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Tony Kleanthous Interview
Part 3

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Committee members Ben Kentish and Sam Norris interviewed Tony Kleanthous in early June. This is the third and final instalment.

The questions were submitted by BFCSA members.

Prince Edward Playing Fields (PEPF)

What are your long-term plans for PEPF?

I'm hoping it will become known as one of the best football academies, not only in London and England, but in the world. My intention is to have a first-class facility that is recognised throughout football. We want the site to be used for teams who are playing England at Wembley, so our training ground becomes known as the site to go to for people who are training top quality players. The England team are probably going to use the National Football Centre when it's ready but if England can use Prince Edward then even better. This is why I don't particularly want us to have our stadium there: I see it as being a first-class training centre and I don't want any distractions from that. It would be nice to have a stadium there – and there already is a small one – but it would nice to only play our ladies and youth games there. And wouldn't it be great to have Beckham and England warming up there before an England game? People don't appreciate how far this club has come. We used to be a very much a small, non-league club in everybody's eyes. But slowly people are beginning to see us as a professional – still small – league club. We've now got to make the next step forward.

How much, and in what ways, will having the PEPF facility benefit the club?

The key and most important way is that it will help us develop our own, home-grown talent.

Where do you see the club being in five years, ten years, and twenty years?

In five years, I hope to have Prince Edward fully up and running, be completely bedded down there, and have our youth system up and operational. I hope to have all the work at Underhill finished, as far as I can go within reason. And hopefully we'll be a long way into talks with Barnet Council about having a new site in the borough. In ten years, I hope the academy will by then be fully established and we'll be starting to put the foundations in on our new stadium in the London Borough of Barnet. In twenty years I hope that we'll have a 20,000 capacity stadium and be playing in the Championship. Hopefully we'll go even further than that but realistically that is how I see our next twenty years. If I get a fair wind, then what I've said will happen in twenty years may happen in ten, and then we really can be pushing on.

Tony Kleanthous

What have been the best and worst moments during your time as Barnet chairman?

The worst moment is easy – relegation. The best moment is more difficult. Surprisingly, it wasn't when we got promotion. There are two that spring to mind but if I had to have a best moment it would be after the game at Old Trafford, when all of Old Trafford were giving a standing ovation to our supporters. That whole day will always be a really special day to me. We went through so much trouble. I don't know if people know this but when we went to Manchester I hired a sports club and arranged a buffet for all our supporters. We'd arranged that all the coaches would come up and we hired this sports club in Manchester that holds three thousand people. We wanted every supporter to have a free meal before they went to the game. But it all went wrong – there were road accidents and the coaches were delayed. Five minutes before the game the away stand was empty and then all of a sudden it started to fill up. It filled up quickly because everyone arrived late, and then the game kicked off and our goalkeeper got sent off and then they scored, but our supporters just supported and supported and supported. It just meant so much. To me, that was Barnet, that was us. Everything went wrong that day, but still everyone was 100% behind the club. That was a very special day for me.

Who is the best/most talented player you've seen at Barnet during your time at the club?

I'd have to say Maik Taylor. There have been others, such as Linvoy Primus, Dougie Freedman, Marlon King and Jason Puncheon, but if we're talking about the whole package then I'd have to go with Taylor because he was professional throughout. I remember his first game – Hereford away – when the opposing keeper scored against him. I'd been the one who had instructed the manager to sign him so I remember sitting in the directors' box thinking 'I'm going to get so much stick now', but it turned out all right in the end!

During your 14 years in charge of the club, has there ever been a time when you've felt like giving up and walking away?

Every day. The truth is I don't want to be doing it. I love this club - it's like my baby - but I don't want this job. I don't want to be doing it. I just came to save a club that I thought needed a bit of help. Unfortunately I hadn't appreciated quite how much help that was, because when I came the full picture wasn't revealed to me. And by the time I'd found out, I just knew there wouldn't be a club left if I walked away. In for a penny, in for a pound; I got that far and that was it. If I commit to do something then I do it. I don't want to leave just yet; I haven't fulfilled my last commitment. I think I've beaten every record this club has but there is still one more thing I want to do. There are actually two things I want to do in football, but one thing I have to do before I feel I've done my job here.

That one thing is that I need to get us promoted and win a few games in a higher division. I don't know if I'll achieve it but I desperately want to. I also have another ambition, which was half-fulfilled over the summer. I've always had an ambition to walk on the Wembley turf. In my mind it was always with my team, but I actually walked on there to present a trophy in the play-off final. I remember standing on the turf thinking 'Well at least I've got to walk on the Wembley turf, but it's not quite what I wanted'. I'm desperate for us to go to Wembley. But I have this horrible nightmare that we got to Wembley and there's only about 2,000 of us there. But I have to say, I wouldn't care. I wouldn't care if it were just me there with a Barnet scarf. I so badly want to see us at Wembley, I really do.

Funnily enough the day we got relegated was probably when I felt least like walking away. I said to Dennis [Signy] 'I don't want to leave this place until it's better than when I came'.

What possessed you to get involved in a football club in the first place, especially a small club like Barnet?

For some reason - I don't know why - I wanted to run a football club. I wasn't a frustrated footballer; I just wanted to run a football club. Barnet was my second club - most Arsenal and Spurs supporters' second club is Barnet – and when I saw how bad things were was I just knew it was a job for me.

If you knew the hassles you would get, would you have taken on such a role in a club? Have you ever regretted it?

I've regretted it every day since the very first day I got here. I still love Barnet, it's still my baby and it's not personal to anyone here, but it's taken so much out of my life. I was a wealthy guy at a young age. I'm a lot less wealthy now and much older and less fit. So how do you think I feel? But I will be here until someone takes over the club who, in my opinion at least, can take it further. I get offers for this club all the time, that's the thing people don't appreciate. But they're all from developers, that's the trouble. Of course developers are interested; we've got a 44-acre training site in Edgware on a virtual freehold, we own our ground, and we own properties around the stadium. There's lots of them out there picking up these clubs, stripping out their assets and making a fortune off the back of them. I'm very worried about someone coming along and duping me and then just completely stripping the assets of this club and destroying it. I'm very concerned about that.

Did or do you have any ambitions to be involved in any bigger club such as Arsenal?

No. Never. But I could have been: I've had offers to chair three different clubs that have either been in or are now in the Premiership. I can't name them but I've had lots of offers in football. But I didn't come into football to make money or to make a career; I came into football to save my local club. That's what I came in to do and that's what I will do. I just never thought of my exit plan. I just assumed I'd come in, save it and then someone else would take it over and that would be that. But I came in and I'd never seen anything like it. Football is just such a horrible business; it's the single worst industry I've ever seen in my life, and I've been in a few industries. I am shocked by the things that go on in football.

What were your aims for the club when you bought it and do you feel that you have achieved those aims?

My plan was to make us financially stable and to take us further than we'd been before. I still haven't completely achieved those aims to my satisfaction. I don't feel that I've fulfilled my aims yet, but I will if we get promoted.

What is the most rewarding thing about owning the club you love?

[Long pause] I think the most rewarding thing is some of the things you can do for kids and ill people, which you'd never normally get an opportunity to do. Sometimes you can do some really special things for people. When you can do those things, it's very rewarding. The business itself and the football itself is no reward at all. Even when we win a game, I used to enjoy it much more when I didn't own the club. Then I could really enjoy it. You all know what it's like to win a game and scream your head off, but I can't do that. You have no idea how that feels.

The first thing I do after a game – and you have to do it if you're doing your job properly – is, win or lose, go over to the away directors and I congratulate them or commiserate with them. I could be the happiest person on earth – we could've just won the FA Cup – and I have to go over there and say 'Look I'm really sorry, I know how you feel'. You have to do your duty. But really I just want to be doing what you're all doing – screaming and shouting and loving it. And then I have to go into the boardroom and I've got guests there and I have to go and talk to all my guests. And you're all still screaming and shouting and loving it. I don't get any of that, I don't get any of the fun I used to have. I can't tell you how much I'd love to just be a supporter again.

Do you ever find it difficult not to interfere in the manager's team selection?

I don't actually know the team that is going to play until they run out on a Saturday. I thought every supporter knew this about me. The only time I speak to the manager about that side of things is normally a day or two after a game when we'll have a debrief and go through what happened. But I try to avoid talking to them before the game – even on a Thursday or Friday – because I don't want to know who is playing. I don't want to get into a discussion about it. I learnt this in the early days: what will happen is you might be talking to your manager on a Thursday and there might be, for instance, a striker that you might think should play and his name will come up in the conversation. Then you create a dilemma for the manager. If he wasn't going to play him and results aren't going well and he's feeling insecure, he may feel compelled to play him.

On the flip side, maybe he was going to play him but because you mentioned him, he feels like he wants to do his own thing and so he doesn't play him. Either way, I don't want to affect it, so I don't have that conversation. They stand and fall by their own decisions. How we run as a football club, and it's important that all supporters know this, is that the manager gets a budget and that budget is for everything to do with the football side. He can spend it on overnight stays, he can spend it on having 54 coaches at the training ground, he can it on spend it on having 60 players on £1 a week or 30 players on £2 a week. It is their budget, to do with as they think fit. He chooses his players and buys them. I might step in and say I disagree with something, I may even stop him doing something but that is extremely rare.

I expect them to consult me, to ask for my advice, and normally when the manager is in trouble he comes to me to try and bail him out of it, because I have a lot of contacts in football. Sometimes I have to help him out by bringing in certain players or by bending the arm of a chairman I know to get a player on loan. Whatever it is, I'll assist where I can. For instance, with the Grazioli deal, it was me that did that deal. I'm the one who brought him to Barnet. I had an opportunity to get him. I told Martin [Allen] literally on the day 'Look I've got this opportunity but you've got to make a decision now: take it or leave it'. That's an example of how it happens.

I see myself as being there for two reasons: firstly I've got to use my judgement to make the best appointment that I can at the time and then, secondly, I support whoever I appoint as best I can. But I do not make my judgements on performance alone, especially if someone is doing their best and making the right decisions. A good example of that is Ian Hendon, when he took over from Paul [Fairclough], went seven or eight games without a win. And I should've stopped it and I very nearly did: Ian came within a whisper, and I mean literally a whisper – 90 minutes - of moving back into the coach's position.

But we were trying to give him as much time as possible because the one thing you could see was that he was trying so hard and he was working so hard, and the decisions he was making were the right decisions. He was just so unlucky. You've got to try and see that and support that. So would I ever make a team selection? No - you know the team the same time that I do. And do you know what's really great about that? It's that I can sit there and think 'Why has he done that? What's that about? What formation are we playing today?', just like you all do. And when you were all moaning about playing one up front at home, I was moaning just as much because I didn't like it either!

Interview by Ben Kentish.

The BFCSA would like to thank Tony Kleanthous for giving up his time, and hopes its members found the interview interesting and informative. Don't forget that Tony, along with Ian Hendon, will be speaking to supporters at the BFCSA AGM, which takes place in the Durham Suite on Thursday 9th July at 7.30pm.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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