John Batchelor: The Man, The Ideas

When John Batchelor took over York City, When Saturday Comes contacted new frontiers (September 2002) for an article on the man. We made a start, but never finished it as it was overtaken by events. He’s what we nearly said

He tends not to play on his background but he's a member of the Batchelor's soup family and a former Burnley season ticket holder. He's head of a in the British Touring Cars Championship back of the grid motor racing team. His own racing has been curtailed this season (2002) as a result of a televised crash at the start of the season. Meanwhile he's expanded his motor sport empire by signing up a lady driver and a motor biker. I suspect somewhere in his past lurks a failed business adventure or two (Ed – these came to light a bit later and included waste paper).

York City Soccer Club

As a complete outsider and the first to become chairman of the club, his appointment was welcomed after years of Douglas Craig (some (me) would say 11 years of tyranny, others, 8 years prudent financial management rewarded with Wembley and Old Trafford success followed by 3 years of over spending). JB offered a future where there was no future and a chance for supporters to help shape that future with a pledge to put 2 supporters onto the board.

I'm no financial expert, but JB won't have had to pay much for a football team losing £24,000 a week. The difficult bit will be securing a home for the club. £4.5m to buy the city centre Bootham Crescent from the previous board or considerably more to build an out of town stadium cum leisure attraction featuring the usual hotels, shops and casino. With plans already drawn up to build something like £18m worth of houses on Bootham Crescent, securing our future home should be top of his to do list. Although several potential sites have been identified, council backing is as yet not forthcoming.

Undoubtedly he's got us more publicity than a Division 3 side can expect. Regular appearances on Radio 5 Live have been coupled with an approach to buy ITV Digital and a plan for a 74 club (Celtic & Rangers included) successor to the Nationwide League with 50% of gate receipts going to a central pot to fund player wages. (Ed – an adventure into ladies knickers also followed shortly afterwards).

Closer to home, the club has received a make over. Be prepared to be stunned by his garish shirts (Ed – I thought I spotted Austin Powers at the ground last week , on closer inspection it turned out to be JB). He's often to be seen watching games from the terraces and has publicly stated that he prefers away games as he can watch from the terraces rather than home games where he's expected to entertain the visiting directors.

The team has reverted to the Y fronted shirt, albeit with a chequered flag emblazoned on one shoulder. The chequered flag also features on the new club badge and we're now known as York City Soccer Club

Most of his actions and utterances have been received with mixed feelings. You might have thought an offer of half price 2003/4 season tickets made in September 2002 would go down a treat. The doubters couldn't decide whether JB (and YCFC) were short of cash or whether JB would cut and run. However, around 1,000 tickets were snapped up within a week (Ed – before he cut and ran).

His mouth a quote philosophy has also attracted comment, especially his words on the americanisation of football.

Throughout history, not many football club chairman have won universal acceptance their club's fans. JB has joined that list (Ed – but not for long). Whatever, he's got people talking, created interest and brought in new ideas.

The dialogue between JB and the Supporters Trust, set up when Craig announced his exit plans, has not always been all sweetness and light. A longer than expected handover from Craig is the underlying cause. The same frosty relationship exists between the Trust and the wider body of supporters who feel things are happening more slowly than expected. Amongst the reasons cited are the unresolved ground issue, lack of supporter representation on the board and some Trust money being given to local sporting organisations rather than YCFC. (Ed – These 2002 words make even more depressing reading when read in 2018).

There's no doubt that he's looking to get the finances under control. Although some senior (costly) players were already under long contracts, others were released and our new signings tend to be younger and or foreign players. We’ve already seen a Nigerian, a Brazilian and an Argentinean pull on City shirts this season. A bid for another Argentinean midfielder by the name of Veron came to nothing. Apparently, he liked it too much where he came from and went back. It remains to be seen whether a half size, same price programme stripped of various footballing content but with pin up models and motor racing featuring in the early issues is a success or not.

On the pitch, our fine run at the end of last season has, so far, continued. The squad is largely the same as last season, but the introduction of a new fitness coach and Luther Blissett (previously known to JB from motor sport) seems to have added something. The real test will come in November as last season we started well, finished well and did well in the FA Cup. All with the white ball. But, when the Nationwide changed to the yellow ball for the winter months our league form plummeted.

Since his appointment, about the only thing JB has done to universal acclaim is when he signed City up to the racism campaign, the last Football League club to do so.

Many have still to be convinced about the synergy Batchelor sees between football and motor racing.

Some of his ideas and statements come across as naïve at times. It seems that everything he does divides opinion, be it ladies lingerie, the badge the new shirt. Our new YCSC logo is meant to make us more marketable in the USA, a country whose views on offside, no draws and bigger goals are endorsed by JB. Even his decision to make a very brief appearance as a sub in a home pre season friendly against Bracknell (don't ask how a struggling Ryman side find their way up to York on Friday night and definitely don't ask how come they beat us!) split the supporters.

To win over the fans, JB will need to succeed on the pitch. That is always assuming he's found us a pitch.

Postscript. Within months of this article, a truer picture came to light as our finances didn’t improve and administration followed. JB was off the scene and to this day, I’ve still to be convinced that his motor racing team didn’t financially benefit from various sponsorship deals that should probably have benefitted the club. He’s also remembered by many as the man who signed away the lease on Bootham Crescent, effectively rendering us homeless. Fortunately, supporters of Stockport had better sense when he reappeared at Edgeley Park fronting a new consortium wishing to takeover their club.

In 2003, The Supporters Trust effectively took control of the club following the Batchelor regime.

One of the other parties whose name was touted as a saviour was Brooks Mileson who later ploughed money into Gretna and raising their profile. This was in addition to his support of Carlisle through one of their hours of crisis and sponsoring dozens of other non league clubs throughout England and Scotland.

Postscript #2. Following his flirtations with City, Batchelor's name was mentioned in connection with buy outs at other clubs, including Southampton, Mansfield and Chester. None came off. He died in a Stockport hospital on April 16 2010, aged 51. The following is sourced from the article by Mark Stead in The Yorkshire Evening Press at the time of his death.

CONTROVERSIAL former York City FC owner John Batchelor has died (100416) at the age of 51. The ex-touring car driver and team boss, who was at the Bootham Crescent helm between 2002 and 2003, was suffering from liver disease caused by alcoholism and died in Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport.

His reign was one of the most disastrous in City’s history, with the club coming close to extinction. Mr Batchelor, who lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, personally pocketed £120,000 from his time in charge.

In 2008, the former toilet roll salesman, who once changed his name to John Top Gear to win backing for his racing team from the BBC show and became John B&Q to secure sponsorship from the DIY chain, admitted to The Press that he asset-stripped the Minstermen to make a profit, although he also claimed he still had “a great affinity” for City and “would do it completely differently” if he had a second chance at the club.

Former City owner Douglas Craig, who sold the club to Mr Batchelor, said yesterday: “I think he totally underestimated the difficulty of the job – I always thought he would either be a millionaire or a bankrupt. I am very sorry to hear of his death in such circumstances.”

During Mr Batchelor’s time as owner, City plunged into administration and their 25-year lease on their ground with Bootham Crescent Holdings was torn up, with the club subsequently dropping out of the Football League.

He later refused to pay City £42,500 he had promised to hand over for season-ticket money he used ahead of the 2003/4 season because of a breach of a confidentiality clause in a contract he had signed with the club and the York City Supporters’ Trust. Last year, he was banned from acting as a company director for seven years.

City fan Phil Howden said: “I don’t think many supporters will be shedding too many tears. “John Batchelor openly admitted he asset-stripped the club and he was obviously somebody you could never fathom, who was desperate for attention and who walked away from the club with a lot of money.”

Steve Clark of the Pocklington Minstermen supporters’ club said: “What he did to City was unforgivable.”

City’s current board of directors declined to comment on the death of Mr Batchelor, who leaves a wife, Gillian. Paul Steddings, general manager of System Hygiene, the firm where Mr Batchelor launched his business career, said: “John Batchelor was a director of the company more than 20 years ago and we are sorry to learn of his tragic death. Our thoughts are with his family.”

Meanwhile, his Press colleague, Dave Flett recalls.

The former toilet-roll salesman, who admitted spending a month in hospital for alcohol dependency in 2006, thought nothing of dressing up as Austin Powers and had previously changed his name by deed poll to John Top Gear and John B&Q as he sought advertising funds for his motor racing team.

He also launched a rebranding initiative when taking over the Minstermen in March 2002, introducing a chequered flag into the team’s kit and renaming them York City Soccer Club. Of greater damage, however, was the later revelation that he had struck a deal with Persimmon Homes and stadium owners Bootham Crescent Holdings, headed by former chairman Douglas Craig, to sell the ground for housing and tear up the club’s 25-year lease at their traditional home in return for £400,000 sponsorship money for Batchelor’s “York Sporting Club”.

Despite having no guarantee of a venue at which to play football, he then offered City fans the opportunity to buy half-price season tickets for the 2003/4 campaign before plunging the club into administration with debts of £1.8 million.

It subsequently emerged that only £100,000 of the Persimmon money was invested into the club with Batchelor admitting that he asset-stripped the Minstermen and lied to fans after backtracking on a promise to give the Supporters’ Trust a 25.1 per cent shareholding. The chain of events that unfolded under his stewardship meant that the Trust had to acquire a total of £2.5 million to secure ownership of both the club and Bootham Crescent, contributing to City’s relegation from the Football League and ongoing financial struggles. More recently, Batchelor cropped up again with more madcap plans to takeover Mansfield Town in 2008.

He wanted to rename the Stags “Harchester United” – a fictional club whose fortunes were dramatised on Sky TV.