Weekend Interview: ‘I just had to make the Football League play-offs my swansong’

BOWING OUT: Retiring chief operating officer of the Football League Andy Williamson says: To have had a job in football for 45 years makes me very proud and I like to think I have made a positive contribution.

BOWING OUT: Retiring chief operating officer of the Football League Andy Williamson says: To have had a job in football for 45 years makes me very proud and I like to think I have made a positive contribution.

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ANDY WILLIAMSON, the Football League’s chief operating officer, will retire following this weekend’s play-off final triple-header and the timing could not be more fitting.

During the Keighley-born League stalwart’s 45 years working for the governing body, he has provided leadership in difficult times such as the Bradford fire and Hillsborough. He has also steered the League through the trauma that was the collapse of ITV Digital and overseen many radical changes in the game.

Perhaps, though, as Wembley prepares to welcome more than 170,000 supporters through the turnstiles this weekend, the one legacy supporters will most thank Williamson for is the weekend of promotion deciders that for more than a quarter of a century have brought the curtain down on a League season.

“It is hard to believe that this is the 30th season of the play-offs,” Williamson remarks to The Yorkshire Post when interviewed at the League’s Preston office. “They were the brainchild of a guy called Martin Lange, then the chairman of Brentford.

“He had lived in America and he brought the idea of the play-offs to the League. It then needed someone to mould the format into shape and that fell to Ron Noades. Originally, there were four teams and both the semi-finals and final were two-legged.

“After three years, though, we changed the format. I suggested we play the finals at Wembley. Back then, only the FA Cup and League Cup finals were played there but I felt all three finals should be staged over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in ascending order.

“We had a working party at the time that kept the play-off system under review because it was so new. I put the proposal to them and here we are, all these years later, and the weekend is still going strong.”

‘Williamson’s Wembley Weekend’ is a tag that has stuck in League circles. Half the competing clubs this year will hail from the White Rose county, again something that is fitting considering the roots of the man behind the initiative. “I just had to make the play-off weekend my swansong,” adds the 62-year-old. “I had to get them in one last time before I hang up my boots.”

His retirement will bring to an end a career that has covered some of football’s more seismic events. Be it the breakaway that formed the Premier League in 1992 or the financial fallout from ITV Digital’s collapse a decade later, Williamson has been the one constant. A clue as to the calm manner under pressure that would characterise his time at the League was probably there on the day of his job interview at the League in 1971.

“Alan Hardaker was League secretary at the time,” he recalls. “I walked into his big office aged 17 and it was quite daunting. He was a dictator of his era but I tried to calm my nerves. Anyway, I walked in and his first question was, ‘You are a Yorkshireman, are you?’ He came from Hull so that was a good start.

“But then next question was, ‘Who do you support?’ I told him Leeds United and the reply was: ‘We all have our crosses to bear’. That was 15-all at that point! Thankfully, I got the job and worked under Alan until his death in 1979.”

What Hardaker would have made of modern-day football is open to debate. But few can surely argue that initiatives such as the play-offs and the introduction of three points for a win have not changed the game for the better. So, too, the overhaul of the League’s financial procedures for clubs who get into trouble, with the threat of points deductions having helped rein in the type of reckless spending that not so long ago brought a raft of administrations.

“I do feel clubs’ attitudes have changed,” said Williamson, a leading figure behind the governance programme that clubs now adhere to. “A lot of clubs are owned by highly successful businessman and they don’t like being told how to invest in a club.

“We had to get them to buy into this. To me, it helps protect clubs from themselves. Football can be an arms race, where individual clubs go out and spend money and that means the club down the road has to go and do the same. That arms race is what ‘Financial Fair Play’ and the ‘Salary Cost Management Protocol’ in Leagues One and Two attempts to control.

“It will never be perfect. UEFA’s system is not perfect but, at the very least, what it does is take some pressure out of an otherwise over-pressurised economy.”

Several Yorkshire clubs, of course, have fallen foul of the League’s more stringent approach. Mandatory 10-point deductions for going into administration have hit a few of the county’s clubs, while Leeds United had 15 taken off in the summer of 2007 after failing to agree a Creditors Voluntary Agreement and Rotherham United 17 for a similar offence 12 months later.

“We had to reshape our thinking because administration is a period when clubs can ditch debt,” explains Williamson. “That was the argument against Leeds. They ditched a considerable amount owed to HMRC and couldn’t get a CVA through. That was the difference with Leeds and why they were treated differently.

“They may not have even been accommodated. People assumed they could reform as a new entity and then reassume their position in the competition. But it isn’t as simple as that. When they have ditched debt, why should other clubs accept them back into their private club –- which is what the Football League is – without question? There is a balance that has to be struck.”

As is to be expected in a career covering 45 years, Williamson has dealt with a wide range of characters in football. “Football is a real mixed bag in that sense,” he adds with a smile. “Some a bit dubious, if I am perfectly honest. You wouldn’t want your daughter marrying them, put it that way.

“But, equally, there are plenty of decent people in football. Plenty who have stood the test of time because of the strength of their personality. Perhaps not as many as there used to be. The influx of overseas owners has changed things and the characters are different.

“The good ones are still there, though. Look at Tony Stewart at Rotherham. Tony came in when Rotherham were in administration. They followed Leeds in not getting a CVA through, like Luton and Bournemouth. All of them were queueing up to see how we dealt with Leeds. In the end, we knocked 17 points off Rotherham. And Bournemouth. Twenty off Luton. I still feel that was too harsh, if I am honest.

“But Tony picked Rotherham up, convinced us he was the right man and subsequently honoured his promises to the League. People like Tony still give you faith in the longevity of League football.”

Asked to sum up his feelings ahead of retirement, Williamson, who underwent heart surgery last January, added: “I can’t honestly say I have enjoyed every minute. There have been too many tribulations along the way to be so trite as to say it has all been wonderful. But I do feel very privileged. To have had a job in football for 45 years makes me very proud and I like to think I have made a positive contribution.”

The Andy Williamson story...

BORN in Keighley but raised in Otley, Andy Williamson joined the Football League on August 16, 1971.

He had recently moved to Lytham St Annes and his first role was in the ‘Player Administration Department’, mainly responsible for schoolboy and apprentice footballers.

Since then, Williamson has worked in virtually every department at the League, including finance, media and competitions. He was appointed chief operating officer in 2003, a role he retires from after the play-offs weekend. Williamson was awarded the OBE in 2012 for his contribution to football.

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