Bill Fotherby, former Leeds United chairman, whose philosophy was ‘let everyone think you’ve won the pools’

BILL FOTHERBY, the former Leeds United chairman who died earlier this week, loved a deal.

Bill Fotherby in 1996 with Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson and summer signing Lee Sharpe (Picture: Steve Riding).
Bill Fotherby in 1996 with Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson and summer signing Lee Sharpe (Picture: Steve Riding).

Be it the transfer business that took the Elland Road club into the top flight and then the League title in 1992 or as a tailor making his own suits nearly four decades earlier, this most charismatic of businessmen was never happier than when wheeling and dealing.

Not for nothing did Howard Wilkinson, the manager who brought that on-field success to Leeds, once quip that Fotherby could “sell sand to the Arabs”.

The man himself revelled in such a reputation. As I discovered one afternoon about a decade ago at Harrogate Town, the club Fotherby had bought after leaving Leeds and, first, dipping his toe in rugby league with Hunslet Hawks.

I had only been in the clubhouse for a minute or so before he was up and out of his chair, bounding towards a wall display with all the energy and drive that had once taken Leeds to great heights in tandem with Leslie Silver and Wilkinson.

A framed quote by Gordon Strachan was his destination. “I went in for contract talks with Bill,” it read, “and came out with three season tickets and owing the club money.”

Fotherby beamed with pride. As he did when later recounting the rise of Leeds on his and Silver’s watch during an interview for a biography on Billy Bremner that I was writing.

Well, I say ‘interview’. It was basically one question, and then he was off.

His arrival on the board in the early Eighties, how Don Revie’s handprint had been evident in any decision made by then chairman Manny Cussins, and why he had not enjoyed the same relationship with Bremner as he later had with Wilkinson. Fotherby’s take on United’s attempts to sign Diego Maradona, then the world’s most sought after player, was typical of the chutzpah it was impossible not to like.

Having explained how a chance meeting with Maradona’s agent Jon Smith at a dinner in London had set the ball rolling to such an extent that he even got as far as booking Leeds Civic Hall for a ‘meet and greet’ with the sponsors lined up to cover a deal that was going to cost £6m, Fotherby felt the time had come to inform his manager as word was starting to seep out.

Bremner’s response? “Put it this way – he didn’t do any double somersaults,” he dead-panned.

Maradona’s proposed 1987 move never came off. But Fotherby’s vision for a successful future at Elland Road most definitely did.

Wilkinson’s appointment a year or so after the Maradona episode set Leeds on the road to the very top of English football, helped in no small part by the persuasive negotiating skills that helped to land such stellar signings as Gordon Strachan, Vinnie Jones and Chris Fairclough.

Promotion finally arrived in 1990, followed two years later by the winning of a third League championship that proved to be the high water mark of Fotherby’s 16 or so years on the board.

There were still major strides forward, however, with the East Stand’s construction for £5.5m making Elland Road fit for Euro ’96.

Fotherby became chairman in 1996, but left a few months after Caspian’s takeover and was replaced by Peter Ridsdale.

He never, though, lost that sparkle in his eye when discussing all things Leeds. “My philosophy in life has been to let everyone think you have won the pools,” was his parting comment that long ago day in Harrogate.

Fotherby certainly did that and, in the process, helped his beloved Leeds United hit the jackpot.