Mr. Rich invests in Bedlington for the love of the game

November 5, 2010

SOCCER-ENGLAND/BEDLINGTONAmerican billionaire Robert Rich Jr, the 488th richest man in the world, can buy just about anything he wants to from private jets to diamonds, mansions to ocean-going liners and everything in between.

But this week it emerged that he has put some of his vast fortune at the disposal of a tiny, impoverished minor league English club by the name of Bedlington Terriers.

Their average attendances in the Northern League, the ninth tier of the English pyramid, are around 100, although they sometimes get 300 on a good day.

The appropriately named Mr Rich, whose vast food company is based in Buffalo, New York State, discovered an ancestral link with Bedlington, has visited the area and the club and is now the honorary Lord of Bedlington after his wife bought the title which was once owned by one of his forefathers.

But what he loves most, he told me in a phonecall from Buffalo, is the passion of the people, all volunteers, who keep Bedlington alive.

They have had an incredibly modest history since being formed in 1949, but Bob Rich understood the true worth of the club as soon as he met the people who keep it going.

“They are fantastic people, there is a real community spirit,” he said.

“Yes there is a place for the Manchester Uniteds and San Francisco 49ers at the top of their sports, but I love the passion of the people at Bedlington. The big clubs can only exist because there are hundreds of smaller clubs below them.”

What he has tapped into is the enormous reservoir of dedicated, passionate and committed men and women who devote much of their time to the real grass roots of English soccer, a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

One of the pillars of England’s bid to stage the 2018 World Cup finals, is highlighting just how deep soccer runs in the fabric of English society.

As most students of the game know, England’s FA, formed in 1863, is the oldest in the world, and the FA Cup, with the first round proper starting this weekend, is the world’s oldest knockout competition, dating back to 1871-72.

Four community-owned clubs are playing this weekend — all clubs that would have died or not existed but for the efforts of their fans.

They include FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 by supporters as an alternative club to protest the takeover of Manchester United by American billionaires with a different agenda to Bob Rich.

AFC Wimbledon are also in the draw, a club formed after the original Wimbledon was “franchised” to Milton Keynes 80 miles away and who now boast regular crowds of 3,000-4,000 and are heading back to the English League less than a decade after being re-formed at the lowest level of the pyramid.

Bob Rich has not bought Bedlington — they are a community-owned club too — but he has invested in sponsorship and other areas, and realistically knows the club is unlikely ever to compete in the top four divisions.

“Thats not the goal,” he told me, “but they needed a hand. It’s under-financed and under-capitalised and with a bit of help can rise up through the leagues. Who knows what might happen, we’ll see.”

He’s not looking for a fast buck or a leveraged buyout, bond issues, or an incremental return on his money. What he has “bought” into instead is English soccer at its raw, warmest core — something one of the world’s richest men understands the value of.

Mike tweets @footballmc

PHOTO: The clubhouse of the Bedlington Terriers soccer club is seen in Bedlington, northern England November 5, 2010. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

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