Football folly? Not at all

Watford FC director and entrepreneur David Lester explains why now’s a good time to be involved in the beautiful game


Even after we’ve been robbed of our place in the semifinals of Euro 2004, there’s nothing quite like football.

This issue’s article about investing in football clubs is a very real reminder of just how bad an investment football clubs have been for the vast majority of people. People like me.

I invested in Watford Football Club some years ago, and it’s a matter of public record now that I’ve bought new shares in the club costing a little over £2m. Today those shares have a market value of approximately £300,000. Am I absolutely mad? I don’t think so.

I was born in Watford, and lived in the area until I left for university. I was never a massive football fan, though my brother was, and he took me along to the occasional game. Nevertheless, the glory days of Graham Taylor and Elton John taking the club through the divisions and up to (very nearly) the top of the then First Division has left a wonderful mark on me.

I got involved with football when I ran my first company, where we developed the world’s first icon-driven football management game (trust me, that was quite a big deal back then) in 1988. We signed up then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish to promote the game, and it became a huge success. And my interest in football continued to grow.

When Graham Taylor returned to Watford in 1997 and led them from the Second Division straight through to the Premiership, I was hooked. The club wanted to raise some money, and I coughed up £1m and joined the board. Why? Because I loved the club and wanted to get closer to how it worked. I’d made some money, and wanted to enjoy it; my initial financial input was very much ‘spending money’ rather than a hard investment – though I must confess to never expecting it to fall in value as much as it has.

Since then, it’s been amazing. I can’t describe what it’s like to be sitting round a board table discussing football strategy with Graham Taylor. Debating which players to re-sign and at what salary packages, who to try to buy and whether to accept offers from other clubs for players is just amazing. If you have ever played a football management game, imagine doing it for real and you start to get the picture.

The benefits to me have been huge. Directors get to go to away games in style, being entertained in boardrooms up and down the country by other clubs’ boards (always interesting, usually enjoyable and occasionally useful). Some of my great experiences include floating on AIM, going to an FA Cup semi-final last season, and chatting to Roman Abramovich and dozens of other celebs. I’ve worked with an extremely talented and able board, and Growing 22 Business July/August 2004 have built some great friendships. We’ve gone through some very tough times.

Being part of a board that had to turn the club round financially, during a turbulent period in the industry, was an invaluable learning experience (I am confident that the club is now in much more sensible, if modest, financial condition, by the way). I’ve seen things written by journalists who don’t know all the facts, and frequently draw wrong conclusions. I’ve sat across a negotiating table from Luca Vialli, trying to agree an exit settlement. And I’ve seen clubs far more modest than Watford, when I first joined the board, move above us in financial and football strength. I’ve been through periods of not enjoying my involvement. And I’ve had to invest £500,000 to keep the club alive, along with the rest of the board.

Do I regret getting involved? Absolutely not. With hindsight, I regret investing quite as much as I did; I could probably have invested £1m less and still derived roughly the same value (if nothing else, that money would go a lot further for the club today). It is admittedly an ego-trip to be involved in a football club, as well as a responsibility. And now football finances seem to be coming back to earth, it is probably a great time to get involved.

David Lester, founder of Crimson Publishing, has established or run half-a-dozen businesses, as well as advising others.

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