Mr President and his 'Minder' (John's son)!


How come I’m never asked to be President of Richmond FC?

I could do it - it’s a piece of cake. All you need do is write off Saturdays, travel to distant parts, eat chicken, charm strangers, tell jokes, make witty and interesting speeches, soothe ruffled feathers, keep the malcontents sweet and be last one in the bar at closing time. And there’s nothing to beat, no high standard to aspire to - the last three in the post, Messrs Hodgson-Hess, Vallings and Preston, are tongue-tied introverts with no great pedigree in the game. I could do it easy, but John Heaton has got the gig this time round.

Born in Wigan in 1954, he’s a tall, slim Northerner, and there aren’t many of them around. When you’re a product of Billy Boston country every kid dreams of playing Rugby League for Wigan, but he turned to Union at Wigan Grammar School, whilst remaining the centre he’s been all his playing days. The next step was Wigan RU Colts and the swiftest of promotions to the Firsts as an 18 year-old, dropped in at the deep end and up against England Caps when playing against Liverpool.

Law at Sheffield University followed, playing student games on Wednesdays and club games on Saturdays, culminating in Lancashire trials with the likes of Bill Beaumont and subsequent appearances for the County side which then contained up to ten England players. He moved to Orrell for five years, a really good team, he says, and was offered a flattering £10,000 to join Wigan RL, which was a lot of money back in the Seventies.

He worked as a solicitor for Manchester Council, still playing with Orrell, and continued to rack up his total of 15 rugby-related medical operations, but when a new coach wanted him on the wing and he saw ball-starvation in his future he moved over to Liverpool, where Mike Slemen held the wing slot anyway. He played in three Lancashire Cup Finals, but my notes seem to suggest he didn’t win any of them, and my tape recording of our chat is a also bit fuzzy here.

In 1983 at the age of 29 he became Company Secretary of The Tote, reporting to the Chairman - journalist, man of letters and bon-viveur Woodrow Wyatt. He joined Richmond FC at the same time. His first appearance was for the 4th team, but he quickly got into the Ones, playing for four years, then as Old Father Time crept up on him he graced the Heavies until the ripe old age of 55. His final game for the
Heavies was in a 10s competition for recently retired professionals before a paying crowd at the Stoop but was brought to a painful end in a tackle by a rampaging Fijian (who else?) and three broken ribs.

In the safer world of The Tote he took over as head of IT and then as head of HR whilst continuing as Company Secretary, and this flexibility would have greatly contributed to his appointment as Chief Executive in 1987, responsible for 4000 employees, 500 shops and all the racecourses. He had seven years at the top before the privatisation of the organisation prompted his departure to set up his current consultancy company. One of his early commercial initiatives in his new endeavour was to try to buy The Tote, which says something about his ambition. And one of his roles nowadays is Chairman of Scotbet, the largest chain of independent betting shops in Scotland.

He has a 26 year old daughter in marketing, a 23 year old son in the Met, and has a 10 year old daughter with Karen, his wife. He lives in Sheen and plays golf at Royal Mid Surrey. He’s an old Orrell mate of Richmond Rugby Director Peter Bulless and tells me he was at Peter’s stag night in, he thinks, Whitley Bay. That must have been an early night, five pints, a rousing chorus of Swing Low and a bag of chips, because it’s not exactly up there with Sodom and Gomorrah. Another snippet is that he played for the Houses of Lords and Commons rugby team in three parliamentary world cups, but as he never mentioned getting elected or being ennobled I presume he was a ringer.

Now he’s President, what are his thoughts? He sees his prime function as the continued and enhanced projection of RFC to the wider world, and as a very experienced businessman he wants to assist with the major changes now under way to make sure they provide the club with what it needs. And what of the frequently discussed question of what our aims should be as a playing side? He says when he went onto the pitch he wanted to win everything, and still does, but he recognises that the professional era brings financial constraints and that we need a valid business plan. He supports ‘The Richmond Way’, but with a large dollop of ambition attached to it.

He should do well for us, but then again I’m positively influenced by our similarities – Northerner, League player, motor bike man and entrepreneur. On the other hand he’s too tall, too slim and he’s got my job.

PG 16/8/15.