uncle keith


He is going, he says, before he becomes an old fart, which, frankly, isn’t terribly likely; too colourful, too candid, too quotable. Yet amid all the withering one-liners and subversive sound bites that’ve both littered and lit up the past seventeen years, there’s been real substance too: indeed when Keith Barwell stands down as Chairman of Northampton Saints in September, his son Leon will inherit a club in the rudest of health; a decade in profit, fabulously well-appointed and ready to mix it with anyone in Europe. Dad is passing on a handsome and hard-earned legacy.

‘When I have a shave in the morning, I have little chats to myself,’ says Keith Barwell, ‘and just lately I’ve been looking in the mirror and thinking, God, you’re 67 you old so-and-so; you’re past your sell-by-date. Look, businesses are often started by some rough old diamond who kicks down doors and shouts and screams a lot but we’ve been through all that. Leon’s much more articulate, intelligent, cold. I expect him to do brilliantly well.’

If Leon does half the job his Dad did, then he’ll be a roaring success; two decades of accumulation by speculation, although to what extent, Keith Barwell would rather not reveal publicly. ‘Oh, I’ve no idea what the club’s worth,’ he says, a disingenuous twinkle in his eye. ‘Besides, we’re not for sale. And you have to remember that whatever price you’d put on the place, there’s been some, how shall we say, some upkeep. In fact when Leon gets his hands on the books, he’ll probably say, ‘bugger me, that was my inheritance the old man was spending.’’

If there’s been one single secret to Keith Barwell’s success, it’s probably that he was a fan first and a chairman second. Twenty-five years ago – eminent local businessman, sharp suit – he bought the very first corporate box at Franklin’s Gardens and, in the glory days of shamateurism, cheerfully dipped into his back pocket to help out with the club’s ‘expenses’.

‘We had a winger, Ian Hunter, who was playing for England’, he says, ‘and he was studying at Leicester University, hitch hiking backwards and forwards to training. Can you imagine Chris Ashton doing that now? Anyway, it didn’t take much to imagine Leicester Tigers offering to make his life simpler so we bought him a car. It was always that sort of thing, jobs, houses or cars for players. In fact I was delighted when the money finally went on top of the counter because my tax auditor was starting to get very twitchy about the Inland Revenue.’

Certainly rugby turning professional was Barwell’s epiphany. He’d toyed with investing in football – Luton Town courted him long and hard – but instead, as the dust was still settling on rugby’s big bang, he turned up at Northampton Saints’ EGM in December 1995 holding a cheque for a million quid. Six hundred and sixty-one members voted to sell him the club. Two voted against.

‘Well, one was Ron Jacobs and the other was Don White,’ says Barwell, ‘great players for Northampton and for England and two people I greatly admired and became friends with later. But they didn’t think you could run a rugby club if you hadn’t played first class rugby. Except that I wasn’t offering to run an amateur club, was I? I was trying to run a business so not knowing too much about the good old days seemed to me to be a bonus.’

Even so the plan was hopelessly piecemeal. He stuck the whole squad on five-year contracts – a laughable proposition today – and finished the first season with a wage bill for a miserly £425,000, which, he says, bought ‘a whole squad, a coach and half a physio’. His first major coup was landing All Blacks skipper Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, who hadn’t lost a game for three years and was harder than a bag of nails.

‘I used to work in telephone sales so it was all second nature to me,’ says Barwell. ‘There were scarcely any agents back then so I would just call a player and ask him what would it take to have him play for us. I rang Buck, agreed some numbers over the phone and that was that. Different times. But, I was never silly with money. I have to say that just like soccer, some of my fellow Chairmen invested into rugby as a business with rose-coloured glasses on.’

The Barwell millions – and there are still one or two of them left – came chiefly from the newspaper business, a free-sheet empire which he flogged for a small fortune. But he was born the son of a milkman, a grammar school boy, who was expelled from the Kettering Labour Party because, as he puts it, he believed in Clause Four and they didn’t. Instead he became a Trotskyite – not for nothing is Leon called Leon – a conviction which makes his position on, for example, the salary cap a tricky one.

‘There are a few Chairmen in the Premiership who want to run the league as though we are all equal,’ he says. ‘Now, of course, that’s one of my mantras but in sport we’re not all equal, are we, and as long as everyone understands that, we should be okay. And don’t ask me how a Trotskyite gets involved in sport. I’ve no idea.’

Barwell – more accurately, Keith Barwell OBE – will be chiefly remembered hereabouts for what he built in the East Midlands; he turned a beer and blokes club into a vibrant family firm; he was ‘Uncle Keith’ who stood his rounds in bars on long away days to Orrell or bleary weekends in Biarritz.

‘I have to say I do quite like the Uncle Keith thing’, he says. ‘It’s rather endearing, isn’t it? And I was always very happy buying forty or fifty beers for the supporters. In fact I was explaining to a football chairman the other day, many of our fans are women and children, there are no police in the ground and we drink as much alcohol as we possibly can. He didn’t believe me, of course, but this is where rugby is so brilliant.’

Beyond Northampton, though, he’ll be remembered for his punch-ups with the RFU – ‘the blazers, toffs, Nigels and Ruperts’ – and his incendiary role in the power struggle between the gentlemen and the players for the soul of English rugby; never, he insists, a hawk, more ‘a frustrated dove’.

‘Look, I don’t want to get too London School of Economics about it but I suppose a small part of it was, in inverted commas, a class struggle. I always looked upon our fans as my mates. I looked upon people we employed as someone to have decent relationships with and to respect. But what you find with the RFU, of course, is that they don’t really give a toss for the ordinary fan and have no experience of running professional club rugby. I once invited [the RFU chairman] Martyn Thomas to come and watch Northampton. The guy’s about 80 and I asked if he’d ever been to a professional club. He said, ‘yes, one in Cornwall and another in Nottingham.’ [There are no professional clubs in Cornwall or Nottingham.]

‘The trouble is most sport in this country’s run by the aristocracy – whether it’s the RFU, the LTA, the MCC or the Jockey Club – and we’re lumbered with these people and that’s why we’re no bloody good. And in rugby, believe me, the old farts are rowing against the tide. I come from the newspaper business and this is just like when the print unions said, ‘hey, you’re not bloody using computers!’ Well, Rupert, change is unstoppable, so why don’t you look after your Test rugby and your old-school dinners and we’ll get on with our businesses’.

The crowning glory – so far – in his seventeen-year stewardship of Northampton was, clearly, the Heineken Cup win of 2000 but what perhaps best defined Keith Barwell wasn’t the big win but the catastrophic defeat that was relegation in 2007. There were no excuses and no evasions. We went down, he said, because ‘we were – all of us – crap’.

‘Obviously the fans didn’t send me Christmas cards saying, wonderful Keith, well done,‘ he says. ‘They were disappointed. So after that last game it was easier to talk to the press but much harder to walk into the bar because you’re thinking to yourself, ooouch. But you’ve got to front up. And I think it was the making of us as a club, rebuilding in the backwaters of Doncaster and on road trips to Cornwall. We actually made a profit the year we were relegated. In fact I cut 1.8 million out of the overheads and I looked at it and I thought to myself, bugger me, how could I do that so easily? Well, obviously because we were bloody overspending, weren’t we? So it wasn’t all bad news.’

Certainly Northampton have not looked back since and if Keith Barwell takes any of the credit for that – and he should – it’s in finding the right management team and letting them manage. It is, he says, the secret of any business.

‘You have to get the right people but even then, you don’t always know, do you?’ he says. ‘We hired Ian McGeechan and we got bloody relegated. We made a mistake with Alan Solomons, Wayne Smith was excellent and John Steele was, well, okay. With the coaching team we’ve got now, you need to imagine they’re in the army. Jim Mallinder’s the Colonel – very upright, thoughtful – Dorian West, of course is the loud-mouthed Sergeant-Major, a thug from Leicester, and Second Lieutenant Grayson fulfils his role quite well. And obviously I always say the same to them; we’ve going to give you all the resources we possibly can but if you don’t do it, then I won’t feel guilty if I fire you.’

The swansong looks like being a lengthy one as he bows out with not just another Heineken Cup Final but with a headlong tilt at the Premiership, the one treasure Northampton have never won and, coincidentally, the one win, you suspect, they would treasure most. In their way, as they always seem to be, are the noisy neighbours from up the A50.

‘Leicester are brilliantly well organised and we have a fantastic amount of respect for them,’ says Barwell, ‘but my view of them has always been the same, you know, in the words of the song, ‘same old Leicester, always cheating’. But we do admire them. I once tried to sign the ABC club – Matt Dawson came back from an England session and said they’d been grumbling about how little money they were being paid – and we very nearly got Graham Rowntree. But they’re a clannish lot, aren’t they?’

He’ll still be in the Directors’ Box next season, ex-officio, the customary twinkle in the eye and glass of burgundy in the hand, revelling in the fact that he has, effectively, made himself redundant. The plan was always to get the club to a point where it could wipe its own nose so now, like any proud parent, he can sit back and leave it to the youngsters.

‘My young grand-daughter Phoebe knows more about the club than I do,’ he says. ‘She watches games on repeat cycle and knows all the players, all their strengths and weaknesses. Gets it from her father, presumably. Believe me, the club’s in very good hands.’

12 MAY 2011

PS Miserably, Leon Barwell passed away in 2013 after a lengthy battle with cancer. His sister, Ella Bevan, still sits on the Board and the club opened the Barwell Stand at Franklin’s Gardens in 2016.

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