Les Wheatley, Commercial Director, The Protector Group
Former Newcastle United finance director Les Wheatley has returned to the North East to spearhead an expansion drive at security business The Protector Group. He tells Andrew Hebden about a career that has taken him from Britain’s biggest bus company to a famous night in Istanbul - via an infamous court case.
EVEN on a bright spring morning, the view out of the window of Les Wheatley’s new office is never going to set your spine tingling.
This is, after all, Team Valley, Gateshead, at its most industrial, and even a deep blue sky can’t mask the greyness of the surroundings.
For a man used to turning up for work at St James’ Park or Anfield, where the sparkling motors of millionaire footballers line the car park, it might seem like a bit of a come down.
After our interview, we walk down the steps in the two-storey utilitarian office building, where scores of safety industry certificates cover the walls.
"It’s not quite the same as Liverpool," Wheatley, 57, laughs. For sure, there’s nothing quite like the "This is Anfield" sign that the greatest names in football have tapped prior to stepping out on to the famous turf.
Softly spoken Wheatley, from Birkenhead, is the first to admit it was a wrench to leave Liverpool in January 2009. But he acknowledges his departure became inevitable following the arrival of US owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, whose public falling out led to a period of uncustomary turbulence in the boardroom.
The writing was on the wall when Rick Parry, the club’s chief executive, a friend of Wheatley’s with whom he had worked several times in the past and who brought him to Merseyside from Newcastle, was unceremoniously told by Hicks he was no longer required.
"He did a TV interview in Dallas sitting by his fire, basically saying that Rick’s position was untenable," recalls Wheatley.
"But he hadn’t told Rick he was doing the interview. He showed Sky a letter that he had written to Rick but he hadn’t sent it or it was in the post and Rick was on the train to London oblivious to all of this going on."
Wheatley, who joined Liverpool as finance director in 2000, admits relations between the incumbent management team and the new owners were "always a bit strained".
"The two guys fell out pretty quickly, or they appeared to. But an awful lot of what we heard was in the public domain. We weren’t on any inside track. They appointed a group finance director that we didn’t know anything about and when he arrived it became pretty clear our time was limited."
If there’s any lingering bitterness, then Wheatley – who was recruited by Parry to drive forward the redevelopment of Anfield – certainly doesn’t show it. He has many fond memories from his time at the club, in particular that famous night in Istanbul when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 half-time deficit to win the European Cup.
"It was disappointing for me on a personal level because it was a great job, but I’m more hurt that we never saw through the job that we were there to do ... to do the stadium. And it looks even more remote than ever now."
Progress had been good on the project until a need for new investment eventually led to the arrival of the Americans. They subsequently wanted to put their own stamp on the plans which increased costs and then the economy dropped off a cliff.
"It would have been a fantastic stadium but the economics of it were a bit strange," Wheatley says diplomatically.
If his two years at Newcastle United were also "a bit strange", then at least they were never dull. Perhaps Wheatley, who in 1998 was "pretending to be retired in my mid- 40s" after seven years at Greater Manchester Buses, should have seen it coming.
Just days after Parry, then chief executive of the Premier League, introduced him to Newcastle chief executive Freddie Fletcher, the infamous scandal involving Freddy Shepherd, Douglas Hall and "Fake Sheikh" Mazher Mahmood exploded onto the front pages.
Wheatley moved to the North East once things had calmed down. Little did he know that the stadium project he was brought in to lead, by raising £55m, would stoke more controversy.
Wheatley looks back on his two years at the club, initially as finance director and later as chief operating officer, with fondness.
A keen sportsman -–he admits that he secured a place at Durham University principally due to his proficiency on the rugby field – he was excited at the prospect of working in football. He says: "The job at Newcastle was to get the stadium to happen and to try and re- establish some faith with the City because at the end of the day it was shortly after the float that all this (the Hall and Shepherd scandal) had happened.
"Stadium building was very much the Halls’ forte as property developers. I got the money raised and along with great help from Steve Walton (of Barclays Bank, now chief executive of Sunderland FC), then we set about trying to sell it and getting people moved around - and we ended up upsetting quite a number of people."
The battle with the Save Our Seats campaign (SOS) famously ended up in court. And, while the club won the day, Wheatley admits: "I don’t think we won the hearts and minds back."
"You obviously have regrets because it upset an awful lot of people," he says, looking back. "But I don’t see how we could have handled it any different, however hard we’d tried.
"We were trying to get Newcastle up there alongside with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. We had to get more revenues into the club."
"In the end the club was sued by five people. It was good sport for a while in the Press but an awful lot of hard work for what went on. It could have been handled better, I’m sure. But I’m not sure we would have got a different result because whatever happened those people had to be moved.
"What I am happy with is that we didn’t run away from it. We faced up to all those people who were unhappy.
"Legally we were proven that we hadn’t gone against anything that we said and I also think if you look at the stadium now and what it achieved post those events it moved Newcastle up into the top five or six clubs in the UK and the top 20 in the world."
Whilst getting the stadium built was his proudest achievement, working with the St James’ Park staff is his fondest memory.
"We put them through a difficult time," he says. "We were knocking down their offices, so they would go home at night and they would come in the following morning and their offices weren’t there.
"We had the team trying to sell new seats to people coming in aggressive, upset, crying. We put them through an awful lot but they rose to that and stayed together as a team."
Now living in Gosforth, Newcastle, he admits: "It doesn’t feel like I have been away for 10 years.I was at Liverpool for 10 years to do the same job and I never got one brick in the ground but I was at Newcastle for two and we got it done."