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"It's like a drug". Bristol City Chairman on owning a football club

Dave Harvey | 15:34 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

It's been a rollercoaster season at Ashton Gate. At the centre of it all has been club chairman Steve Lansdown. So as the season finally draws to a close, why does a successful businessman put himself through the mill week after week?

Steve Lansdown on the edge of his seat

"The more you get involved in football, the more fascinating it becomes, and it does become a passion, it's a bit of a drug."

There's many a fan will agree with that, but the addiction has perhaps cost Stephen Lansdown more than most.

"He'd be richer than me if it wasn't for that football club!" jokes his business partner, Peter Hargreaves. He's right. At £570m, Mr Hargreaves is now ranked 111th on the Sunday Times Rich list. Stephen Lansdown languishes down in 150th, on a mere £452m.

In 2009, he sold some shares in the company and raised £47m to fund Bristol City's ambitious new stadium plans. For five years, he's been the chairman, and year after year he dips into his own pocket to keep the club afloat.

"I've not added up how much money I've put in," he laughs, "I daren't - it's always more than you think it is!"

This strikes me as odd, considering Mr Lansdown made his money in financial services. He and Peter Hargreaves have steadily built a business, carefully looking after other people's investments.

Peter Hargreaves and Steve Lansdown in their new office "We started in Peter's front bedroom," he remembers. "Just the two of us and a part time secretary. We scrounged the desk and a typewriter where one of the keys stuck. The only thing we went out and bought was some dictation equipment."

In 2010 they moved their 650 staff into a £40m brand new office block on Bristol harbourside. Hargreaves Lansdown is now valued at £1.75bn. The day job has made them rich.

"I've made more than I could ever imagine out of it," he admits. "I suppose in many ways, how do you justify it?"

Beyond the Glazers and the Abramoviches of this world, British football is mostly run and funded by people like Stephen Lansdown. Local lads made good, who want to put something back, and get the best seat in the stadium on the big match days. But is it still a day out, a rich man's hobby?

To find out, I've been following Stephen Lansdown for the last six weeks. In that time, he's faced relegation worries, fired and hired a manager and guided the ambitious stadium plans through hostile council committees.

"Bristol City is pleasure. Hargreaves Lansdown is pure business," he tells me for starters. We meet at the day job first, the morning after another last minute defeat, this time 3-2 at the hands of Plymouth Argyle.

"Football is not like any other business," he says. "You're reliant on 11 players on the pitch. You can go from something to nothing in a matter of seconds. It just kills you. But I have to say - that is the joy of football, because things can change in a fraction of a second."

Lewin Nyatanga celebrates scoring against Newcastle

The fans aren't so philosophical. The morning after defeat to the Devon side, City is dangerously close to the drop zone, and they're calling for the manager's head. So, is the chairman just another fan? No, he insists, you judge this game like a stock in the market.

"You have the odd dip. And you have to prepared to ride those dips if you believe you're going to go up. You've got to take a long-term view. Going back to our investment business, we've always taken a long term view. We've never taken a short-term boost. You've always got to look to the future."

An hour-and-a-half after I left him that day, Steve meets with his troubled manager, Gary Johnson, and they agree he should leave. That "dip" turned out to be terminal. I ring him later and ask what happened to all that stuff about "long term horizons".

"A good chairman often has to be a good politician," he chuckles.

The fans liked his move, and for the next six matches, the sun shines. Caretaker manager Keith Millen notches up four wins and two draws, including a draw against eventual champions Newcastle.

I joined him for the Nottingham Forest game, to see for myself if this really is "pure pleasure". There's no directors box at Ashton Gate, just an area of seats reserved for the Chairman, his guests, and the visiting team's directors.

"You've got to watch football outside," he insists. Yes, they have a posh sit down lunch before the game, but once the whistle blows, Steve and his family are up out of their seats like the rest of the crowd.

Three minutes in, Liam Fontaine scores for City and the East End erupts. But just twenty minutes later, Forest equalise. After the match, I muse with Steve that his entire business has been built on balancing risk. Hedging investments, ensuring there's always something going up if something else is losing you money.

"Football is pure risk," he smiles. "There is no hedging. When things are going well, you have to capitalise on it - and when things are going badly, you have to make sure people remember that success."

Steve Coppell at Ashton Gate A fortnight later, negotiations are over and Steve Coppell is signed as the new manager. He's played for Man Utd, he's taken Reading and Crystal Palace into the Premiership. The fans, once again, love their chairman. In the space of six weeks, I've watched City go from the cliff edge of relegation to the solid ground of mid-table mediocrity.

Meanwhile, the vast wealth that comes from the other "City" in Steve's life has made an exile of him. Faced with enormous tax bills, he's decided to move to Guernsey. Now he must fly in on match days, and limit overnight stays to just 90 a year. So, I ask the local boy who loves his local club, can he still be chairman?

"A lot of my work in any event was done by telephone or the internet," he insists, "and I do that from Guernsey now, quite happily - I'm more involved in strategy."

"A lot of chairman have nothing to do with the football club, nothing to do with the district - so I don't think that's an issue. But I'll look at it from my own point of view, how I'm representing the football club, if I don't think I'm doing that properly, I'll get someone to do it for me."

I've watched him fire a manager he liked, hire another, rearrange his private life so that he can still run the club from abroad. It's hardly a day out is it? It's not like fishing?

"You want to stretch yourself, be part of something - something different, something difficult even." He laughs again. "And anyway, I'd go mad fishing."

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