Published in The Financial Times


Sir Jack Hayward, multimillionaire owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, is prone to the occasional gaffe, so few people were shocked when, this summer, at the start of his club’s first season in top-flight football in decades, he was quoted in The Guardian saying: “Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.”

It was a pretty daft thing to say, but from the man who once introduced Sir Bobby Charlton as Sir Bobby Robson at the unveiling of a statue, and who once lashed out at a Wolves manager during a television interview, complaining he was treating him like a “golden tit”, blackmailing him into spending millions, it wasn’t exactly shocking.

But for once, the 80-year-old, Wolverhampton-born, Bahamas-based businessman was guiltless. “What I actually said was, ‘Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League,’” he complains, as he offers me a beverage in the Chairman’s Suite at Molineux, Wolves’s stadium. “Tea! Not team!” He claps his hand against his head in disbelief.

Perhaps because of the gaffes, I was expecting to meet a rather bumbling and slow Sir Jack. But he turns out to be an incredibly sharp octogenarian. He is quick with the one-liners and scuttles around with all the energy of a recently liberated hamster. It’s surprising to hear no trace of a Black Country accent, though he was born within a penalty kick’s distance of Molineux in 1923: he offers me a “cup of tea” rather than the traditional Wolver’ampton “kipper tie”.

Declining, I pour myself a cup of mineral water. “I hope that isn’t Perrier,” he interjects, leaning back and squinting to inspect the label. “Phew – it’s Malvern water.”

Why the relief? Well, if there’s one thing you need to know about Sir Jack – or “Union Jack” as he is widely known – it’s that he is vehemently patriotic. He refuses to drink French wine or mineral water. He bans foreign vehicles from even entering his estate in Sussex. He takes tea at 4pm, no matter where he is. “I’m very pro-American, I think they’re a great nation – but I’m anti-French,” explains the former RAF pilot who says he “loved the war” and describes getting his “wings” as “the best day” of his life. “I’m also anti-German. Anti-all-Europeans actually. You see, I have this terrible illness …,” a dramatic pause, ”… called xenophobia!” He laughs loudly, like a mad old colonel.

Like so many vehement patriots, Sir Jack actually spends a lot of time abroad – he lives in the Bahamas for six months of each year. He doesn’t do it to avoid tax (“I’m not a tax exile!” he insists. “I pay tax on my British investments.”) but to work. He made his fortune in the Bahamas, where he and his father were pioneer investors in the Freeport, Grand Bahama Development, turning it from a deserted swamp into one of the most successful property developments in the Caribbean and a vital stop-over for the cruise industry. “I imagined myself as the Cecil Rhodes of the 20th century,” he says. The Sunday Times recently valued his wealth at £141m, making him the 231st richest man in Britain.

However, it is what he has done with his wealth, rather than how he has made it, that has brought him to public attention. Although he is legendarily careful with money – he will drive miles to avoid having to pay to park his car – he has been a generous philanthropist over the years, doing everything from funding a £1m hospital in the Falklands, to bankrolling the restoration of the SS Great Britain, to donating £3m to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, and buying Lundy Island on behalf of the National Trust. “But there have been some absolute disasters,” he volunteers, pre-empting the question. “Like supporting the Liberal party.”

Twenty years later, the story still sounds barely believable. Hayward first met Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1969 and was immediately impressed by him. Pleading Liberal party penury, Thorpe extracted cheque after cheque from Hayward, but then Thorpe had a homosexual affair with a young stable lad called Norman Scott, and became terrified that Scott would expose him. During the subsequent trial it was alleged that Thorpe had hired someone to kill Scott. The money to finance this plot, which in fact only resulted in the death of Scott’s poor dog, Rinka, came from Sir Jack.

“Luckily, I’m a squirrel, I never throw anything away,” recalls Hayward. “So I had the letters from Thorpe asking for money which, unbeknownst to me, went to pay for the potential murderer. They were crucial evidence. If my wife had her way, they would have been cleared out of the drawers to make space for my underpants.” But why did he end up supporting the Liberals anyway – surely his politics are more conservative than liberal? “Oh yes – if I had my way I’d form my own party far more right wing than Margaret Thatcher.” I laugh, thinking he is joking. But he isn’t.

“I’d bring back National Service, the Scaffold, the Cat o’ Nine Tails, the Empire – places like Sierra Leone and Nigeria were so much better off under British rule than they are now.” So why on earth did he give so much money to the wishy-washy Liberals? “Well, I used to say, ‘I don’t want anything to do with Europe.’ And Jeremy used to say, ‘My dear fella, if we joined Europe, with our expertise on how to run an Empire, we’ll be in charge of Europe! We will be the master race!’ And I would say: ‘How much do you want?’ Also, I felt sorry for them.”

It’s a pretty bonkers reason to fund a political party, but then Sir Jack is one of that dying breed: the bonkers British eccentric. There are many, many bonkers things about him – not least his adoration of Wolverhampton. God knows how a man who lives in the Caribbean and has homes in Sussex and the Scottish Highlands can believe that the moribund West Midlands city is the best place on earth. But he really does. He wants his epitaph to read: “R.I.P. Sir Jack Hayward. He took his first few breaths in Wolverhampton and then did his best to repay the debt he owed the city.”

But by far the most bonkers thing he has done – although the fans would disagree – is put the amount of money and time he has into Wolves, the football club he grew up watching as a kid. Since he bought the club in 1990 for £2.1m, when they were in the former second division, Hayward has spent in the region of £78m to restore his home-town club to top-flight football. This May, having been through four managers, some agonising near misses and occasional hostility from frustrated fans, Hayward finally achieved his dream. ” £78m is about right,” he says casually, assessing the cost of getting into the Premiership. “But it goes up by £10m every time there is a write-up.”

The cost hasn’t been purely financial – his involvement with Wolves has led to the collapse of his relationship with his younger son Jonathan, one of three children. Jonathan was chairman of Wolves for six years but in 1999 Hayward senior issued a writ against Hayward junior over financial irregularities totalling £237,000. The feud was eventually settled out of court, but the pair haven’t spoken since. “It was my fault – I shouldn’t have made him chairman before he was ready.” Would he like to talk to him again? “If he came and apologised,” he says a little coldly. “He shouldn’t have done what he did. My wife feels it more than me, because we haven’t seen two grandchildren for six years.”

However, despite saying in the past that the only way he’d leave football was “in a coffin”, Hayward has now decided that it is time for someone else to take on the responsibility for Wolves. In a final act of philanthropy, he says he will write off £40m of debt in return for a promise of continued investment of at least £40m in the club and team, and an agreement to offer 25 per cent of the club to fans. In a characteristically xenophobic touch, he says he would ideally like to sell to a Wolverhampton consortium – rather than to foreigners.

He reels off the reasons for why he has decided to hand over the club: he needs to spend more time on his business interests in the Bahamas; he has spent enough (“There’s not much left to inherit,” he quips, when I ask him who he’s going to leave his wealth to); and the pressure isn’t good for him. “It has been very stressful,” he says, clutching his chest. “When I had my pacemaker fitted, they said it would last seven to 10 years. Mine lasted six!”

There’s also the fact that the modern football, with its multimillion-pound transfer deals, TV rights and talk about branding, is very different from the game which he fell in love with as a child. Until recently, Hayward was still insisting there was “something wrong with a team that can’t find 11 good players within a 20-mile radius”. Now, suddenly, he finds himself with a team full of foreign signings – he struggles, comically, to pronounce their names, calling Okoronkwo from Nigeria “Orinoco”, and another player “Wappawappa”.

It’s unclear whether anyone will be tempted to buy Wolves – the club is scraping the relegation zone, and even with no debt, good facilities, a large fan-base and claims of a projected turnover of £40m, the finances of running a Premiership club are daunting. The hope of selling it to a Wolverhampton consortium certainly seems over-ambitious – the chief executive admits this.

However, Sir Jack remains optimistic: “It’s such a great deal that I can’t believe I came up with it!” he exclaims. He concludes by listing his hopes for the club: finishing on page one of Ceefax this season (top half of the league), winning the Premiership title and FA Cup within two or three years.

And what about his own plans? “Well, to keep breathing!” he says in a final quip, sipping the worst tea in the Premiership. “That is the priority.”

Published 15 November 2003
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