RamsTrust meets Stuart Webb – Part 1

RamsTrust meets Stuart Webb – Part 1

“You build the club, not the team.” That was the message that clearly came through when RamsTrust spoke to Stuart Webb, RamsTrust External Director, from his Marbella home on a January weekend.

“If the foundations are there, it will help build to get the club back on the road and get promotion again. It’s all about people and building relationships between owners and managers. Gary Neville and Salford have had more managers than hot dinners in recent years and you can’t do that. Make the right choice of manager then stick with them. You have got to take the rough with the smooth and not make a knee jerk reaction.”

Drama at the High Court

Stuart Webb is best known for his loyal service to Derby County between 1970-2003 as secretary, chief executive, director and chairman. Out of his many achievements for the Rams, his biggest was dramatically rescuing the club from going out of business in 1984. However, it is not common knowledge that for a period of time, Stuart was owner of Derby County.

“It became apparent that there had to be one voice in the vital time we had to find a way out. The Board agreed that I should be the sole owner and they handed over their shares to me. This meant that I could operate without having to attend lengthy Board meetings with advisors and legal representatives stating the obvious. Doom and gloom was not the order of the day! Of course, I kept my Board colleagues up to date, but this meant that I could get on with the urgent business in hand. That’s the only way it would work and the more I got into it, the more I realised it was the right decision because I could talk with one voice. The club had stability for 9 months with me as owner – 3 months before going to High Court, then 6 months before Maxwell came in”.

In his 2016 book Clough, Maxwell & Me, Stuart writes how Derby County owed the Inland Revenue £127,000 which had to be paid at the High Court in London by 11am on Monday 2 April. Stuart can clearly recall the events at the bank on the Strand that morning.

“It was a massive day, I couldn’t believe it after all the hard work and drama. The Branch Manager I had arranged to meet had gone missing. He had probably popped out for coffee or a cigarette. There I was with 20 minutes to get the bank draft to the High Court. Fortunately, he appeared and presented me with the vital cheque. Then I had 20 minutes to get it to the High Court next door where I met Arthur Willis, one of the most respected solicitors in Derbyshire, who was a top guy”.

Stuart sprinted out of the bank with the draft to the High Court toilets where he squeezed into a cubicle with Arthur Willis and two lawyers to make the final settlement to the Inland Revenue.

“There were a few Derby fans in the gallery. Everyone was stunned, we could see it playing out on front of our eyes in slow motion. When the judge said: ‘case dismissed, I hope we don’t see Derby County here again Mr Webb’ there were huge sighs of relief. One or two fans were clapping. In that period in court, it was all very tense but respectful. After, we went to the famous Wig and Pen pub right across from the High Court, where it started to sink in. Then the Press started to arrive”.

Stuart had saved the club in its centenary year. Arthur Willis in Clough, Maxwell & Me perfectly sums up the role Stuart had played in keeping Derby County Football Club alive: “But for Stuart’s determination and dedication to carry on the fight, it was inevitable that Derby County would have been kicked out of professional football. Not many people realise just how close the club were to extinction.”

Independent regulator

Derby County and its fans are well aware of the sanctions for breaking Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR) – formerly Financial Fair Play (FFP) – from bitter experience. In mid-January, Nottingham Forest became the latest club to be charged for breaching PSR after spending £250 million on new players following promotion to the Premier League in 2022. In The King’s Speech in November 2023, it was announced that a Football Governance Bill will introduce a regulator to safeguard the future of football clubs for the benefit of communities and fans, and to prevent clubs going out of business. Stuart is an advocate for an independent regulator in football.

“It’s needed, it is not sustainable as it is. FFP is part of today’s game, so a regulator is important now. Everton have been fined and docked points, the Rams have been relegated so the game needs regulating. Manchester City have had 112 charges and not come to court yet. When all is said and done, the [Football] League are the bosses. The EPL and Football League have been discussing a new deal for 2 or 3 years now for income to be distributed down the football pyramid and there is still no agreement. An independent regulator with clout and government backing would sort the matter out for the benefit of the national game quickly, along with other issues that appear to be dragging on unfairly.” 

“It is similar to when Derby were banned from Europe in 1970.” [The Rams finished 4th in Division 1 in the 1969-1970 season and qualified for the 1970–71 Fairs Cup but were banned from entering the competition for making illegal payments to Dave Mackay]. “Europe was building up to be a big cash cow. [The case] was all dealt with quickly in the summer months, there was no appeal and no lawyers like today.”

“I was on the Football League board when they split [in 1992 when the Premier League was formed]. The American model could be a problem because American clubs are not used to promotion and relegation and American owners could spend millions on a club then be shocked if they then get relegated. A regulator would insist on keeping promotion and relegation right through from the Premier League to the National League and would ensure sufficient funds come down the football pyramid to the lower divisions.”

“Unless it is a level playing field, I think a regulator is needed. Rams fans want to dream of getting back to the Premier League. Some clubs in the Premier League don’t want promotion and relegation. But that is the basis of football, no way can you take away the dreams and excitement of the fans. That’s why football is so popular, that is why English football and the Premier League is so popular. You have got to have the challenge of promotion and relegation. There has got to be money coming down from higher leagues, it has got to be controlled.”

“The only way of a quick fix is a regulator where they get an understanding between all parties through one voice. Should the government go down the route of a regulator, then a soccer-loving political heavyweight would be my choice. I think Gordon Brown would make an excellent regulator. He is a football fan and has political clout to really get things moving with his experience in finance and the treasury. It needs a heavyweight who likes and understands football.”

Supporters’ Board

In July 2023 Derby County announced a proposal to introduce a Supporters’ Board to improve supporter engagement. A Supporters’ Board would be independent of the club but would work with Derby County on good governance, strategy and financial stability. Stuart has strong views on the benefits that Supporters’ Boards can bring to football clubs and their communities.

A shadow board is important as a cautionary watchdog. The main thing is that the football club is the heartbeat of the community. We are not a city as large as Manchester, Liverpool or London with two or more big clubs playing at the highest level and a split fan base. We are one city in the heart of England with one team and one passionate set of fans. Derby County is a community club and is part of the fabric of the whole area. RamsTrust is the link between the club and fans, it gives fans a voice, fans can become a Supporters’ Board member by being members of the Trust. It is an important role. If things are going wrong, members get to know before it gets into the news. RamsTrust is part of building the club, and part of the bigger picture of getting the community closer to the club. It is our club, we have an identity, we are proud of our club. We’re not Liverpool or Manchester with two clubs, we are one city in the heart of England.”

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