AT THE RIPE OLD AGE OF TWENTY-THREE, RYAN WALKINSHAW HAS INHERITED GLOUCESTER RUGBY CLUB WITH BIG PLANS TO BALANCE THE BOOKS AND BRING SOME LONG-OVERDUE LAUREL LEAVES TO KINGSHOLM. HOW DOES AN IBIZA DJ HOPE TO MAKE IT ALL WORK?
William Pitt the Younger was twenty-four when – in December 1783 – he became Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Colonies, or what was left of them: ‘a mince-pie administration that wouldn’t make it to Christmas’, hooted the critics, ‘a kingdom entrusted to a schoolboy’s care’. And yet he was First Lord of the Treasury – in all – for twenty years, ‘the atlas of our reeling globe’ as the French revolted and Napoleon plundered the continent. Forty thousand in debt when he died of a peptic ulcer, ‘Honest Billy’ had his tab paid by a grateful nation and was buried in Westminster Abbey. If you happen to be passing, his memorial is above the west door.
So, all in all, perhaps we shouldn’t immediately drop our chips at the thought of Gloucester Rugby Club falling into the hands of a twenty-three-year-old, albeit a blond one whose better known on the club scene in Ibiza than in the Shed at Kingsholm. But, then again, Pitt had it easy given he had nothing more to worry about than two decades of sedition, rebellion and Napoleon Bonaparte. Ryan Walkinshaw had to watch his team being fooled black and blue at Kingsholm by the dreaded Bath last weekend while trying desperately not to say a very rude word in front of a nagging television camera. And judging by the ominous grumble around the ground, he was by no means the only one.
‘I’m not going to lie, I’m a terrible loser at everything really,’ he says, ‘in fact, if we lose then Nigel [Davies] and I don’t actually speak for twenty-four hours because we’re both so angry. We find it’s best to let each other cool down for a bit and then go and evaluate the match.’
Astonishingly, eleven of last weekend’s Gloucester team are older than the Executive Chairman. Indeed Ryan Walkinshaw inherited the business – along with umpteen other conglomerates both here and in Australia – at the age of twenty-two after the untimely death of his father Tom; this back when he was setting up a record label and a nightclub promotions business and forging a highly successful career as a DJ in Ibiza.
‘I worked the Zoo Club for three summers – twice a week, every week, 6,000 people in the open air paying to watch you,’ he says. ‘And there are other places out there that pull in 10,000 people. There’s not much to beat it.’
Before that he was a hot-headed hooker at Radley College and no less impetuous at Newcastle University which he quit because, ‘I wanted to get out and actually do something rather than listen to a lecturer who, if he was that good, would have his own business making money for himself.’ Mind you he wasn’t a total stranger to rugby or to Gloucester. He went on pre-season tours and did a gap-year selling tickets, mowing the pitch and doing a coaching certificate.
‘I worked for nine months in the marketing department here when I was eighteen years old,’ he says. ’In fact if you look at the floodlights around Kingsholm they were my first project. My Dad said he wanted some new ones so I found a perfect deal but he kept coming back and saying no, I want them bigger, I want them bigger, they’re not big enough, Bath’s are bigger and ours need to be bigger than theirs. I realised how difficult it was to work for my Dad at times but it was quite entertaining.’
Tom Walkinshaw – racing driver, engineer and Formula One team owner, of course – was not a man famous for gladly suffering a fool. It was always said, with some feeling, that his ideal board meeting would consist of just the one chair.
‘He could be pretty ruthless at times but you don’t get where he was unless you’ve got a hard-nosed attitude to how you do business,’ says Ryan. ‘And he ended up proving plenty of people wrong. That’s testament to how hard he worked – he only had Christmas Day off – and what an incredible individual he was. I shouldn’t complain. Everyone I meet says, Christ, aren’t you like your Dad?’
Losing at home to Bath isn’t great for business – five days later there are curtains still drawn in some Gloucester streets – but the broader view is much rosier; lots of juicy turnover and the cherry and whites in the black for a second successive year. Indeed, the only time the owner needs to reach into his pocket here is to grab some lunch.
‘My father always used to say it was his responsibility to make sure that a club that’s been around for a hundred and forty years is around for another one hundred and forty and it really is that sort of a responsibility,’ says Ryan. ‘And I think the fans realise it’s better to keep it in the family rather than let an investment bank take it over and strip it out, or change the name to ‘Red Bull Rugby’ or something like that. If that happened I’d be hanging from the beams of The Shed.’
If the big pictures at Gloucester are drawn by the Chairman, the detail is down to the new Managing Director, Stephen Vaughan, who, at 38, isn’t exactly decrepit himself. You can be fifty at Kingsholm these days and feel about as relevant as a pterodactyl.
‘We’re a self-sufficient club and that’s really important to us,’ he says. ‘That’s our DNA and we’re not going to be relying on benefactors ploughing in money. Central to all that, of course, is owning our stadium. Kingsholm is the jewel in the crown.’
Stephen Vaughan has arrived here via Thomas Cook, Club 18-30 and the Olympics but he has roots in the Shed in the shape of his grandmother, Ursula, who first stood in Gloucester’s famous groundlings aged sixteen and still has a firmly-held opinion aged eighty-four.
‘She doesn’t come down so much now but she still follows us on the radio and watches on television and then I get a call after a game to tell me what myself and Nigel should be doing, which wingers we should pick and what’s happened to the back row?’ he says. ‘In fact when I first joined Gloucester she phoned up and I saw her number and I thought, right, Ursula, she’s going to love this, she’s going to be really excited for me and without even saying hello, she said, ‘Stephen? This is Ursula. Don’t mess it up.’
The challenge for everyone on the Gloucester Board is to keep the books balanced while winning something – not easy when the last four published accounts of the last three champions of England show combined losses of close on a – very scary – thirty million quid. Can you keep to the cap, balance the books AND win the big prizes? Now there is club rugby’s clutch question.
‘Well, obviously, we’re a salary cap squad, we pay the full cap so if you can’t win with that kind of money in your squad then you’d have to ask yourself how other teams would be doing it,’ says Ryan Walkinshaw. ‘So assuming we’re all on a level playing field then Gloucester should be capable of getting out there and winning something. It’s the entire focus of the playing side of this business. We need to wake-up, and I think we can. We should definitely be in the top four of the Premiership.’
‘And playing-wise we have to be smart. You need a few old heads to give the younger ones a slap when they step out of line. Mike Tindall gives them a bit of a bollocking when he needs to. Granted he’s averaging a lot of money per game and has a talent for getting injured with England but at the same time he’s really important and is someone the young guys look up to.’
Gloucester are pouring new wine into an old bottle; concerts and conferencing mean they can make the stadium sweat for them while fingers are firmly crossed for Kingsholm getting the nod for the 2015 World Cup. Patience could be their biggest virtue, not always something you associate with twenty-four-year-olds but this one has wisdom beyond his years. Youth, as Picasso said, has no age.
‘I’m Scottish so I’m definitely not patient but I’ve learned over the last few years that not being patient will get you into situations you don’t want to be, so I’m aware and capable of holding back my personal desires for something in the long-term interests of the business.’ He sighs and smiles. ‘So yes, I’m not patient but I can be if I need to be.’
William Pitt the Younger ended up a Freeman of the City of London, the carriage bearing him home from the ceremony drawn by grateful citizens; remembered for his ability to steer the nation from the old world to the new world through a turbulent age without upsetting the apple cart and while balancing the books. What would Walkinshaw the Younger give for an epitaph like that in twenty years’ time?
06 FEBRUARY 2013
PS In February 2016, the Walkinshaw family sold their controlling 60% interest in the club to fellow shareholder Martin St Quinton in a deal understood to be worth £12million, thus ending the family’s nineteen-year association with the club.