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A review of A Director’s Tale by Dave Thomas.

The years in the early 1980s that saw Burnley relegated, promoted, relegated and then relegated again is one of the more examined periods in the modern history of the club. Events on the field were momentous in themselves, but the combustible mix of personalities operating behind the scenes couldn’t have been scripted better if they had been created by Burnley’s own Paul Abbot. The three figures on the front page – all now deceased – form the core dramatis personae, but really the whole thing is chock-full of characters destined to clash and scheme their way to influence and power within the club. All gave their side of the story before they passed away, and the period can’t be remembered by anyone born after the seventies. So is there anything left to be said about this time?

The answer to that question depends on your sources – has every significant actor told their side of the story properly? Can we accurately interpret each perspective, adjust for faulty memories, before, finally, trying to fairly weigh up the competing narratives? This final task is what Dave sets out to complete in A Director’s Tale, and is why this book is the defining work on the years 81-86, immediately preceding the club’s most perilous moment.

I should mention in the spirit of full disclosure that my own work on this period is utilised by Dave, including full interviews given by John Bond and Derek Gill, the director referenced in the book’s title. The latter was conducted in the regrettable circumstance of having unintentionally done him an injustice in a published piece. On meeting Derek, we discovered that he had written about his time on the board. These diaries were not contemporaneous, having been written a couple of years after he had left, but on reading them it was clear that they provided a unique insight into events at the club. Prompted by the renewed interest in this period of the club’s history, Derek proceeded to develop his memoirs further.

With Derek’s death in 2020 came the opportunity to publish his work in full, alongside other accounts that have been gathered down the years. So A Director’s Tale functions partly as a compilation, but adds to that the unpublished parts of the Gill diaries – mostly to do with the period after Bond’s departure and the disastrous 1985 relegation to the Fourth Division. By both airing this and organising what was previously scattered among many different publications, A Director’s Tale brings a new depth to our understanding and a more complete overview of the whole period.

Another thing to note is an intriguing parallel between events then and now. For at the heart of A Director’s Tale is a conundrum of how to approach and handle change after a period of stasis. Recently, we have seen the end of the old model of the local businessman/majority shareholder, a set-up that went back to Victorian times and gave us the likes of Windle, Clegg, Lord and Kilby, but which Mike Garlick voluntarily brought to an end, a club-historical decision whose merits or otherwise will eventually become apparent.

John Jackson in 1981: Burnley’s first new chairman since 1955

But Garlick isn’t the first Burnley businessman to ascend to the Turf Moor chair and conclude that things had to change. In 1981, John Jackson became the first new Burnley chairman since 1955, and he brought the conviction that the club needed wholesale modernisation. In some senses he was right. The financial management of the club was chaotic, and in Derek Gill he found exactly the right person to sort the mess out, and Gill justifies as best he can all the major financial decisions he took. But in other respects, Jackson’s thirst for transformation led him to far more radical decisions which were questionable not only in hindsight but at the time.

In particular, he thought that the system whereby Burnley players became Burnley coaches and then Burnley managers had reached the end of its useful life. The evidence for this was not at all conclusive. The system had served the club well since the 1920s and was a key component of the family club ethos. Brian Miller had his limitations, it was true, but Frank Casper was a first-class coach and tactician, and in the playing squad were senior pros like Martin Dobson, Brian Flynn and Willie Donachie, all of whom planned to start coaching or managerial careers. Some ex-Clarets – Stan Ternent, Geoff Nulty and Mick Docherty – had already done so. And perhaps the biggest football brain of the lot, Jimmy Adamson, was unemployed and back at his Burnley home after leaving Leeds.

So the question became one of judgement. Had Jackson come to his decision after a careful weighing up of the pros and cons? And had he considered the impact of such a sudden shift in the culture of the club? For Jackson planned not evolution but revolution – the appointment of one of British football’s most high-profile managers. A Director’s Tale reproduces the defence that Jackson wrote of his actions, but they don’t convince because they don’t offer any substantial justification. On the sacking of Frank Casper, he argued that the incumbent’s “only claim to the job was that he was assistant to the manager,” which does Casper a gross disservice.

More convincing would have been the argument that the system was too insular and risked a football version of consanguinity. In 1980, Billy Rodaway had been sent on loan to fourth-tier Peterborough United and was shocked at the intensity of the training and his own lack of fitness compared to the Posh players. On his return he went straight to Miller’s office to inform the manager that Gawthorpe was like a holiday camp and that the club had to update its approach to training. But even here, as we have seen, there were plenty of Gawthorpe graduates who had moved on and gained experience elsewhere, who would have been happy to return to the fold with their ideas and insights.

To his credit, Jackson admits that accusations that he was on an ego-trip are “a little harsh but not entirely unfair.” It’s also the case that Gill himself lent weight to the argument that the club had to update its methods. At Jackson’s request, Gill produced a forensic analysis of the club’s business operations that impressed the chairman enough for him to confirm Gill’s place on the board. Gill’s diaries recall his feelings at this time as something akin to a kid sent to work in a toy shop. He was so enthusiastic about the challenge ahead that he spent most of his time at the club and left the running of his engineering business to trusted colleagues. That’s football clubs for you. Is there any other institution that induces so many intelligent and experienced adults to place heart over head?

Gill found the club to be effectively insolvent: indebted, losing money and with dwindling assets and income. Administratively, it was decades behind his own business – there was no proper day-to-day management of the accounts, perhaps because Lord was taking liberties with the expenses, taking the lion’s share of around £6,000 per year out of the club.

Gill took on the role of both company secretary and finance director, so he was central to the new operation under Jackson, who was happy to admit that Gill was the backroom details guy in contrast to his own more front-of-house, PR role. Gill, too, was happy with this division of labour, thinking that Jackson had the personality to bring people together and move the club forward. With these two talented boomers in charge of the club, playing complementary roles, there was no reason to suspect that the club was on an inexorable decline that would only be halted with the near-death trauma of the Orient game. So what went wrong?

One often-cited and rather too convenient answer is “John Bond”, and A Director’s Tale strives hard to place Bond’s role in perspective. Addressing the question more radically, serious questions come to light about the board’s response to promotion in 1982. In the close season of the following 82/83 campaign, Brian Miller had his transfer requests continually turned down by Jackson, this despite the club being in a much brighter financial position, as Gill confirms.

The decision not to strengthen the side in preparation for a new season at a higher level was as risky then as it would be today. Jackson had urged supporters to do their bit by buying season tickets, assuring them that: “Every penny spent will help the club keep on the right lines for the future.” The supporters responded, buying £100,000 worth. As for Gill, he wrote: “Negative thoughts had no place at the club. In our innocence, which must also have affected the manager, we had hardly given a moment’s notice to strengthening the team.”

This is both incredulous and disingenuous. Miller had been pressing for reinforcements all summer, chief scout Gordon Clayton having spotted some genuine talent in the lower leagues, such as John Aldridge at Newport, Glenn Cockerill at Lincoln and Danny Wilson at Chesterfield. Other qualified observers raised concerns about the strength of the squad given the lack of reinforcements, such as Evening Star reporter Keith McNee, who wrote on the eve of the new season that Burnley faced a “big challenge” to compete in the second tier.

Only in October, with the team already found out at the higher level, did the board sanction signings, but even then overlooked Miller’s targets. Gill explained: “As is the norm at Burnley, the credentials of possible signings were invariably weighted in favour of players who had been with the club in the past.” The fresh thinking of the new boardroom clearly had its limits. This led to the re-signing of Brian Flynn, a good player and a team man to his core, but didn’t address the obvious deficiencies in defence.

But even well before the first crisis of the 82/83 season, it seems likely that Miller and Casper had sussed out Jackson for what he was: sharp enough to live off his wits on the legal circuit, but also over-confident, happy-go-lucky, and a bit too quick to take the credit – even quicker when a journalist was around.

For context, it’s worth remembering that Bob Lord had journalists banned from Turf Moor, so it’s understandable that Jackson would be keen to build bridges with the press. But the immediate success of the team once he had ascended to the chair revealed how happy he was to play the media’s game. In one Daily Mail feature, his wife, a former Miss Hereford, no less, was pictured wearing a variety of designer hats, the storyline being that the long unbeaten run that took the side to the Third Division title in May 1982 coincided with her attending games at the Turf wearing fancy headgear.

Of course, the Daily Mail has never needed much of an excuse to run photos of good-looking, expensively-dressed women, but it was unheard of then for the club to involve itself with such tabloid froth. While Jackson might have simply seen it as good PR, it left some supporters with the uneasy feeling that the chairman enjoyed the limelight a little too much for someone in such a responsible position, and maybe even that he saw the club as his passport to a higher profile within the game.

Indeed, at the promotion-clinching game at Southend, the referee hadn’t even blown for time when Jackson sauntered along the touchline, bragging to Miller and Casper that he’d only been chairman six months and they hadn’t seen anything yet. To such hard-bitten football men, well aware of how difficult it was to win a divisional title, this must have come across as stick-in-the-throat arrogance. Casper made up his mind there and then that Jackson was out for glory and wouldn’t hesitate to pot the old guard in his quest to lead Burnley back to the summit of the English game. Even Miller – much less confrontational than his deputy – called Jackson out as “a big spoiled kid” after a scene on the team coach home after a defeat at Chelsea in December 1982.

By this time, the optimism of May’s promotion had all dissipated. The story of season 1982/83 is told almost entirely through Gill’s diaries, and while they contain much interesting detail about players and matches, they still beg questions about the board’s strategy towards transfers and personnel. As the team slid to the foot of the table, one has the sense of a beleaguered board neglectful of any forward-planning on the football side of things. To give just one example, Gill writes that Casper was appointed as caretaker manager in January 1983 only because of the “undue and unconsidered haste” with which Miller was sacked. Yet, the side had won just three League games since the middle of September.

Incidentally, this bit of Gill’s diary is where his memory plays a trick on him as he seeks a post-hoc justification for his actions. He claims that Casper’s position became impossible to defend in the boardroom due to the tactics employed at Leicester in Burnley’s penultimate game of the season, which he describes as a fiasco. Gill recalls that Leicester had already secured promotion and that the game was played out in a party atmosphere, making Casper’s defensive set-up inexplicable given that Burnley only needed one win from their last two games to survive.

This is completely wrong. Leicester were sitting 3rd in the table, in a promotion place, but needed to equal 4th-placed Fulham’s result on the day to guarantee their elevation. I was there with some mates from school, and far from being party-like, the atmosphere was febrile, tense and laced with barely-suppressed violence, and I’m baffled as to how Gill could have forgotten this. Indeed, had Derek Scott’s second-half swivel-and-shot gone in rather than straight at the keeper, I’m not sure that everyone in the away end would have made it home in one piece.

Gill’s claim that Casper went due to a tactical shortcomings also sits awkwardly with his praise elsewhere for Frank’s acumen in this respect. Gill noted that for the daunting trip to Liverpool for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, Casper succeeded where most others failed, spotting and exploiting (to no avail) one of the few weaknesses of that fine Liverpool side, before memorably winning the home tie.

Putting the finances straight: Derek Gill (right) receives a handsome sponsorship cheque from the manager of the National & Provincial Building Society

Gill’s reflections on the 1983 relegation includes the lament that: “We had performed the crazy double of putting the finances straight and getting relegated in the same season.” But if you don’t back your managers, then what can you expect? The blindingly obvious need for a centre back, given Overson’s long-term injury, was never addressed. There was a strong case for some youthful bite in midfield, and the brief deployment of O’Rourke in goal decisively confirmed the suspicion that some proper competition for the green jersey would do Stevenson the world of good. Apart from a self-congratulatory sentence about the cheap acquisition of striker Terry Donovan, Gill has curiously little to say about the lack of reinforcements to the embattled 82/83 team. In this light, there seems a strong argument to suggest that “putting the finances straight” was done at the expense of purchasing the quality that would have given the team a fighting chance of competing.

So what was really going on? I think very few Clarets at the time suspected that Jackson was keeping the powder dry for his own man. They were probably more likely to assume that the board’s caution was about nursing the club back to financial stability. The speed with which Gill had successfully turned the club around, both operationally and financially, was not widely understood. Also not appreciated was Jackson’s distrust of Casper.

While Gill is clearly conflicted about Frank, Jackson was not at all predisposed to see things from Casper’s perspective. On sacking Miller, Jackson refused to appoint Casper as the permanent replacement and didn’t even give him a raise, leaving Frank on a coach’s wage, paid less than some of the players he managed. This was poor man-management and left Casper certain that the chairman wanted him away, whether he steered the team to safety or not.

Relegation settled the matter beyond doubt, and Jackson’s tone on the appointment of Bond revealed explicitly, for the first time, the true nature of his vision for the club under his chairmanship. “Up to now,” Jackson boldly declared, “we have been playing at it.”

He couldn’t have been much clearer: the traditions of the club – the family environment, the nurturing of youth, the merged identity of club and town, the lifelong service of its most distinguished sons – were no longer fit for purpose. Jackson wanted someone with managerial experience at the highest level of the game, and for Burnley to be dragged back up to those standards, whatever it took.

That this was part of Jackson’s plan from the word go wasn’t known at the time, but A Director’s Tale includes the only explanation ever given by Jackson before his death. Read alongside Gill’s diaries and John Bond’s recollection of how he came to accept the Burnley job, it becomes evident that the Bond experiment was cooked up in the ambitious and self-confident mind of John Jackson well before the relegation that brought a premature end to the Burnley careers of Miller and Casper.

A conspicuous smoking gun is the meeting that Bond recalls being held in Manchester in the “early part of the year” in which Jackson pitches to him the idea of taking over at Turf Moor. Bond resigned from Manchester City in the first week of February 1983, so this suggests that Jackson contacted Bond not long after he left Maine Road, at a point in the season when Casper’s Burnley were showing signs of revival after a hat-trick of League victories and some stirring Cup performances.

So here’s the scenario – the team needs strengthening but is fighting spiritedly under a new manager to avoid relegation; the club is now professionally run and in a much better financial position. Ergo? Most supporters would say: purchase the central defender you’ve been missing all season. Jackson’s response was to leave the team to its fate while furtively hiring Bond for the following season. (He was told to keep schtum while the club went about the cosmetic exercise of interviewing other candidates.) In these actions you have a plausible clue as to why things went so badly wrong after 1983.

That said, Bond didn’t exactly help matters. The Bond era is examined in granular detail, and what is startling is how quickly relationships deteriorate once he arrives on the scene. Gill blames Bond, who he considers as easily the most political manager he ever worked with, seeking to set director against director to secure a power base within the club and to maximise his influence.

The discombobulating impact of Bond at the club can be gauged by events on the evening of September 13, 1983, just a couple of months into Bond’s tenure and only 2½ weeks into the season. The team had just shipped four first-half goals at home to lowly Crewe in the League Cup, leaving the Turf in a rare state of tumult. This precipitated a six-hour emergency board meeting where the directors came very close to sacking Bond there and then. For his part, Jackson was accused of over-reaching his executive powers and was told that he had lost the confidence of three of the five members of the board.

Jackson appears not to have factored into his pursuit of Bond the possibility that the ex-West Ham player and Manchester City boss would bring a Machiavellian streak into the club, but he quickly realised what Bond was up to. With his chairmanship on the line, Jackson went to see Gill at his house, telling his boardroom colleague: “You know, we have allowed Bond to split us apart.” Gill concurred about Bond’s style, but was unconvinced that he was the root cause of the disharmony. The problem pre-dated Bond and stemmed instead from Jackson’s style in the chair.

John Bond welcomes Steve Daley to the club, a transfer with complications that threatened the entire financial stability of the club.

One upshot of the manoeuvring was that Gill became managing director, effectively the chief executive making most of the day-to-day decisions, and this was the set-up for the rest of the 83/84 season, with Gill working closely with Bond, ensuring that budgets were clearly communicated and adhered to. For the most part, this seemed to work, notwithstanding the fugazi of the Steve Daley transfer.

In his diaries, Gill reflects that the key problem with Bond was not that he spent money the club didn’t have, but that the sum of his transactions weakened the squad he inherited, leading to a disillusionment among supporters and a rapidly depopulating Longside. He is right to a point. In Tommy Hutchison, Kevin Reeves and Wayne Biggins, Bond brought quality to the club. But there were too many poor acquisitions: none of Gallagher, Gow, Waldron or Tueart made meaningful contributions, and the situation at right-back was indeed ridiculous, playing Derek Scott there after cheaply selling Brian Laws and releasing future England international Lee Dixon on a free transfer.

The sense that Jackson simply didn’t fully appreciate what he was letting the club in for by hiring Bond was also unwittingly confirmed by a true football man – TV commentator Brian Moore, then one of football’s most familiar voices and a Gillingham FC diehard. In the boardroom at the Priestfield after Burnley’s 1–0 win there in March 1984, he tells Gill, chillingly, “John Bond needs a major club to express himself,” implying that the Burnley board should have known that the whole thing would be a doomed mismatch from the start.

The final act of A Director’s Tale details events after the departure of Bond. Gill himself leaves the board just a year later, at the end of the 1984/85 season, with Burnley relegated to the Fourth Division. It’s thought-provoking that someone with Derek’s qualities was intimately associated with such an epic failure, for here was someone who in every other respect had enjoyed a successful life: a happily-married father of seven, a gifted musician, and a qualified accountant who had grown his Burnley business to be one of the biggest in its field in Europe, creating dozens of skilled manufacturing jobs in the town. Yet, when it came to the boardroom politics of Burnley FC, Gill found himself repeatedly outmanoeuvred and, eventually, defeated.

But, as Gill’s diaries tell the story of the 1984/85 season, it becomes apparent that it all might have turned out differently. It is a testament to Gill’s writing that he can make such an abysmal season such an entertaining read – there are some eye-opening insights into the club’s finances, including a fine example of Mark Twain’s aphorism that a bank is an institution that lends you an umbrella when it is sunny and then demands it back when it starts to rain. There are also some precious anecdotes, including the discovery that thanks to an insurance policy taken out by new striker Les Lawrence, he was on better money being injured than he was actually playing for Burnley.

But it is also during the 1984/85 season that Gill determines to go for the chair. At this point in time, he is on good terms with new director Frank Teasdale – himself there with the backing of the Gilbraith family business, a crucial club sponsor – and hints in his diaries that he had two other businessmen lined up to join the board and pump some proper money into the club. He tries to go about the business of challenging Jackson in an open, professional manner, but, once again, he is outmanoeuvred. Even worse, in the heat of the moment he makes a comment that Jackson and his supporters take exception to, precipitating Gill’s decision to resign for good.

Gill often wonders out loud about precisely what it is about football clubs that seduce grown-ups who should know better into ploughing so much time, money and emotional capital into them. But his own diaries provide the answer. He was soon back at the Turf on Saturday afternoons, albeit as an (increasingly rare) paying customer, and desperate phone calls from Teasdale asking about some administrative matter has Gill continually fretting about the ability of the board to properly administer the club. He admits that he misses the day-to-day involvement. In other words, Gill describes all the symptoms of narcotic withdrawal.

The denouement comes in May 1986, a month after a home game had seen less than 2,000 turn up at the Turf. Gill is one of seven businessmen called to a meeting with the Burnley board at the headquarters of the TSB bank in Manchester and presented with the news that the club is a week away from receivership. At this point in time, Gill has way more personal resources than any Burnley director, since he has sold a stake in his firm to American investors. Predictably, he names the price of his renewed involvement: a minimum three-year stint in the chair. Driving home from that meeting, Gill was as close as he ever would be to the chairmanship of Burnley FC, but it was not to be. Teasdale comes to an arrangement with the bank that allows him to remain in the chair. The cost to the club – no transfer budget and a tiny playing squad – nearly cost the club its Football League status.

The issue of causation is always disputed in history – the cliché in all school textbooks is of the military defeat because a general’s horse went lame after losing a shoe, meaning that a vital communique went undelivered. Does this mean that an empire was lost because of something so mundane as a farrier not doing his job properly?

Similar attempts to trace the source of the club’s decline from the 1982 promotion faces something of the same problem: would we have stayed up had Overson’s injury been correctly diagnosed? Was Reeves’ injury pivotal? Or was it the absence of Jack Simmons from a board meeting? It’s not a question that can be answered definitively, but a club historian can forward these ideas and present the evidence. On this count, A Director’s Tale is about as definitive and comprehensive an account of these tumultuous years as you could wish for, at its centre the fascinating and compulsive diaries of Derek Gill, the great lost chairman of Turf Moor.

This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of ‘Something to Write Home About’, the magazine of the London Clarets.

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