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Bob Lord: Butcher and Visionary

The land in which I grew up was mostly famous for its witches, but there was also an ogre. He was fierce and cruel yet he was able to give the people magnificent gifts because he had absolute power over the thing most people cared about. This was Bob Lord, chairman of Burnley Football Club from 1955 to 1981. We told anecdotes about him which I imagine were parallel to the anecdotes which the citizens of a petty dictatorship tell about their dictator or those which in certain parts of Sicily might tell about their local Mafia boss. He was an ogre, but he was our ogre. Did he really take the players and their wives on a Caribbean cruise during which he was never seen other than in a three piece suit? Apparently. Did he sell a club captain for parking in the chairman’s parking space? It would seem so as his mantra was “Masters are masters and men are men”. Did he threaten to incinerate the cameras which the BBC sent to record for Match of the Day because he disapproved of television? The first part is true, the second is more complicated. Did he insist that people lost to him at snooker in the Conservative Club? Probably not though they might have thought it prudent to do so. Was he guilty of fraudulent meat sales? Found not guilty almost every time. Was he guilty of fraudulent land deals? We’ll never know because all the documents were burned. And did players with terminal injuries end up in pies? Certainly not: the Lord organisation at no time either manufactured or sold pies.

Bob Lord (1908-81) was a butcher’s boy who bought out his boss at the age of nineteen and went on to develop a meat empire consisting of a factory and several dozen shops. He became a director of Burnley in 1951 and was elected chairman of the board in 1955. The rise and fall of the club under his rule has the shape of an escarpment: within five years they were champions of England and for a period of about four years they were candidates for the role of best team in the country. Then began a long, slow, wobbly decline which almost led to the club’s complete demise though Lord himself became more widely prominent. He was chairman of the Football League Management Committee (and briefly acting president in the year of his death) and also chairman of the Lancashire Football Association and Lowerhouse Cricket Club. He was responsible for the establishment of what is now the National League and the fact that, Covid apart, television has never been allowed to show football at the “normal” time of 3pm on Saturday is down to Lord’s insistence.

As a national figure consorting with the likes of Prince Phillip and Viscount Montgomery he was something of an epitome with strong caricature tendencies. It is important to remember that he was a butcher. Nearly all of those who get involved in football in the way that he did are “businessmen”, but more frequently they are manufacturers and financiers. The Cobbold brothers, for example, owners of Ipswich Town, Burnley’s closest rivals for a time, made the ownership of a brewery seem almost aristocratic. But a butcher?: local, vulgar, red in knife and apron. For some he became the zoo specimen of a northern businessman rooted in his locality: “Ah’m reet and ah’ve got t’brass to prove it and tha’rt wrong”. His contempt for the opinions of both footballers and their fans was limitless. I could never read of Alderman Foodbottom in Peter Simple’s “Way of the World” column in the Daily Telegraph without thinking of our chairman and it is said that Timothy West based the character of Bradley Hardacre in Brass on Bob Lord. It was a Granada programme, a satire on northern industrial sagas, which was first shown in 1982, the year after Lord’s death. But against all these anecdotes and caricatures must be put the many personal stories of his generosity, family loyalty and friendliness. I met him when I was a teenager. He was brusque and opinionated, but also warm and friendly. Of course, I didn’t cross or contradict him. Actually, we had something very precise in common which is that when he was thirteen he witnessed the celebrations for Burnley winning the English championship as I did when I was thirteen.

Lord wrote an autobiography when he was at the top of the escarpment: My Fight for Football, (Stanley Paul, 1963). I have always regarded it as an important document about sport and society in the twentieth century. There is also a recent biography: Dave Thomas and Mike Smith, Bob Lord of Burnley, Pitch Publishing, 2019. It is intelligent and analytical, but, sadly, has little to offer on the mysteries and controversies of the time because of the burned documents. But read either book and you will get to know of a man who was in some ways a buffoon and in others a tyrant, but who had an unusually perspicacious view of how the world worked and where it was heading.

At first glance Lord’s thought seems to be a mass of contradictions; in fact Ken Bates, later chairman of Chelsea FC and always one of Bob’s enemies, made a long list of his self-contradictory statements. He seemed in every way to be a Conservative: he expressed recognisably conservative sentiments, played his snooker in the Conservative Club and persuaded Edward Heath, as prime minister, to officially open the Bob Lord Stand ( claiming he had played no part in the choice of nomenclature). But it would appear that the only political donation the club ever made during his period at the helm was to the Labour Party and he would have been quite happy for Harold Wilson to do the honours. He was perhaps most notorious for his speech at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool in March 1974 when he lambasted “the Jews who run television”, but he got on well with most of the Jews involved in football clubs and his feud with Manny Cussins of Leeds was really based on a dislike of Leeds’ manager, Don Revie, who wasn’t Jewish.

He also appears to have vacillated on the two major issues facing football in his time, the maximum wage and television. He was opposed to the abolition of the maximum wage which finally occurred in 1961; it had been set putatively at twice the average wage for a skilled worker. But when it happened he made a point of making his star player, Jimmy McIlroy, the highest paid player in the country with what we all regarded as a mouth-watering £100 a week. He also remarked that the change was inevitable and that players had been underpaid. He refused to have the cameras in the ground, but remarked that they were the future.

In fact there were no real contradictions on the big issues. Lord was always in favour of a maximum wage: I heard him say it, it’s in his book and he re-iterated the view with almost his dieing breath, in his last interview. He also thought it should be much higher and allowed to rise steadily as clubs developed new sources of income. But an unlimited wage structure would hand football over to a handful of glamorous big city clubs or to mega-wealthy sugar daddies. And on television he was like George Bernard Shaw propositioning the duchess: it was a question of the price. When he threw the cameras out the club were being offered a decreed £87 whereas he thought £10,000 would be about right.

These views were based on a clear vision which was essentially a nightmare. The Lancashire towns that he knew and that I grew up in were changing very rapidly, but they remained much more similar to the 1890s than to the 2020s. There were clogs and cobbles, gaslights and smoking mill chimneys and an assumption that you would be on the football ground on Saturdays in winter and the cricket ground on Saturdays in summer. In that world, given the maximum wage, the towns could compete with the cities: Bolton and Blackpool as well as Burnley all won major trophies in the period. Lord knew better than anyone that this world, our world, was doomed. I heard him prophecy a world of televised football filled with fans of Manchester United who had never even been to Manchester and they would win the title year after year. (He had something of an obsession with United having received a lot of criticism for Burnley’s refusal to help restock their playing staff after the Munich disaster of 1958.) He even speculated on the big clubs forcing the formation of a European super-league, something which remains an issue as I write. Bob Lord was a man with a clear and accurate vision of the future and he didn’t like it. His problem was a classic conservative dilemma: what do you do if you want to prevent a certain kind of change but suspect that it is inexorable?

It is in that context that Lord’s legacy must be judged. The obvious reactions must be very negative. By the time of Lord’s death in 1981 the club was in the Third Division and deep in debt; its real estate was in poor condition and the supply of talented young players was drying up. All the principles of its old modus vivendi had been abandoned. After another six years it was all much worse as the club reached the bottom of the Fourth Division and stayed in the Football League at all only by winning the final game of the 1986-87 season. That looks a pretty bad legacy.

But I think it is possible to make a much broader and more complex judgment than that. As I write these words the largest object in my study is a frame with two shirts, one Aberdeen, one Burnley, signed by the players on July 26th 2018, to commemorate the return of the club to European football after a gap of fifty one years. Burnley play in the globally televised and lucrative Premier League. They are, of course, the only Lancashire town team in it. That was Lord’s dream; he also talked about a club which would not need matchday revenue and I can report that in the last pre-Covid year the club’s income was £127m of which only £5m was matchday income. They have new American owners who make their mission sound like a continuation of Lord’s vision. Legacies are complicated; what I think happened was that there were people, mostly men and mostly of my generation, who had developed an unshakable loyalty to the club and to what it represented. It was they who nurtured it back to health and something beyond health with the early Lord years as their inspiration. In Julius Caesar Mark Antony remarks that, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interrèd with their bones.” I would suggest a more even balance, particularly in this case.

Lincoln Allison March 2021

(This was published by The Critic in March 2021.)