April 1997. Social media wasn’t even thought of, the internet was in an embryonic phase and mobile phones were bulky contraptions generally beyond most people’s financial reach. Gloucester Rugby finished their home league season at Kingsholm with a 20-20 draw against Bristol, in front of a crowd of 4,931. How times have changed.
Martin St Quinton’s acquisition of the club takes me back 19 years to the last such momentous event. Tom Walkinshaw’s arrival came as Gloucester saw themselves at risk of being left behind with the professional era gathering pace as other clubs such as Bath, Saracens, Newcastle and Richmond all acquired significant investment.
David Foyle, then the Chairman of the Board of Directors, told an EGM that another year of budgetary losses could not be sustained – the previous year’s deficit was £140,000 – and that a massive injection of money was needed for the club to retain their best players and attract new ones. It was likely that this would involve selling 75%, possibly more, of the club’s shares.
A deal looked to have been done a week before Tom Walkinshaw was unveiled as Gloucester’s backer when Phillipe Saint-Andre’s signing was announced. A two year contract for the French international wing meant money was clearly coming, and Tom’s aim was simple. “I want to help Gloucester reach their objective of being the top team in the country” he said. Sadly it was something he never saw, and his family now pass on the baton with Tom’s target still unachieved.
That is not to say huge strides have been made. Witness the meltdown on social media when Martin St Quinton’s purchase of the Walkinshaw family shares was announced. Fans expressed their gratitude because they recognised what could have happened without their intervention. It shouldn’t be forgotten that as Chairman of EFDR and then Premier Rugby, Tom batted hard for the right structure to the professional game as a whole, so his influence was widely felt beyond Kingsholm.
He didn’t court publicity, but once made a speech on the pitch when the old grandstand was still in place. “Take a look at it, because it won’t be there much longer” he quipped. Walkinshaw had promised ground investment if Kingsholm was regularly full and since the summer of 2007, the new South Stand has dominated the skyline. Martin St Quinton sang from the same hymn sheet when his full ownership was announced, so it will be interesting to see if there can be a growth spurt in attendances to make it happen, given average crowds have been almost static, and short of capacity, for the past five seasons. That said, they are still more than double the levels Walkinshaw inherited.
The honours board between 1997 and today shows four Cup successes (six if you include the short lived Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup in 1997-8 and 1998-9) and three seasons where Gloucester have topped the league table, although the title “Champions” has never been theirs. Taking Richard Hill as the starting point, as he was in charge when Tom Walkinshaw bought the club, David Humphreys is the seventh Director of Rugby to try and harness Gloucester Rugby’s attributes into something tangible in the Premiership. The men and squads of players who preceded him were not without quality, yet the biggest challenge remains the reliance on results at Kingsholm. Home credits are often balanced by away debits, a pattern not mirrored in the club’s accounts.
Martin St Quinton takes over after a period of steady if modest profits in recent years, the groundwork laid by Tom Walkinshaw and Gloucester’s long serving Managing Director Ken Nottage being continued by the partnership between Tom’s son Ryan and Steven Vaughan, whose ideas have brought revenue without disruption. Vaughan will remain an important cog in the Gloucester wheel as the new owner adjusts from being a man with an important input to the one where the buck stops.
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