform better and how they could play to their potential which they have in the second-half of the season.”

Being a chairman has helped Ridley the writer while his journalistic career been enhanced by his experience on the other side of the fence. “There is a crossover,” he said. “Herbert Chapman was a journalist, you know.

“I find what helps me as chairman is that I have a feel for what fans want. Having covered the game it gives me a way of handling situations that are not going to damage the club having seen what other clubs do wrong because their PR is poor.

“I try to organise at least three fans’ forums each season where supporters can air any grievances. You can head off a lot of criticism if you front up. As much as anything it has changed the way I look at the game. It’s helped me as a columnist because I now know what goes on inside football clubs and in many respects the only difference between pro clubs and non-league clubs is the number of zeros on the cheque.”

Having written about clubs under pressure to change manager, Ridley also knows what it is like to be given such advice by supporters earlier this season when Saints were struggling for consistency.

He said: “When we lost three or four games in a row it was a bit grim to hear fans tell you to sack the manager. It was a question of holding our nerve at that point because there was no point in ditching him [Howell] after half a season. It can be depressing when you aren’t being paid for it…I’ve become worse as I’ve got older. I used to think ‘I’ll just sit there in the directors box and be calm.’ It’s like Wenger, the older he’s got the more intense and frustrated he’s become. So am I.”

Ian Ridley There's A Golden Sky
Ian Ridley’s latest book, ‘There’s A Golden Sky – How 20 years of the Premier League has changed football forever’ – is published by Bloomsbury.

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