Having been the chairman of Reading football club for twenty years, Sir John Madejski knows football. And footballers too, at that. “A lot of them are just football mercenaries. It’s very rare when you get a player that’s totally loyal to his club.” He refers to footballers’ CVs and what might look good on them. He regrets the “excessive” wages that they get, and the difficulties this presents him. “In recent times, we’ve had to sell players just to balance the books, which is not very satisfactory, but we have no option. And of course you can’t confine someone who clearly has talent to play at a much higher level, so you’ve just got to be grateful you have got compensation”. These issues are more than familiar to modern football fans. What is subtly different, when I meet Madejski before his speech at the Oxford Union, is the way in which he talks about them. He’s a businessman, and while the word ‘business’ is seen as dirty in some corners of the football world, Madejski is pragmatic. But instead of calling it a ‘business’, Madejski reckons that his work with Reading falls more into the category of philanthropy. “We try to pretend it’s a business, but it’s a pretty runt business to tell you the truth.” It’s one-way traffic, to be precise. At the back end of the last century he spent £25 million on the club’s Madejski stadium, and has invested significantly more alongside that. In his words, always calm and collected: “I’ve spent quite a lot of money on the club”.
Whatever category the football club falls under, the thing that differentiates football from other businesses, says Madejski, is the emotional aspect. “You don’t just leave it at the factory gate, it’s hearts and minds.” As a man who firmly claims to be “not a football fanatic”, the ability to take that step back and look at things rationally appears to have served him well. But with so much raw tribal passion flying around in football, has he ever felt the need to tear up the rulebook on transfer deadline day and leave the confines of what one might see as good business sense? “Sometimes in the past I’ve been irrational” he admits, “But it’s dangerous stuff when you let your heart rule your heard”. Whatever he’s done, it has worked well enough for Reading football club. The club’s two-year stay in the Premier League was not as long as the they would have liked, but nonetheless the last ten years in their shiny new stadium have been the brightest in the club’s hundred and thirty-nine year history.
After such a long stint at the helm, Sir John has decided it is nearing time to sell up. Not that there’s any hurry. “If someone comes along with deep pockets, I’m happy to step aside. The trouble is, there’s not many of those sort of people around”. He is concerned with the future of the club, and is not prepared to let it fall into the wrong hands. “What would absolutely crucify me” he says, “is if someone came in and just stripped the assets and made the club bare after I’ve spend twenty long years building up what I consider to be a pretty good club”. He is proud of his ‘pretty good club’. It’s an understated pride, but it’s there. He’s particularly proud that a number of members of the current first team squad are products of the football academy he founded.
On the subject of academies, he calls, again with measured, understated pride, the opening of a school in South Reading, The John Madejski Academy “the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s just so moving to see what went before and what happens now.” If that then is the best thing he’s ever done, has the wallet-draining stint in football been worth it? “Yes, because hopefully I’ll have left the football club in a better position than i found it twenty years ago.” Despite the undeniable passion inside, Madejski is most interested in verifiable results, in cold, hard facts and he talks about all of his different interests in the same way. Football is just one of many interests for him. It’s not special, unique, put on a pedestal and spoilt silly like a favourite grandchild. Other club owners may see their football club as a toy, a distraction. Despite the joy it has given him, football is something that is very much not to be taken lightly.