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A review of Bob Lord of Burnley by Dave Thomas and Mike Smith

There’s a bit in Bob Lord of Burnley where Margaret Potts, wife of the then-Burnley manager Harry, remembers with an unmistakable air of amazement events after the 1962 FA Cup Final:

What a magnificent celebration we had afterwards…the Café Royal for the grand evening banquet. There was no visible sense of disappointment…It didn’t seem to matter that we had lost; just the honour of being at Wembley and seeing and hearing the name of Burnley so often, gave a reason for pride and identity.

I’ll wager that few Clarets who made the trip to Wembley in 1962 enjoyed themselves after the game quite as much as Margaret, with the entourage treated to an intimate performance by Tommy Cooper.

bob lord bookBut that last observation resonates strongly even today. To grow up in a small, self-contained town is to quickly realise that, for the most part, you are overlooked or dismissed. If you do win some recognition, it feels fleeting and begrudgingly given, and twice as hard to earn. It’s instructive that Margaret Potts felt this pang of pride in 1962, for this was Burnley at their wondrous post-war peak: a team from a struggling town that had just fallen agonisingly short of the-then exceedingly rare League and FA Cup ‘Double’. How on earth had Burnley come so close to football immortality?

A sizeable chunk of the credit has to go to Bob Lord: a Burnley-born grafter and grifter, the grandson of a silk weaver, who built a butchering business in the town and chaired the club from 1955 until shortly before his death in 1981. It was a little odd that Bob Lord hadn’t received the biographical treatment, given how seriously the club takes its past, understanding it as an aquifer from which to draw revitalising draughts of pride and belief. This omission has now been remedied, thanks to Dave Thomas and Mike Smith, two authors who between them have raised many an historical lamp, festooned with claret and blue ribbons, in order to illuminate long-distant eras or to piece together personal stories fractured by time and tragedy.

To narrate the life of Lord, Dave and Mike had both of these jobs on their hands, and it turns out their skills were well-matched. Mike, an expert in the Victorian and Edwardian periods of the club’s history, has written the first half of the book, delving into the genealogy of the Lord clan and vividly recreating the bustling Edwardian Burnley that moulds the young Bob. By the time Mike is finished, Bob Lord is 47 years old and has just won a power struggle to seize the chair in the Turf Moor boardroom. At this point, Dave takes up the story, the title of his first chapter – ‘Such a Lot to Do’ – conveying neatly the livewire energy and undaunted ambition with which Lord throws himself into the task. Dave’s meticulous attention to detail creates a kind of ultra-realistic tableau of Lord’s hyperactive existence. To illustrate – at the age of 59, when most people in his situation would have started to wind down, Lord perversely raises the cadence, joining the Management Committee of the Football League. It’s an exhausting journey, and the only thing that ultimately stops him is the illness that takes his life at the age of 74. Whatever conclusion one draws about Lord’s life, you can’t deny that he gave it his all.

The Bob Lord that emerges is a highly-driven individual, outspoken and autocratic, but not altogether a monster. He cares deeply about those he respects – he pens a quite beautiful letter to a stressed-out Jimmy Adamson; when it comes to football, he has a basic sense of fair play; he remembers to thank conscientious employees and rewards them with extra holiday pay and lavish celebrations; he can take a joke; he inspires fierce loyalty just as evidently as he induces disaffection. And certainly no one could doubt his pride in being Burnley born and bred.

But there was another side to Lord. He could be needlessly confrontational and was almost pathologically intolerant of views that didn’t coincide with his own, especially if they were published by a journalist. And as much as he liked to play the working class card when it suited his purposes (“just a barrow boy from Burnley”), he was more often to be found dripping with contempt for those he saw as ‘beneath’ him, particularly when they had the temerity to challenge his authority. His heroes were Establishment figures like Churchill; meanwhile, in his factory, woe betide any worker who tried to organise a union.

So where did all this come from? What were the formative experiences of the man who would become known, in the Cold War parlance of the day, as the Khrushchev of Burnley? Mike draws an insightful portrait of Lord’s upbringing as the youngest of five surviving children, and it seems clear that his charismatic father, Fred, is a significant influence.

The first chapter begins with Lord’s maxim that you should just “get on with the job,” and that’s precisely what Fred did. Marrying a fellow teenage mill-worker at 19 and fathering a child almost immediately may not have been unusual in the 1890s, but Fred had no intention of working all his life in a mill. His older brother had started a barbering business, and Fred left the mill to join him there, later branching out into selling papers and tobacco. A modest start, but the young Bob grew up with a self-employed Dad determined to better himself, and after surviving service in the 1914-18 war, Fred started a much more lucrative business in the shape of the Same Day Carriers haulage company.

It was the success of this enterprise that gave Bob a foot-up when, in 1928, at the age of 20, he bought a butcher’s shop in Coal Clough Lane after enduring a hard year as a street hawker selling meat. It was already apparent that the young Bob hated taking orders and would only work for himself,  but he needed a loan from Fred to set himself up in the shop. But his timing was unfortunate. The Wall Street Crash precipitated the Great Depression, and though Lord’s business survived through the 1930s, it barely prospered.

The real turning point for Lord was the declaration of war in 1939. This was an existential threat in more ways than one. Not only did he dread the prospect of being called up for service, meat rationing was sure to put some butchers out of business. He talked the situation over with Fred at a Christmas family gathering in 1940. There was a way ahead. With a war on, the new munitions factories and works canteens, the railway workers and hospital staff – they all needed feeding. Bob knew where to source the meat. He just needed an inside track to secure the contracts.

Fred knew exactly what to do. Just a few days later, on January 2nd 1941, Bob Lord was proposed by his father Fred for membership of the Lodge of the Silent Temple. Bob Lord became a Freemason.

Within six months, Lord had become an approved contractor on Burnley Council’s list of those allowed to supply meat and other war rations. He embarked on an audacious PR campaign to take the custom of much bigger rivals as the townsfolk decided who to register with to collect their weekly rations. He was also helped by the organisation of communal kitchens to feed Burnley schoolchildren and by the donation of mobile canteens by the American Red Cross. With sausages not included on the list of rationed foodstuffs, Lord used his contacts to keep the supply of bangers coming, at one point apparently including a consignment of whale meat as part of the sausage mix.

Mike notes at this point that – two years into the war – Lord’s business was expanding. While economic activity in general had suffered, he had taken on three staff. At the end of 1945, Lord’s company was successfully prosecuted by the Ministry of Food for breaking wartime regulations, although Lord himself was spared a personal conviction. Even so, townsfolk, aware of the obvious expansion of the business during the austere war years, suspected that he had used the war to profiteer, and some boycotted his business as a small personal protest. But with a new meat processing facility at Lowerhouse, Lord faced peacetime with confidence.

The immediate post-war years saw Lord start to take seriously the idea that he might play a role at Turf Moor. His business had grown beyond needing his close supervision. He picked up three BFC shares from a friend and attended his first AGM in 1947, a triumphant year of a promotion and an FA Cup Final appearance.

By May 1950, ten years after his moment of introspection and his chat with Fred, Lord had transformed his fortunes. His company was now a large-scale concern, still expanding and winning new municipal contracts. He had reached the most senior ranks of Freemasonry – a Worshipful Master – and he had grown his BFC shareholding to over 100 shares, enough to seek election to the board. Mike thinks it is plausible that Lord built his shareholding up by purchasing the shares of deceased Freemasons.

It is this Bob Lord – the outspoken, confident big businessman with a state-of-the-art factory and a growing chain of shops, the well-connected senior Freemason – that we are familiar with. Odd to think that it took a war and all the potential consequences of it to flick an internal switch that propelled him from a small businessman with a single shop to one of the biggest butchering concerns in the district. Perhaps Lord saw it in simple life-or-death terms: either he went under or his competitors did. With a small family to support, his view might have been that he had no choice.

Mike hints that Lord’s outspoken nature had already divided opinion about him in the town. As the head of the Burnley Butchers Association, he had had many a run in with the authorities. But to this naturally belligerent nature, business success endowed Lord with the steel and chutzpah to project himself as the future of Burnley Football Club in the boardroom, a visionary with the resources to actualise his vision.

The first half of the 1950s saw Lord gear up for his peak years. His selection to the board of directors in June 1951 is not welcomed by the incumbent chairman Ernie Kay (an old barbering associate of his dad, Fred) who quite presciently sees Lord as a troublemaker. This begins a period of intense boardroom politics. In September 1952, Lord engineered the removal of Kay from the chair, an act which led to what the Burnley Express called, with pointed understatement, “unusual activities in share dealings” before the 1953 AGM. This was the first in which Lord had to seek re-election, and the closeness of the vote suggests that Kay had been busy trying to secure the votes to oust Lord. In the event, Bob survived by just 17 votes.

But Lord wasn’t just a big mouth. He proved his worth to the board the following year by overseeing the building of the Longside roof, but this was just the prelude to a final clash with Kay over the purchase of land at Gawthorpe.

This is where we begin to see the outline of Lord’s grand vision. To his sceptical colleagues on the board, Lord offered a pragmatic argument for a training ground and ‘finishing school’ for young talent by pointing out the falling gates at the Turf – down to 23,000 by the end of rationing in 1954. Kay thought he had checkmated Lord by getting the board to agree to a maximum bid of £1,250, but Lord ignored them and secured the land with a bid over four times that amount, much to the anger of Kay, who embarrassingly confronted Lord in the auction room.

With Lord increasing his shareholding and finding himself in the thick of all the developments at the club – a new training ground, floodlights at the Turf – his ascent to the chair proved irresistible. In June 1955, Bob Lord became Burnley FC chairman (a position he would not relinquish until 1981) and when Kay died in 1956, it left him without an obvious adversary on the board, and the following year he abolished the three-term limit on the chairmanship.

Once in harness, Lord started to put his plan into action. For starters, he dominated the boardroom. Little energy was expended worrying about plots from disgruntled directors. Beyond the wood-panelled citadel, he had around him a small group of trusted loyalists who, between them, had plotted a strategy: that a bespoke training ground, a wide scouting network and intensive coaching could produce a football academy the envy of England. Lord even wondered out loud about the possibility of player autarky: the radical notion that a professional football club might produce for itself all that it needed on the pitch. Cynics might have snorted, but for a few years Lord and his team at Gawthorpe crafted a squad and an ethos that saw Burnley emerge from the First Division peloton to challenge the biggest names English football had to offer.

It is at the point of his accession to the chair that Dave takes up the story, so it seems apposite here to doff the cap to Mike Smith for some sterling research. A biography like this can only work if we can grasp what made the man before he emerges, cocksure and fully-formed, to take on the world. He does a terrific job. Lord is clearly an outsider and an individualist, learning from his Dad that he is not owed a living, that social and economic betterment is possible, but that it needs some strategy, some brass neck, iron discipline, and a lot of hard graft.

It was along these lines that Lord ran the club, a mostly-benign dictator to the players – father-like in many respects (checking Jimmy Mac’s house to make sure the décor was up to scratch) – and generous to those who acquiesced in his own self-image as the enlightened hub through which all decisions were made. He also insisted that the club operated at the highest levels not just in terms of the calibre of players and the wages paid, but off the field as well. Christmas celebrations and post-season events were always eye-opening in their lavishness. That the town beyond the Turf was failing to arrest the industrial decline that now stretched across generations appeared only to tighten Lord’s indignant jaw that Burnley Football Club would enjoy the best of everything.

The outstanding League Championship of 1960 appeared to vindicate Lord and all that he had implemented at the club, but success did not soften the abrasive edges of his public persona. He had already emerged as a controversial figure post-Munich, but after the title win, the spotlight on Burnley fell with ever harsher luminescence. Lord was, as ever, in no mood to compromise, with public explosions over the New York tournament and the Chelsea fine, with added xenophobia in his comments over the European Cup exit to Hamburg. In some cases there was justification for Lord’s ire, but he found the ad hominem accusations irresistible: the Americans were amateurish, the French ungrateful, the Germans duplicitous, the press unappreciative, and – perhaps most controversially – the Football League and Football Association were inconsistent and unsupportive of English clubs in Europe.

It’s clear from the material that Dave digs up that the 1962 FA Cup Final was one of Lord’s proudest moments as BFC chairman, steeped as he was in the history of the tournament. He sat next to Prince Philip in the Royal Box, striking up a rapport by exchanging stories of rakish escapades. In his memoirs, Lord here looked back in wonder at the Burnley barrow boy mixing with royalty – typical of how he used his background to justify his behaviour. When it suited him, he was the working class lad done good, whose bluntness was merely a reflection of his school-of-hard-knocks upbringing. While this isn’t entirely justified and at times rather too convenient, one could forgive Lord this indulgence were it not for his barely-disguised contempt for the ordinary lads and lasses on the terraces.

This aspect of Lord’s worldview can be clearly seen in some of the cultural references that spring to mind when reading Dave’s characterisation of Lord at the peak of his powers. It is said that the character actor and latter-day canal pootler Timothy West used Lord as an inspiration for his portrayal of Bradley Hardacre in the ITV comedy-drama Brass, but under Dave’s forensic analysis, Lord reminds me very much of DCS Bill Molloy in David Peace’s Red Riding series, played in the TV dramatisation by Warren Clarke. At one point, having gathered together some local male dignitaries to discuss the carve-up of a lucrative council contract, the bullish, thick-set Molloy ends the meeting with a memorable, belligerent toast: “To the North, where we do what we want.”

ronniesLord never moved out of Burnley and its surrounds, and told a journalist in November 1966 that he “wouldn’t be seen dead living in the south of England,” so the parallels aren’t too far removed.

Another intriguing cultural echo of Bob Lord during this period is the famous class sketch performed on the Frost Report in April 1966 (pictured). Ronnie Barker, representing the upwardly-mobile middle classes and dressed in the brown Prince of Wales check that was a mainstay of Bob’s wardrobe, looks witheringly down on the working class Ronnie Corbett, admitting that: “Although I have money, I am vulgar. But I’m not as vulgar as him.”

It’s a nigh-perfect satire of the petit bourgeois prejudices that Lord couldn’t suppress and which made him such a controversial figure. Reading Dave’s account of Lord’s impact on the game in the 60s, it is quite possible that the sheer pungency of Bob’s public image did indeed make its mark on popular culture. It’s not easy to grasp if you weren’t there as a reliable witness, but Dave presents some strong clues. Kenneth Wolstenholme described Lord at this point as someone who “…would be recognised as easily as any soccer star or pop singer,” while football scribbler Paul McParlan wrote that: “…in an age when many chairmen were from a privileged upbringing who studiously avoided publicity, Lord ran the club in such an irascible fashion that he became arguably the first club owner to have a truly national profile.”

But it would be unfair to suggest that this profile was merely down to irascibility, for even Bob Lord’s fiercest enemies had to concede that when it came to football, he was a visionary. Dave carefully presents Lord’s public pronouncements on the direction of the game, and they added up to a substantial and significant set of arguments even before Lord accepted a book deal. The resultant 1963 volume, My Fight for Soccer, was slim but explosive. Among the points he raised were that:

  • The administration of the game, whether FA or Football League, was shockingly amateurish and full of class prejudice; neither did they want English clubs to succeed in Europe.
  • Football had to invest in coaching, keep the game entertaining, improve stadiums and attract the middle classes if the sport was to maintain its pre-eminent position.
  • Wembley Stadium needed re-building (he thought it was shabby at the 62 Cup Final).
  • Referees had to become full-time professionals.
  • There had to be a clear division between pitch and boardroom, with no interference in team affairs from the chairman or any director.
  • Football had to present a united front to the television companies, who would rip them off for coverage given half a chance.

It is undeniable that many of the points Bob Lord raised in 1963 were well-ahead of the curve of mainstream thinking about the game. And to give Lord his due, he practised his own mantras. Dave reckons that by the end of 1962, £200,000 had been spent on Turf Moor, equivalent to around £5 million today. This was all self-generated revenue that could have gone into the team, but Lord was clear that as living standards rose, clubs would have to invest in their facilities to keep people coming to the ground.

He was also far-sighted about what the end of the maximum wage would do to the smaller town clubs. At the acrimonious club AGM in September 1963, with fans still seething at the sale of club living-legend Jimmy McIlroy, Lord retorts by telling the meeting that by 1968 there wouldn’t be many Lancashire clubs left in the First Division, but Burnley would be one of them. By 1968, Burnley was indeed the last surviving Lancashire town club in the top flight.

If Lord had felt that his achievements between 59-62 allowed him to set out this manifesto, the following two seasons suggested that perhaps he didn’t have all the answers. The team failed to kick on from the Cup Final. Key players were sold while others lost form or found themselves succumbing to injury. Unsurprisingly, those slighted or offended by Lord took the opportunity to bite back, and, perhaps, most woundingly, he was accused by younger, ambitious football entrepreneurs of losing his touch. Burnley businessman Eric Cookson argued that the board needed to offer more of a check on Lord, not just for the sake of it, but so that alternative ideas could be aired. As Lord’s reign began to falter towards the end of the decade, Cookson’s point would gain currency, but even in the mid-60s, ten years into his autocratic chairmanship, Lord’s new model football club still retained something of its revolutionary gleam.

His suspicion that the BBC would fleece the clubs if given the opportunity was given substance in January 1966 when the TV cameras turned up at the Turf to record an FA Cup replay against Bournemouth, with a derisory £10 ‘disturbance fee’ the only money on offer. Lord refused the cameras entry, telling a cameraman: “Get your gear out of our ground, or I’ll have it burned.” He later reckoned that the peremptory BBC adverts announcing the coverage in the press had cost the club £2,000 in gate money, and in an interview he made the reasonable point that:

I’m only concerned to see that Burnley are not exploited. For this rare commodity we were offered a sickly £10. We have to keep up with the Joneses… so our first thought must be keeping solvent. The shop won’t stay open if we allow 25-minute films of matches almost as soon as they are over

As the 1960s drew to a close, Lord may have been better served had he quietly sought a new investor and started drawing up plans for a gradual relinquishment of his duties at the club. With attendances down and wage demands burgeoning, his working model of a football club – those dreams of autarky dug out of a patch of farmland on the outskirts of town in the sultry summer of 1955 – began to hit insurmountable problems. His proud boast that Burnley never sold players in their prime gave way to the disheartening reality that this was now the only feasible way of balancing the books. There was – as Eric Cookson had argued – no Plan B if the kids coming through the system failed to take root in the first team. The 67/68 season saw the club make a small profit, but only after raising £117,000 from the sale of Willie Morgan, and the last two seasons of the decade were poor fare as the club scrapped for survival whilst at the same time expensively renovating the ground. In August 1969, the £200,000 Cricket Field Stand had been opened, and the decision had been made to follow that immediately with a replacement for the crumbling Brunshaw Road stand.

Lord’s chairmanship did enjoy an ‘Indian summer’ when manager Jimmy Adamson concocted one last great Burnley side from the remnants of the scouting system, picking up and dusting down discarded talents like Colin Waldron, Steve Kindon and Martin Dobson, and melding them with home-grown gems like Leighton James. The thrilling 1973/74 season saw the side challenge at the top of the First Division and reach the FA Cup semi-finals, only to be mugged by an inferior Newcastle side.

Lord’s other career, in football administration, was going well too. In 1967, he had finally been appointed to the Football League Management Committee, and by 1973 he was a vice-president of the Football League with hopes of being elected president. From this position he continued to generate headlines, criticising the players who ended up in front of him at disciplinary hearings, suggesting that many of them were lying and doing the game no good by challenging the authority of the referee. He was similarly critical of defensive football that ignored the imperative to entertain.

But it was his long-standing irritation at the poor value that football received from the TV companies that took Lord beyond the pale in the eyes of many. In April 1974, speaking at a Variety Club charity dinner, he said: “We have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap, by the Jews who run television.” That put paid to his hopes of the Football League presidency, but his point about derisory TV money remained salient – for Burnley’s January FA Cup tie at Grimsby, the Mariners had been offered £87.50 to compensate for lost gate money. When the Clarets landed a home tie against Wrexham in the quarter-finals, Lord demanded £10,000 for highlights. The BBC refused and so the TV cameras stayed away.

The undeserved defeat to Newcastle in the semi-final was a particular blow as it deprived the club of what would have been a crucial windfall. By July 1974, the overdraft breached the £200,000 mark, and there was nothing for it but to cash in the club’s most saleable asset, England international midfielder Martin Dobson. The £300,000 fee was hefty money in those days for a footballer, but it didn’t help that Dobson’s sale went through just weeks before the opening of the new Bob Lord Stand in September 1974.

Dave conjectures here that Dobson’s was a sale too far in the eyes of both Adamson and the Turf Moor faithful:

There had been so many sales over the years but this one was a defining moment. For a few months a mixture of adrenalin and momentum would keep the team going, but it would not last. Implosion was only 18 months away. If Adamson was emotional when he told the players that Dobson was to be sold, perhaps it was indicative of a change in the Adamson mindset… this may have been the moment when he became determined that Lord would no longer dominate him.

As late as March 1975, Burnley challenged for the title. When they led Liverpool 1-0 at the Turf on March 8, they were prospective table-toppers, but a second-half Liverpool equaliser, followed by a demoralising 1-2 defeat at West Ham the following Saturday saw an unlikely third League Championship slip away, and just nine months later, Adamson agreed to have his contract paid up with the team at the foot of the First Division and having been dumped out of the FA Cup by Second Division Blackpool.

Lord’s response was the all-too-familiar jutting of the jaw:

I won’t quit. I wouldn’t be a manager for all the tea in China but I believe I’ve done my side of the job looking after the business end. If I thought the staff was not fully behind me I would pack my bags. I’ve made lots of mistakes but I think I’ve done things that have repaid those mistakes.

Relegation from the top flight was confirmed in April 1976, and Burnley ended the season with a debt approaching £400,000, this despite selling Ray Hankin to Leeds for £180,000. While beleaguered manager Joe Brown defended Lord, as did boardroom loyalists like Doc Iven, commercial manager Jack Butterfield had had enough. As far as he was concerned, the club had been living beyond its means for years: the wage bill was too high, and the first-class travel and accommodation for players and staff simply an unaffordable indulgence. Butterfield resigned in December 1976, just a few weeks before Lord went public with his views on the future of the game. He sounded a defeated man, although his knack for detecting distant trends remained undimmed:

Burnley has no future as a club with any status or influence… Their main function will be to groom players and sell them to bigger and more powerful clubs… My honest opinion is that our big city clubs will shortly band together and join a league that embraces the top continental clubs. They will outstrip the rest of us. The rest of us will be on the outside looking in. We will have to content ourselves in discovering kids and then flogging them, just to stay alive.

The last section of the book is sad to read. Lord hung on to his position simply because no-one else had a shareholding to challenge him. When he finally decided to sell his stake, in September 1981, the club had become so indebted that few could see an obvious way ahead, and many had started to ask pointed questions about the financial stewardship of the club.

This last topic is the subject of one final major piece of research, as Dave forensically takes us through the evidence of how Burnley found itself in such a perilous financial state by the time Bob Lord was retired from the chair at a board meeting in October 1981. Thanks to his access to the notes of ex-finance director Derek Gill, Dave vividly illustrates the extent to which the dynamism and confidence of the 50s and 60s had ebbed away. Worse still, vital financial resources had been leaking from the club, both through an expenses account and via a wretchedly self-interested deal over some land in the Lowerhouse area of the town.

In the most perilous period of the club’s modern history – as they faced relegation from the Football League in May 1987 – the hackneyed image of “Bob Lord spinning in his grave” was regularly invoked by those critical of how the club had been managed after Lord’s departure. And while some of Lord’s successors did indeed have much to answer for, the story uncovered here makes it clear that there is a causal link between the harrowing experience of the 86/87 campaign and the ossification of the club’s infrastructure during the final years of Lord’s chairmanship.

What to conclude about such an objectionable, maddening and yet far-sighted autocrat who went to such extreme lengths to defend the club he clearly loved and the town he was so proud to call home? The authors argue that we should, on the whole, leave Bob Lord in credit for everything he did for the club, though that is a judgement that some readers will inevitably contest.

But what is certainly true is that this book allows us a far more informed and nuanced understanding of this major figure in the club’s history. The public persona might have been plain and blunt, but Mike and Dave have uncovered a more complex reality: an authoritarian who spent much time tilting at authority; a patriotic nationalist who conspicuously avoided conscription; a profit-fixated businessman who was a quiet, generous donor to local causes; a football celebrity who loved nothing more than to watch kids playing in Scott Park; a gruff alpha male who hung on to life long enough to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary. Bob Lord was never going to be an easy subject to capture, but this comprehensive, even-handed and authoritative volume does as good a job as anyone could have the right to expect.

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