Ian Ridley: Q&A
When you’ve worked as one of the country’s leading football journalists for the best part of twenty years, you inevitably become intimately acquainted – for better or for worse – with the inner workings of the strange beast that is ‘football’. Football, it quickly becomes apparent, is about so much more than the eleven men who step across the white line for ninety minutes on match day; so much more, even, than the managers, chairmen and boardroom machinations that make clubs tick as twenty-four-seven businesses. At its core, it is a rich collection of personal and collective stories with the unique ability to bind or break communities, transcending sport to offer lessons on success, hardship, loss and friendship.
It’s a side of the game with which Ian Ridley is certainly familiar. Stints on some of Britain’s most acclaimed sports desks grew organically into a writing career that has seen him work with Tony Adams and Steve Claridge, among others, in addition to penning several books of his own and contributing to a now-cult television series. But the real curiosity in Ridley’s story lies in his decision to cross the tracks – to go from writing about football clubs to running one himself. A burning passion for the game, and a disillusionment with its top-flight incarnation, saw him become chairman of his hometown club, Weymouth, a non-league side on England’s Jurassic Coast, in 2003. Ousted after one year, he returned again in 2009, only to step down shortly after. Now, though, he’s at it once more: reunited with old friend Claridge, Ridley is in the midst of a fresh bid to reignite football in the south of England, this time working with phoenix club Salisbury FC following Salisbury City’s collapse in 2014.
Can you start off by telling us about your relationship with football, from a purely journalistic perspective?
I began writing about football in my last year at university. I was at Bedford College University of London, and I’d spent the three years not doing very much work, doing a French degree that I wasn’t that interested in, to be honest. But I was interested in being in London and in watching football, and I used to go to different clubs every week. I developed a bit of a fondness for Fulham, and in those days you could get in reasonably cheaply and a student could afford it – those were the days. I was at university during the miners’ strike in the 1970s, so I even went to afternoon games with about five or six thousand other people. In my last year I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and a friend suggested I might try getting into football writing – he did actually, as well – and so I took on the sports editorship of the college magazine and started writing for the university newspaper, Senate, and that was it really. I became quite vocational about journalism and about writing about football from then on.
What were the steps that took you from the editorship of the college newspapers to the desks of the nationals, where you ended up working later in your career?
I was unemployed when I left university – something that will be familiar to many kids today – but I was only unemployed for six months, fortunately, and I got a job on a magazine called Building, for the construction industry, as a junior sub-editor. I learned how publications are put together, how to write news stories, how to sub-edit, so that was a useful skill. After about six months, I kept noticing in the UK trade magazine, UK Press Gazette, a job being advertised, every week, for a sports editor at the Worksop Guardian, a weekly paper in Nottinghamshire. I thought, Well, nobody seems to want this, so I applied, was invited up for an interview, went up to Worksop, got the job and spent two very happy years there, covering Worksop Town –The Tigers – as well as the cricket and everything else. Then I got a job on an evening paper, the Watford Evening Echo, and I had another eighteen months there. I’d always wanted to write for The Guardian – I admired people like Frank Keating [and] David Lacey, and applied for some shift work there. I got very lucky, because the vacancy had just come up, and I managed to get a job as a sub-editor on The Guardian, in 1980.
How old were you at that point?
I was 25. I’d basically been covering non-league football, and I just expected to be a junior member of staff, but the first football season that kicked off I was asked if I wanted to cover a first division game for them, and I was absolutely delighted. I can remember it was Brighton versus Wolves – Brighton had just been promoted, I think, to the first division – and from then I was off and running. I covered football for them on Saturdays, did my sub-editing shifts during the week and did a bit of cricket for them in the summer. Somehow, I rose up to be deputy sports editor after seven years, but I didn’t really want to be a production journalist anymore – I wanted to get out and write, so they let me do that. That was when I became a full-time writer, which was around 1987-88.
Obviously you then went on to write books yourself in addition to ghostwriting for others – but what’s been the highlight for you from a ghostwriting perspective?
I guess the Tony Adams book [Addicted] is the one that everyone knows, really. I’ve done ten books now – I’m currently working on an eleventh with a boxer [Darren Barker], which is out in September. I’m hoping to do another book with Tony Adams that’s coming out next year, talking about twenty years of his life in sobriety and what he’s been doing since his Arsenal days. So I’m still at it, and I’m absolutely proud of every one of them in their own different way. I’ve always tried to alternate between doing a ghostwritten book and doing a book of my own. A couple of years ago I did There’s a Golden Sky, which was about twenty years of the Premier League, and I wanted to mirror my very first book, which was called Season in the Cold. I wanted to mirror it twenty years on and see what had happened to everyone in the book.
I always try and work with people who have an interesting story beyond sport – in Tony Adams’ case it was his illness, in Mark Halsey’s case he made his way through cancer, as have I – people I can have empathy with and who will tell a wider story than just their sport. I guess the Adams one I’ve been most proud of because it seems to have helped a lot of people; a lot of people who had the illness of addiction read it and have come up me and said, Look, I read this book and it helped me to recognise what was going on in my life and that I needed to make changes. So first and foremost, Tony Adams takes the credit for that, but as the writer and the filter of the story, I feel quite proud of that.
We’ve been blamed, Tony and I, in the same way that Nick Hornby was blamed for spawning a whole genre of books about standing on terraces – some of which were good and some of which were a bit tedious, in all honesty, because they simply couldn’t write like Nick Hornby – for spawning a series of tell-all memoirs about when people develop illnesses and traits, just to sell books. Most of them, to be honest, don’t hold a candle to Tony’s story, because it was so raw, so new, somebody talking about those kind of things, that it definitely tapped into something.
You later documented your own experiences of being involved with a football club in ‘Floodlit Dreams’ – what were the steps that led to you becoming involved with Weymouth?
Weymouth had always been in my blood. I grew up in the town, my father took me there, and I’d always covered Premier League football and top-flight football, but whenever I was free, in midweek or whatever, I’d always go and watch Weymouth. I just grew a bit fed up of seeing them struggle and get into debt, for what was, at that level, a big club in-waiting. I thought, Well, I know enough people now, and I can get some friends together who have got a little bit of cash, and let’s see if we can do something about it. I went to the board, put a proposal together, but they turned it down – they were pretty suspicious of me – and then about three months later came back to me when they realised things weren’t going to get any better, and said, OK, have a go. I went in as chairman, got Steve Claridge in as manager, who’d been an old Weymouth player and was an old friend of mine – I’d done a book with him – and he was an amazing guy, a much shrewder character than everybody thinks. There’s that look about Claridge, with the shirt hanging out and the socks down, and this idea that he’s a bit of a maverick, but he’s actually a very smart, very shrewd, very streetwise football manager who knows how to balance and assemble a side on the right budget.
[Steve] was brilliant. He took us from seventeenth to second in a season [2003-4], and we just didn’t have the money to make a final push and get a couple of fresh players in. Crawley had that, and they beat us to the title. He turned the gates around, too – we were at less than six hundred when he arrived and we ended up with nearly fifteen hundred as our league average. It was an amazing season, really, to the point where we’d been so successful that somebody – a hotelier who had places in the town – thought that he wanted a piece of the action. So he bought up the remaining shares and basically forced me out, and then sacked Steve because he wanted his own way of doing things. Three years later, the club was bust and he’d lost more than three million quid and had a nervous breakdown, basically.
When you made the decision to go to the board at Weymouth first time around, did you feel like the career that you’d had, following football for so long, had given you a good foundation to take on the project?
I certainly thought I knew enough about football clubs and how not to do it, learning from other people and seeing what had gone wrong at certain clubs, and I thought I could attract the right people and the right investment into the club. That was true, but I was also a bit naive in many other ways, and learned a lot of lessons. I picked one or two wrong’uns for the board, who turned out not to be the people I thought they were; I learned an awful lot about basic accounting at a football club, and certainly about cash flow, because everybody says, Oh, clubs shouldn’t spend more than they can afford, and that as a principle is obviously true. But the thing is, at a certain point in the season, if you have a couple of games postponed, you’ve got no income and you’ve still got to pay the players, then the money has to come from somewhere. So you either have to go into the red, if your bank will allow you, or you have to put in money as directors or investors, and put it in as loans. Loans can be the bane of a football club, because paying back those loans can be a difficult business, certainly the lower down the scale you go in terms of income. I was prepared, I thought, in many ways, but in reality I don’t think I knew enough. Well, put it this way, I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
Do you think it changed the way you viewed football clubs and their management personnel?
It was absolutely a view-changing experience. I have a lot more sympathy for people trying to keep football clubs going, I have a lot more sympathy for the decisions they make and that they sometimes get wrong – sacking a manager, for example. The agonies that chairmen and boards of directors go through, because you know it’s going to cost you a lot of money, with contracts and so on, but if you don’t make the change you could go down. Is the new guy going to have an impact immediately? Some work out, some don’t. You could go down anyway. These are tough, tough decisions, and I have sympathy for the people making them. It’s certainly influenced the way I look at football now. For a long, long time, I looked at it with the eyes of a fan – even as a football writer I looked at it as pure action on the field and what was going on on the pitch. After my experience I knew a lot more about how players think, how chairmen think, how clubs are run, and I look at football clubs now as a whole entity rather than just a team on the field.
How did it feel to cross that threshold from having the freedom to critique games with a certain amount of impartiality, to being the one making the decisions?
It’s a very difficult one because there have been times when, for example as a journalist, your writing has been critical of a manager, his selections, the run the team are on, the money he’s on, whatever. You might be very critical of a manager, and then three months later you can find yourself ringing him up and asking if he’ll bring his side down for a pre-season friendly, so it’s an odd situation like that. You have to be very aware of where the boundaries are drawn. I became very friendly with many people in the game, and made contacts through a lot of people, but first and foremost when you’re working as a journalist your duty is to your readers and to the truth as you see it, so you have to be very careful and draw strict boundaries with yourself really, and retain your integrity.
I’ve fallen out with a lot of people in the game over the last ten years – you know, people I don’t respect, people I know certain things about.
Through your work as a journalist or as a chairman?
Through both, really. The last couple of years I haven’t done any Premier League football and I don’t want to. I still think it’s an amazing spectacle, though there’s still a lot of dullness and incompetence around it, but at the same time the business of Premier League football leaves me cold, I’m afraid, [as do] the machinations of the people at the top – which I discovered during the writing of the Mark Halsey book, when people at the Premier League tried to suppress [it] and were really nasty to Mark. We published it ourselves.
I find it quite distasteful, but I still enjoy watching a Premier League game on TV, and I have forty years of covering top-flight football, and that’s enough for me. The time has come for me, in my life, when I want to go back to non-league football, which is why I got involved with Salisbury when Steve Claridge asked me to. I go around the country watching non-league football, and I’ll occasionally go and watch a league game if I’m invited by friends and contacts in the game, but I wanted to move on and do different things. I’ve written a novel and a screenplay over the last two years. I had a great career in football writing and I’m very, very grateful for it, but there had come a time when it holds less appeal for me. Let’s put it that way.
Tell me a bit about your departure(s) from Weymouth – I suppose neither time was in the way you would have wanted to go?
Well, it was strange. I was at a game, St Albans City versus Wealdstone, about three months ago, just as a spectator. I had been Chairman of St Albans for eighteen months – I was asked if I wanted to go in and run the club by two new owners, which I did, and I found it quite a frustrating experience because I wasn’t sure why the owners were there and what their motives were, and getting certain things done around the club were difficult. The turning point for me, when I resigned, was when they wanted to put prices up in mid-season, from ten to twelve pounds, for general admission to the terraces. I opposed that and I’d never known a football club put up their prices in mid-season, so I resigned over the issue. I was at this game and tweeted about it – there looked to be more there than the attendance figure that had been given, a fairly innocuous tweet – and I got some grief from a couple of St Albans fans who then started getting personal. Why have you never stuck at anything? Why do you always leave football clubs? And I thought about that, and I thought, That’s a bit unfair.
I left Weymouth the first time because I was forced out. I would happily have stayed if the new owner had let me and Steve work with him. We would have got a promotion, I don’t doubt it, into the Conference, we would not have recorded losses of three million quid, and everyone would have been happy, and the club wouldn’t have gone bust. They asked me back as chairman when the club was three quarters of a million in debt, so it was a firefighting job to try and keep them in the Conference and it never happened, and I had to resign after six months because I was diagnosed with cancer and needed treatment. I resigned at St Albans on a matter of principle after eighteen months; I would happily have stuck around but I can’t work with people that don’t have a feel for the club, the supporters and what is right. So those were my reasons for leaving. I was reluctant, as a result of all that, to get involved again with Salisbury.
What brought you round in the end?
The old club was in the Conference last season – Salisbury City – but it had racked up big debts, and needed a new investment. It found a very dodgy owner, signed over the shares to him, but the guy turned out to be a complete charlatan and fraud with no money – a bit of a Walter Mitty figure who claimed to know everybody in the game. Anyway, there was no money forthcoming, they couldn’t start the season, they were demoted to the Conference South, but couldn’t start the season in Conference South. People tried to get control of the club off him, and that dragged on and on and on, and eventually the club went into administration. Steve had been appointed manager when they were going to be a Conference South club – he said he’d been there for one friendly and really liked the place and liked the new people that were trying to rescue the club and wanted to come and help them because they didn’t have any experience. So I went down and met them and said, I’ll come and help you, I’ll join you and see if we can get the club back up-and-running. It’s been really, really tough over the last four or five months. We finally, after a long bidding process, bought the assets of the club in December – since then we’ve been trying to get back into the Ray Mac stadium, which has just been agreed by the trustees.
That must be a nice feeling?
Well, it feels great. There are still details to be hammered out, but it looks like, at this stage, we’re going to achieve our aim of bringing Salisbury back into the football pyramid. The city certainly needs the football club, and there are a lot of supporters waiting for it to happen. We now go to the FA at the end of the month and present our case to them to return at an appropriate level, and hopefully we’ll start next season. I’ll certainly have achieved what I set out to achieve, which was to help these guys get their football club back.
Are there certain shared characteristics that you see in non-league clubs that you’ve worked with over the years? What is it that drives you to get involved?
It’s my roots. I believe that every town and village in England should be represented its football club. It’s our national sport, it can be a source of great civic and local pride, and a focal point for the community. No other organisation’s activity anywhere in the country draws the same number of people together as a local football club. You’ve obviously got pockets – Bath, for example – where rugby is their thing, Northampton as well, but in most of the communities around the country, and particularly the one I grew up in in Weymouth, your non-league football club was the focal point. I hate to see clubs going under, I guess, and not making the most of what they can be locally, and developing them so they have more commercial activity, more people through the gates, better players, rising as high as you can. There’s a great pleasure in that. You can really have a lot of fun along the way. You get a lot of grief, and one of the things that staggered me at Weymouth was how vicious fans’ forums can be. Some people are just not going to like you, even though you’re always trying to do your best. I’ve always done that, and I’ve never, ever taken a penny for all my time and effort, even in expenses. And still you get grief for certain things you do or say.
Is there a similarity in that regard with working as a journalist?
Yes, but I guess I’ve always accepted that as part of the territory, really. You know, if you’re going to dish it out you have to be able to take it. Some of the things on Twitter are uncalled for and unnecessary when it gets vicious. I don’t mind anybody knocking what I have to say, though, because that’s what I do with other people. I’m OK with that. What I find very difficult is that, at football clubs, people can be really, really nasty even though you’re trying to do this for free and you’re trying to give them your expertise. But that’s the nature of football. It was what I was shocked at at first at Weymouth, and what I came to accept. You can try and present your argument as articulately as you like, but still people are going to have a pop at you. In the end, you just do the right thing.
Is that not just a human emotion, though? Financial and emotional struggles can bring out the worst in people.
Well, I think it can bring out the best in people, too, and that’s why you’re in it, really. I remember, those twelve months at Weymouth were probably the best occasion in the club’s history. Everybody in the place was pulling together towards a common goal. We were making money commercially, we were getting good gates, we were attracting good players, and we had this euphoric year where everyone was pulling together. When you get it right like that, there’s no feeling like it. When things start to turn, it can be really, really unpleasant. But that’s why I admire people who stay in the game a long time and accept the rough with the smooth. You develop a thicker skin, there’s no doubt about it.
What do you see the future holding for Salisbury, then?
We’re at the mercy of the FA, now. We have to present our case, and then abide by whatever decision they make, whatever league they put us in, and then simply get the club up to the highest standard it can be. Walking before you can run, really. We’d like the club to be a Conference club again eventually, but in the short term we’ll start where they put us and we’ll try and raise the money for a promotion side next season. That’s the short-term aim, really, and then look at it again once we’re up and running.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is ‘Dream Team’. How did you end up being involved?
I absolutely loved Dream Team – it’s one of the highlights of my career. I got to know an actor by the name of John Salthouse. He’d been in the original cast of Abigail’s Party, which was a fairly seminal work in the seventies, and he was one of the actors in it. He’s always loved his football – he was a Manchester United follower – and he was the producer of Dream Team. He said to me, Why don’t you come along to some of our storyline meetings and see if you can contribute some ideas about stories we can do. Obviously I knew people behind the scenes and the sorts of things that went on at football clubs.
When was that?
That was around ’98. I was very friendly with Paul Merson and Tony Adams at the time, and obviously had been writing about football for a long time, and got to know what went on among players. So I went along to a few story meetings, contributed a few ideas and after about three months they said, Would you like to try and write an episode? Which I did, and they liked it, and I ended up writing something like twenty-three episode over the next three years. I absolutely loved it, coming up with characters and stories. When I saw ‘Written by Ian Ridley’ on a Dream Team episode, it was as big a thrill as I’ve ever had for anything. Some of the writers that have gone on from that is staggering really: one of the producers, Steve November, is now at Coronation Street and Emmerdale, directory Henry Foster is on Coronation Street, Chris Fewtrell, one of the writers, now writes all the big, emotional episodes of Coronation Street. You’ve got Alison King, who was Linda Block, she’s now in Coronation Street as Carla, Mark Morahan, who played Ray, the manager in series two, three and four, is just about to go into Coronation Street in the next couple of weeks…
So it’s like a Corrie conveyor belt?
It was! It was kind of a training ground. At first, we filmed at Bushey, at the old American university there, and then we moved into Millwall. I think the first year we moved into Millwall, Dream Team paid a hundred and fifty grand to Millwall to film there for the season, and that paid for them to sign Neil Harris. So I think it’s probably the best hundred and fifty grand they ever got.
How different would it have been if you’d had the chairman experience before you went into those storyline meetings?
Oh, gosh, well that would have been interesting. It was very much a player-driven thing, so at that time that was right. I wrote my book, Floodlit Dreams, all about being chairman at Weymouth – that was my outlet for it, really. But I could definitely contribute a lot more in terms of storylines these days.