If there is an optimum time to take over a football club, would it be the end of a season? Maybe during a winter break (if you’re so lucky)? How about during a pandemic-enforced shutdown of the game?
That was the backdrop to Graham Jones and Hayden Dando’s takeover of Hednesford Town being rubber-stamped back in May. Long-time friends, Jones is the managing director of RACE (Residential & Commercial Engineering Ltd.), while Dando heads up Lionheart Security Services. The local pair are intent on helping reignite the Keys Park club, one they see as a ‘giant’ in non-league football.
In this in-depth conversation, Jones sheds further light on his background, developments at the Southern League Premier Central side, and plenty more as the new owners bid to lead the Pitmen out of a tumultuous year for the game and on to a bright future…
Firstly Graham, you came in for a transitional period as new owners in March, with the takeover announced as finalised in May. I know the steps to taking over were in the works for a while before, but do you remember the first ever mention between you and Ade of actually pursuing it?
I was over in Russia in December, and I got a text off a mutual friend, because I’d tried to buy the club 12 months beforehand and got no joy, no one had returned my calls etc. so I left it. Then I got a text in December to say ‘do you know the club’s still for sale?’ I didn’t, so they said ‘here’s the club secretary’s details, he’s the best person to get in contact with,’ so I did exactly that, and it snowballed very quickly thereafter. I put a call in to Ade, because we’d been talking for some time about doing a business together, and I said ‘are you interested in this? I’m gonna make a move on it, do you wanna come in with me?’ He said ‘definitely’.
The two of you met through playing football, how far back are we talking?
Sunday league; we were playing for a club in Wednesfield called Phoenix at the time. It was very low-division, Sunday league, just a bit of fun. I turned up to get back in shape and what have you, Ade was there, I’d never met him before and we just hit it off like a house on fire. That’s probably going back around 15 years, something in that region.
Are you from Hednesford itself or close by?
I grew up in Wednesfield. I’ve lived a few places in my life but I’m now living in Cheslyn Hay and have done for the last four years, so I’m a local lad.
With yours and Ade’s respective businesses, how does it work with getting that time to focus on the club? How does your work time get divided up in that sense?
From my side, it works quite well, because I’ve got a directorial team who work with me at my other business, and there’s six directors in total, so the other five directors have kept the ship sailing on my other company while I dealt with the transition of the football club. We all discussed it at the start because that was the vehicle we were using to purchase the club, and we all agreed that what we would do is relocate our offices to the club, so there was a mutual benefit for the existing company. We looked at the problems of taking over a football club and a business, and I said ‘look, this is going to take me out for 12 months if I’m to do this properly and make sure it runs correctly.’ There are so many different parts of a club that you’ve got to grab and get right, so we all agreed that my primary focus, 24/7, would be the club until it was sorted.
You mentioned being in Russia earlier on, and you’ve spoken before about your wife’s side of the family coming from there. Had you spent time over there before you met, how did that one happen?
We met randomly on Facebook; she randomly added me – many, many years ago! We were just good friends, pretty much like pen pals, in the modern-day era. We just told each other everything, and because we were in different countries, there was no sort of bad blood or anything like that. One day, I’d had a really bad week, and I said ‘what you doing at the weekend?’ and she said ‘nothing, why?’ I said ‘let’s go for a beer.’ She said ‘what do you mean, you’re in another country?’ I said ‘doesn’t matter, I’ll fly over.’ She lived in Helsinki at the time, she’d moved to Finland from Russia on her own, she’d got a job working in a big insurance company. We decided to go for a drink as mates and we got on like a house on fire, and we talked about ‘how could our relationship progress further, with the long distance etc.?’ So about six weeks later, we were talking, and because we both knew we got on so well and it was worth pursuing, she said ‘I’m going on holiday, come with me for the week, and if we get on for the whole week, let’s see where it goes.’ We went to Cyprus, spent a week together, and said ‘yeah, we wanna do this’ and we’d give it six months, because after that time it gets a bit much travelling on a plane every two weeks. We were literally seeing each other every two weeks, picking a different country, flying there; it was like watching Travel Man! As silly as it sounds, because of where I lived and where she lived, it was so cheap to do it that it was costing me less than one night out in Wolverhampton! After six months, we were engaged. She gave up her life, citizenship and everything in Finland that she’d worked for, and risked it all to come and live in England. We’ve now got kids, house, everything, and we love where we are.
So are the kids bilingual? How about you?!
Oh, they’re bilingual. I’ve got a two-year-old that speaks fluent Russian and English. I’ve got a five-year-old that is just unbelievable at both languages; she can sing a song, and then halfway through, switch to the other language. I’ve actually got four kids, four daughters; the older two are from a previous marriage, but they also have learned bits of Russian as well. I’m probably the worst one in the family at speaking Russian! I try but it’s limited; luckily, most of the family on my wife’s side all speak fluent English anyway. She was an English teacher as well, over in Finland. Her dad was a chief engineer on commercial liners, so he could speak many languages, because he was constantly in different countries. Her brother speaks fluent English, so it wasn’t really a problem. It was only the mother-in-law that couldn’t speak it, but she’s just spent six months with us and even she’s started to get a grasp of English now.
Back to football, in these early months of being ‘in office’ with the club if you like, has it been what you expected so far, albeit in stupendously unusual circumstances? Has anything surprised you?
No surprises, as such. COVID’s obviously been a massive problem for us, because we took over with a solid business plan, and whilst we took over in the middle of lockdown, we had a conversation about ‘should we, shouldn’t we?’ because of COVID. It wasn’t just another business that we wanted to do, it was something important to us both, so we both decided to pursue, in the hope that the lockdown would release a lot quicker than it actually has. Yes, it’s caused us many problems. Luckily, with my background of being a designer and being very good at risk assessments, method statements, things like that, and Ade’s background in security, the two backgrounds actually complement each other very well in this sort of business. We’ve been able to work some solutions out, but it is frustrating from a football finance point of view, because we haven’t known what support the club would get. We haven’t been eligible for any support to date, which is frustrating, because unless you take over the club at a certain point you’re just not eligible. That’s created a lot of headaches for us, and we get very little information when we really could do with it, so we can plan a strategy on how to deal with things etc. Literally, we have to react within days. For example, when they announced that 300 fans would be allowed back in the ground, we had I think 48 hours to get all the tickets sold and people in the ground. We’d planned for many different scenarios, but 300 fans wasn’t one of them; our stadium’s over 6000 capacity. So, it’s created many headaches for us, but we’re working on each one as they come, and we’re trying to give the fans something positive, something to look forward to, just a whole new lease of life in this giant of a football club.
(New manager) Andy Morrell’s background in the game speaks for itself, but from the conversations you had with him about becoming manager, was there anything he said that sticks in your mind as an example of ‘yeah, this is the bloke we need’?
All the interviews were done over WhatsApp video, because of social distancing at the time, so that was a strange scenario to say the least. We had a lot of good applicants; Andy Morrell stood out as a superb candidate. There were a few in the running, but he was the standout person. He bought into the ethos of the ‘one club, one badge,’ which we’ve brought in. He’s ran and built up academies in the past, he’s dealt with lots of different factions. He was keen on utilising youth and experience and blending the two together. His track record spoke for itself. We looked at the man, the character, will the players play for him? Will the fans be pleased with the appointment? But we looked at the statistical side as well, and I think from memory, his win ratio was around 52 per cent, which when you consider Alex Ferguson was 56 per cent, and most managers around this level have around 25 per cent, he really stood out as the right man for the job. I’ve been so pleased with everything he’s said, he’s very calm, very thoughtful in the way he goes about his work, he’s got the right morals in life. I can’t fault the bloke, and he’s brought an energy into the players.
You’ve talked about setting a budget that hasn’t changed with the pandemic, a budget that isn’t geared to just go all guns blazing for promotions and then fall apart further down the line, as we’ve seen with some clubs. With developments like the additional office space you’re looking to add at the ground, are those enhancements possible while you’re at this level?
All of it can be done at this level. That was one of the beauties of why we’ve done it, because we can see a big future for the whole place. That can propel us into the Football League based on the salary caps that’s been recently announced; we could comfortably be in League One without a single fan attending, and still afford the maximum wage, based on the proposals. From an economic point of view, it makes a lot of sense, to the point where we can keep on pushing. Now, it takes a long time to deliver on that, so we’re talking a period of many years to deliver all of the scheme in full, there’s planning apps to go through and everything else, and in the middle of COVID is not the right time to be pushing those things. Our first prospect is to get hold of the team, the running of the club, and make sure that runs right before we move on to another part of the club.
In terms of what the club can do for the town if it starts to build momentum, can you see an opportunity for that to really snowball? Is Hednesford a place that needs that perhaps?
A hundred per cent yes, and a hundred per cent yes it’s needed. The beauty of Hednesford Town is it’s located so centrally to the M6 toll, the M6, the M42, the M5, that from an industry point of view, it’s got everything that you need from a business. It’s got a uniqueness from the redevelopment that there’ll be very little that competes with it in the UK. We’ve already had five or six enquiries of people confirming if we build the offices, they want them. We want this to become a community hub, with a restaurant, with a gym, with a shop, offices, so when the club is normally quiet and no one’s around, it’s actually hiving with activity, because the two sets of usage are at two completely different times. So, I think this could put Hednesford on the map; if it’s utilised in the right way, and the fans and the local people all get behind Hednesford, it could bring dramatic changes to the area.
From a personal point of view, in football, in business, in life, what do you really value from people? And on the flipside, what can’t you deal with?
Honesty, integrity, hard-working, loyalty; those are the key points in life for me. I’ve had a very interesting life, for good and for bad, and I feel that those things are integral. My wife’s like this ray of positivity in my life and she changes it for the better, and I’ll look for the same from everyone around me. That’s what breeds success, and I’m looking for that on and off the pitch. On the flipside of it, the answer is completely the opposite. I don’t tolerate anybody who doesn’t conform to that sort of personality, because I’d rather someone be straight up and honest, even if I don’t wanna hear something, because I can deal with that.
Away from work, away from football even, what other interests do you have?
Love my computer games; Call of Duty, FIFA, things like that. I enjoy my cars. I’m a huge family man, so just spending time with my kids, my wife and my close friends. It means a lot to me. I enjoy holidays from time to time. The simple things really.
Finally, if we fast-forward to a year or so from now, obviously promotion would be great, but what do you want to have seen happen or developed for the club?
I think over the next 12 months, obviously, we’re keen to push for promotion. We’ve never, ever said that we’ll guarantee it, because football’s football and you just cannot do that, but we should be competitive, we should be there or thereabouts. We like to be successful, me and Ade; I couldn’t do it without him, he’s a rock to me and I’m a rock to him. I’d like to think in 12 months’ time, we’ll have had a good style of football, a brand that the fans are proud to watch. That’s important because without the fans you don’t have a football club. Development around the ground; we’ve done so much in the last three months. We would hope that by the time the fans come back on 19th September, we’ve given them a new lease of life in the stadium that they’re proud to be a part of. We just wanna build on that, see where we end up, and push positively forward.
Interview by @chris_brookes