The Blues and GSI

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the Rugby Journal – a publication very much worth getting. You can buy your copy on this link.

Geoff Irvine’s imposing frame has stalked the rugby corridors of power for the best part of twenty years. It is a recognisable gait, worn into a pitching tilt after seventy years of sport, business and fun. His greeting is often a bark; part welcome, part warning. He can be playful, poking fun at himself and others; he can be punishing, relentless in the pursuit of a certain idea or position. If you’ve ever worked with GSI, his initials are as well known as his formerly moustachioed face, you will have probably had a dressing down from him. He has held both a Bedford Blues and RFU Championship bone tight between his jaws for over a decade; wrestling long and hard to get the best result for both. And yet now, at the age of 78, he is allowing his gnawing grip to lessen. What happens next? Nobody is exactly sure.

Irvine’s story is worthy of note. His parents were originally from Northern Ireland and had left school at an early age. His father had ventured to Bedford to find work and at the time of Geoff’s birth, you could say the chances of Irvine business success were negligible. He attests a great memory as being one of the reasons for his prosperity and certainly one of the reasons he passed the 11+ entrance exam to Bedford Modern School. It was a school career full of outdoor pursuit rather than academic rigour and he just about made it through to sixteen. He was recently asked back to give out academic awards at his former school.

“It was quite a day for me,” observes Irvine, a broad, proud smile across his face. “I stood there in front of all those kids with a hundred and forty academic achievement certificates in my hand. And that was the closest I’d ever got to one.”

Bullish, brazen and seemingly brimful of confidence, Irvine had a gravitational pull on power. At a very early age, responsibility and authority sought him out. By twenty-one, he was the owner of a successful building company employing teams of people twice his age. Two years later, he was the vice-chairman of Bedford Town Football Club, who were then a leading club in the Southern League, and served his apprenticeship dealing with the likes of Dennis Roach and Barry Fry. Other things were also following him around too. His younger years were full of choices he has come to regret; attitudes and behaviours that now make him concerned, but he does not dispute how much he learnt from those mistakes. 

In the formative years of Irvine Whitlock, the company he and Ron Whitlock founded and ran until 2008, he did everything. On their first job, Geoff and Ron laid 15,000 bricks in five days, on their own.

“It was hard work but I loved it. The trouble was, I was the one with a grammar school education, so I would work on-site in the morning and then in the office in the afternoon. In the early ‘60s, I learnt how to estimate, quantify, market and account. I had to teach myself. All out of a small office in Hartington Street! It’s incredible when you think about it.” In 2008, as he stepped down as Chairman, Irvine Whitlock had a £60m turnover, employed nearly a thousand people, and was a very well known and respected brickwork contractor.

Rugby, for Geoff, was a sport he played at school and was then reunited with as a twenty-five-year-old at Queens RUFC. In his youth, he had, regrettably, spent too much time playing football.

“I started off training at Queens but then moved to Wentworth Drive and enjoyed a wonderful ten seasons turning out as a second row forward for Bedford Athletic and Bedfordshire. I came to the sport too late to make a real go of it but I loved playing, especially the social side. And I made many friends who I still see to this day.”

His appreciation of other sports also grew: in basketball, he became a qualified referee, but his love of golf created a new opportunity. In the early ‘90s, he found himself as the owner of the UK and European franchise of Joe Powell Golf: a club manufacturer from America that specialised in persimmon-headed drivers. Irvine’s commercial nous was recognised by the European Tour and this led to him becoming a special adviser to the Senior Section’s Managing Director, Andy Stubbs. Powell’s death was commemorated in 1994 by a tournament at Collingtree Park and he then played a large part in the promotion of the Jersey Seniors Open for many years. His ability to work with renowned sporting bodies was becoming evident.

But a phone call in 1999, changed Irvine’s life. Ian Bullerwell, another Old Bedford Mordernian, got in contact to explain the plight of Bedford Blues. Although now based in London, Geoff’s office was in Bedford and he still regarded it as home. The initial idea was to buy the club from the then owner Frank Warren. The famous boxing promoter had had his assets frozen by a legal entanglement he was having with Don King, and a consortium of local businessmen, David Ledsom, David Gunner, David Rawlinson, Ian Bullerwell and now Geoff, were trying to buy the rugby club back for the town.

Exclusive: Lessons from 22 years at the heart of rugby politics

“I was introduced to Frank (Warren) and I have to say I have the utmost respect for the man. I believe he had a genuine affection for the club, which cost him a lot of his personal money. It was estimated to be as much as £3 million, which was a lot 20 years ago! I believe that he was ill-advised by those around him and he did comment that if he had met me earlier, I would have saved him a considerable amount of money.”

Warren sold Bedford to a company called Jefferson Lloyd International for £1 and it was pretty clear that, despite press conferences saying the opposite, Jefferson Lloyd did not have the club’s best interests at heart. In a tumultuous six months, in which Bedford almost lost its club, Irvine’s dogged pursuit of what was just and right won out and in October of 1999, the Blues was back in the hands of the town. Geoff Irvine was going to spend the next two decades, ensuring its safe passage. 

“On my initial involvement with the club, one of my duties was to attend the monthly meetings of the clubs that formed the then Allied Dunbar One, which at the time was composed of the likes of Tom Walkinshaw, Nigel Wray, Keith Barwell, Chris Wright and Rob Andrew. It was a very interesting introduction to the politics of English Rugby. It stood me in good stead in later years, when I was to become Chairman of what was then First Division Rugby.”

Irvine is diplomatic in his language. ‘Interesting’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. There are stories of fistfights in board rooms, multiple meeting walk-outs, accusations and counter-accusations a-plenty. The egos of men, who had made a lot of money, continually butting up against each other in an attempt to get their own way.

In 2007, Irvine made the ultimate move: “I had been approached by several First Division Rugby (FDR) Clubs to see if I would be interested in becoming Chairman. I must say, at the time, I was not aware of what a poisoned chalice it would become, but I always relished a challenge and indeed, it proved to be one. Trying to keep (at that time) 16 clubs on the same page, all of whom had vastly different aspirations, was difficult, to say the least.”

“I became Chairman and joined the RFU Council in 2008,” continues Irvine. “The CEO of the RFU at that time was Francis Baron and, because his management style was seen to lean towards the autocratic (apparently somewhat similar to my own), I found him to be perfectly fair, as long as he got his way.”

“Francis had been very helpful in resolving the issue surrounding the attempted purchase of Bedford by Coventry, eight years previously. But now, quite clearly, we were on opposite sides. Francis, assisted by Terry Burwell, who was a rugby administrator, had come up with a plan to reduce the FDR from 16 clubs to 12, to form a fully professional 2nd tier known as The RFU Championship.”

“This was not popular with the majority of clubs; it meant the bottom 5 clubs would be relegated, to accommodate the new competition. After heated debate, the clubs voted 10-6 against the proposal. Francis was not deterred and decided to take the matter to the full Council of the RFU and, despite a very spirited plea from Bob Taylor of Northampton who was then President of the RFU, the proposal was carried by a narrow margin. In my opinion, this owed a fair amount to the fact it was considered unwise to vote against Francis.”

“I asked the question then (and have many times since), was it to be professional with a small p or a capital P? The question was never answered. Although recently, when the RFU savagely cut the funding of the Championship, we did get a response that leant very much to the former.”

Irvine battled long and hard. His tenure, it appears, was full of attempts to get the powers that be to fully recognise and support the Championship. But by 2018, he could see the writing was on the wall. In short, the people that mattered didn’t seem to care what happened to England’s second tier.

In a speech he made to the RFU Board in 2019, Irvine claimed that “the Championship’s purpose was to provide a competitive environment for young English-qualified players to learn their trade”. He also suggested that the league was “not a master of its fate as nearly every major decision concerning the league had been made by those others”. He was asking for support and time for the Championship to steady itself and indeed grow. He pleaded for help with revenue streams and sponsorship opportunities, and further assistance with medical provision for the players and facilities. None of which was forthcoming.

In February of 2020, despite warnings from Nigel Melville that there wouldn’t be any increases in funding, no one guessed the extent of the savage cuts that were to follow. Under new CEO, Bill Sweeney, the RFU would decimate the funding given to the Championship, making professional status nigh on impossible.

Irvine stood in front of the Council one final time. Once again, pleading for them to reconsider. Here follows an extract from the speech he gave:

“When the news was broken to the (Championship) clubs, we were informed that we had failed a number of objectives, KPIs and benchmarks: none of which, we had any previous knowledge. And to be honest, the clubs believe the evidence used against us is flawed. If we were failing any objectives, why have these not been mentioned to any of us during those four years; why were we not told of our failings and given chance to improve our performance?”

“Our alleged failures should be subject to further scrutiny… we have been refused access to the PowerPoint used at the meeting that decided our fate… The news (of the cuts) was delivered by email at 8 am when all of the members of the Championship clubs were on their way to the meeting… The illegitimate child (the Championship) that was fathered by the RFU is being sent to the orphanage!”

His words fell on deaf ears. The decision had been made. And as Covid gripped the country other concerns took centre stage, masking the initial issue, allowing Twickenham to refocus attention, Geoff walked away from his role as Championship Chairman defeated and seemingly beaten.

‘A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.’

When you speak to people about Geoff Irvine, many people use similar words. One that chimes exceptionally well is integrity. Undoubtedly, if Geoff says he will do something; it gets done. But when you start to engage for longer periods with key people, who have spent a while getting to know him, there is more that comes out.

“You could tell, very early on, he wasn’t in it for the same reasons as many of the other people around me were,” Steve Brown, the former CEO of the RFU (and Managing Director of ‘Rugby World Cup England 2015’), talks to me at length about how he found working with Geoff. “Some of the motivations I encountered were not good, but Geoff was unique in some respects. He was there for the rugby. He loved it; he loved his club, and had put a huge amount of his money into what he loved – and was somewhat of a model for how it should be done.”

“I don’t think people properly understand how good a job Geoff has done at Bedford. One thing that I had to do a lot in my job at the RFU was talking to clubs in the Championship about bailing them out. We were talking about staving off bankruptcy every month for some clubs, but I never had to do that with Bedford or Geoff. They struck a really good balance and were a very good example of how things like payroll should be run and how much you could (and should) pay players. So many clubs got that wrong and yet Bedford was always put forward as an example. They were a beacon, they stood out a mile.”

“There were three unique things that Geoff did for the RFU,” continues Brown, “And I know he didn’t receive a single penny for any of them. He did them all as a council member. He never even claimed any expenses. Not once. There is nobody I can think of in that organisation who has done that. The first was working on England’s Rugby World Cup in 2015, secondly the stadium upgrade project that happened before the World Cup and then, lately, and most recently, the East Stand development: which was huge.”

“He knew about running a big business; he has been a very successful business person and wasn’t fazed when we stuck half a billion pounds worth of transactions in front of him and said ‘we have to work out what our decision is going to be within one or two per cent of that’. But he was also the straight voice of the fan, the player and the clubs. And we needed to hear that voice. Interestingly, when it came to delivering the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he was the least demanding VIP we had involved. He did his own thing, paid for his own train fare to go places, didn’t use the fancy Range Rovers we had available: that was Geoff.”

“And when it came to both building projects, the huge advantage of working with Geoff is that nearly every day he would visit the site, with his own hardhat, boots and PPE equipment, and he’d inspect everything. He’d talk to all the contractors and find out what was going on. So when it came to discussions and updates with the building bosses he would say “No, you haven’t done that because I’ve been up there this morning and seen that it isn’t finished”. It was an extraordinary layer of quality control. To have that sort of person working on your side when you are spending the vast amounts of money we were, well, it was pretty much invaluable.”

Edward Griffiths, the former Saracens CEO, identifies Irvine’s value in terms of a deal struck between the two clubs in 2008.

“I’ve come to understand in my business life that it doesn’t matter what you do, but it does matter who you do it with. We saw the opportunity for a partnership between a Premiership and a Championship club, where there was respect on both sides; not a senior club and junior club, but an equal relationship. And having someone like Geoff on the phone in Bedford was basically what made that whole deal possible.”

The Saracens Bedford axis was responsible for arguably the most successful spell of Irvine’s tenure. On the pitch, the likes of George Kruis, Jackson Wray, Will Fraser, Owen Farrell, Jake Sharp, James Short, Dom Barrell, Ben Ransom all spent time on loan, with Duncan Taylor and Mouritz Botha going the other way. Bedford consistently made playoffs and lost out in finals to Bristol (cup) and Newcastle (league). It allowed Bedford to become known as the team that consistently punched above their weight and a club that became the envy of all.

“These partnerships in rugby are often very difficult,” continues Griffiths, “Because somebody will say something one day and then when the pressure comes on, or they have a couple of injuries, then the partnership quickly flies out the window. So it will only work if, genuinely, there are people on both sides who really want to make it work. And with Geoff working with Mike Rayer and myself working with Mark McCall, it meant that we had that and it was an incredibly successful seven or eight-year period for both sides.”

“What rugby clubs need is people who can give far more than they can take. Geoff has done that in many ways, and I hope people appreciate everything he has done. If the Championship had eleven other Bedfords, then there wouldn’t be a problem.”

But what about in opposition; what is it like to go toe to toe with Irvine? Mark McCafferty was the Chief Executive for Premiership Rugby Limited and is now an advisor for CVC, the private equity firm that owns sizeable stakes in both the Premiership and Six Nations. In his role as CEO for PRL, he would often find himself on the ‘other side of the table’ to Irvine.

“I think I would say that I have partaken in a few ‘bare-knuckle fist fights’ with Geoff,” laughs McCafferty. “And I was never sure if I would end up a winner or a loser in any of those! You had to know your stuff and be prepared for everything. The thing with Geoff was that if he thought he could steamroller you, then you never gained his respect. It was very much like a game of rugby: any boardroom encounter, you would go at it hammer and tong, but once it was all over, he’d be the first to buy you a beer in the bar.”

“We didn’t see eye to eye on everything but that just built a huge amount of mutual respect. And you know that having that relationship, perversely, you can find areas to agree on much quicker. That was very much his style. Geoff was an incredible networker, he builds trust in people very quickly and can work a process very quickly to his advantage.”

“I can only imagine, as is the case with a lot of people working in these sorts of roles, that a huge amount of his work goes unnoticed, unappreciated. That will be tough. For me, Geoff is a wonderfully robust businessman, who always had rugby in his heart. He did everything for the right reasons, and never for personal gain.”

Exclusive: Lessons from 22 years at the heart of rugby politics

You don’t need a pen or paper, a handshake is enough

Three Directors of Rugby have been in place during Irvine’s time at the club. Colin Jackson, Rudi Straeuli and Mike Rayer. That there have been so few over a twenty-year period, speaks volumes about working for Geoff.

“Like everyone else I reckon, I was pretty frightened!” Colin Jackson laughs and smiles fondly as he recollects his first encounter with Geoff and his transition from ‘poacher to gamekeeper’. “I’d been an agent before being a coach, had dealt with Geoff as an agent and he saw me as the best person, with the contacts I had, to rebuild the team that Bedford needed. But I quickly learnt to trust Geoff, his word is 100%. There’s never a reneging or backing down with Geoff. You don’t need a pen or paper with Geoff, a handshake is enough.”

“Now I’m down here, in New Zealand, with North Otago, I’ve taken a fair few of things I learnt with Bedford into running the club down here. Our head coach Jason Forrest has been up and spent time with Mike Rayer at Bedford, and I know we’ve had a few players back and forth between the two clubs – the link is strong and Geoff is a huge reason for that. His passion for rugby and Bedford is incredible.” 

Jackson announced his intention to return to New Zealand in 2004, leaving Bedford and Irvine in the tricky spot of finding a head coach to take the club forward, in what was looking like an important period. Once again, Geoff’s ability to provide the right solution came to the fore and an inspired selection in the shape of Rudi Straueli took the East Midland club to Twickenham, for their first piece of silverware in nearly 30 years.

Straeuli had played at Bedford during the Warren era and was more than taken with the town. But what Irvine was also able to see was how much the large former Springbok Head Coach needed a job away from the maelstrom of abuse he was receiving in South Africa. The appointment worked for both parties perfectly. 

“It was very straightforward,” says Straeuli, from his now Chief Executive office of the Golden Lions in Johannesburg. “It was post the Springbok 2003 World Cup, and all of the fallout I was experiencing. Geoff phoned me up and said, ‘Rudi, you need to be back here in Bedford where people love you.’ And I agreed. Geoff could see things and read a situation. I will always thank him for that.”

“And to work with he was fun. I remember, outside his office, when you went to see him, on one wall there was a picture of an axe, on the other wall, champagne. And sometimes you thought the meetings could be headed one of two ways: champagne or the axe!”

“He was a big man but pretty soft when you got to know him. Maybe people don’t see that side of him. He cared so much for the club and the league. He gave his all for rugby. Rugby needs legends like Geoff Irvine. And it wasn’t just Bedford. World Rugby is better off because of him. He would have been down here in South Africa with the Lions this summer. Rugby needs people who give as much as Geoff does.”

In May of 2005, at Chieveley Services on the M4, a meeting took place that forged a Director of Rugby relationship that became the longest-serving in English top-flight rugby. Once again Geoff’s ability to spot an opportunity and develop affiliations served him well: Mike Rayer and he shook hands on a deal which is, as of 2021, rolling into its seventeenth year. 

“There’s a piece of paper somewhere, I don’t know where it is; it’s a contract of sorts I think but I lost it a long time ago…” starts Rayer, who describes Irvine as one of the most reliable people you could ever meet. 

“I don’t find him complicated at all. We’ve had disagreements but there’s always been a resolution. His best attribute is his loyalty, 100%. It has been unwavering to this club and its cause. But also he’s got a great way with people. He’s dealt with the full spectrum of personalities in his career, from labourer to architect, and he can find the right words for anyone. Whenever we’ve been recruiting or dealing with players, he is always able to find the perfect magic phrase and I come away thinking, why didn’t I think of that? He’s also, over the years, given me a huge amount of man-management tips on how to deal with people.”

“Without Geoff, the club wouldn’t have survived. He’s spent fifteen years getting it on an even keel and now it’s there. And crucially, he’s also been able to bring in the right people to take us forward. That’s not easy. We’re all indebted to him for what he’s done. And not just financially. He’s fought tooth and nail for this club and he leaves it in a strong position. As strong as it could be. His legacy is an incredible one.”

But the Blues will have to survive without Geoff Irvine. It will be an interesting period of transition. The job for Geoff is relatively simple: spend some essential time with a growing brood of grandchildren and look after his wonderful wife Sara. As is so often the case, so much of a man’s achievements owe everything to a strong woman: Sara Irvine is one of the strongest. Her flashing blue eyes knew everything that was going on. She has ridden shotgun on each adventure and grown a healthy rugby knowledge of her own. She will now, deservedly, get her man and her weekends back.

Unsurprisingly, Geoff has not left his diary empty. “There is the small building business that I created six years ago,” reveals Irvine, “Which already has forty contracted men over two sites in Birmingham. I have also been asked to take up the post of President of Bedford Blues and as such, I will have to work hard on developing the skill of not getting involved!” There follows a knowing laugh. Both at the He will no doubt enjoy himself, and so he should. Few men have earned a rest like Geoff.

Perhaps only history will judge Irvine’s achievements. And maybe he isn’t finished. The state of rugby in England sits uncomfortably with him. In every situation he has worked in, Irvine has been utterly focused on providing a solution. It is, arguably, his greatest asset. Very rarely is there any discussion about blame or how the situation occurred, he is already looking for a workable way out. If you talk to those in the building trade, at the European PGA Tour, at Bedford Blues, at the RFU, it is what Irvine does better than anyone.

In terms of the RFU Championship, he has been unable to provide a solution. He speaks with clarity about succession plans and how keen he is to spend time with his grandchildren, but you get the sense he is ill at ease as to where second-tier rugby is headed at the moment. He is worried; worried about those now running the RFU and the messages they have sent out; worried that without him haranguing them, they will get their way and cut adrift such a valuable asset. That thought will visit him every day. He is always thinking. ‘The brain is a muscle,’ he says, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’

You could lay a bet on him being back. Perhaps things are just too ingrained; the hum of industry is sat too deep in Irvine’s ear. Perhaps having endured time away for a while, he will return in some form, in some place; the gnawing renewed and the bark just as welcoming.

After all, you can’t keep a good dog down.

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1 Response to The Blues and GSI

  1. Philip Bettles says:

    Thanks Geoff for keeping Bedford Rugby alive. The despicable acts of the RFU in shafting the Championship clubs over funding will never be forgotten, rugby will be poorer for it , both at England level and as aspiring players seeking progression.

    Like

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