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Pel Stadium Seating's Owes Its Success to the Hillsborough Disaster

29 October 2002

One of English footballs greatest ironies is the extent to which the fortunes of the top clubs, and their chairmen, have been founded on the games greatest collective failure, the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. The Taylor Report which followed was a searing indictment of the game's administrators for allowing it to sink so low, yet its recommendation, that public money, via 160m grants from the Football Trust, should help fund the compulsory seating of grounds, led to the enrichment of many of the same people.

It has now emerged that some senior football figures, and a club director, Mike McGinnity, then on the board at West Bromwich Albion, now Coventry's vice-chairman, profitted even more directly from the post-Taylor Report rebuilding

In summer 1989, with Lord Justice Taylor still conducting his inquiry, and the Football Association pushing hard for all-seater stadia, McGinnity, a personal friend of FA chairman Sir Bert Millichip, bought a company, Pel, which made plastic seats. He then formed a specific division, Pel Stadium Seating, and took on as a director Ted Croker, the recently retired secretary of the FA. Crokers son-in-law, Nick Harrison, was appointed sales director in January 1990, the month Taylor published his report.

In a programme on Radio 5 Live's "On the Line", both McGinnity and Harrison say that McGinnitys football connections, and particularly those of Croker, were instrumental in enabling Pel to establish themselves as a major supplier of seats.Since 1990, Pel have installed an estimated 1.6 million seats, including at Premiership clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool. Currently Pel is a major sponsor and only seating company represented in Football Nation, an international trade tour by the UK stadium industry, personally endorsed by Tony Blair.

All of this has flowed from setting up in time to benefit from the Taylor Report.

"Timing with any business is the key," says Harrison. "Obviously the time for expansion for us was right in the UK market."

In his report, Lord Justice Taylor criticised the Football Association, both specifically for not considering Hillsborough's suitability as a Cup semi-final venue, and more generally for failing to take responsibility for safety standards in football. His verdict on directors was damning:

"In some instances it is legitimate to wonder whether the directors are genuinely interested in the welfare of their grass roots supporters. Boardroom struggles for power, wheeler dealing in the buying and selling of shares, and indeed of whole clubs, sometimes suggest that those involved are more interested in the personal financial benefits or social status of being a director."

Mike McGinnity, who had served with Sir Bert Millichip on the board of West Bromwich Albion, had at that time recently sold his shopfitting business. Pel was a failing company, predominantly manufacturing furniture, with a small sideline in plastic seating, based in the West Midlands, which McGinnity bought for an undisclosed sum. Croker, FA Honorary Vice-President, having retired after 16 years as secretary in February 1989, was asked by McGinnity to introduce Pel to football clubs:

"We set out for Ted to endorse it with his credibility," says McGinnity. "It helped us enormously."

Hillsboroughs Leppings Lane end, where the crush occurred which killed 96 people, was Pels first seating job. From the beginning, they competed fiercely on price with existing seating manufacturers who had had little success through the Eighties, persuading painfully few football clubs to upgrade their facilities.

Pel rose dramatically to become a dominant supplier of seats. Pel installed the seats at West Bromwich Albion, at Coventry, where McGinnity went as a director after being voted off the West Brom board in 1992, and at Aston Villa, where chairman Doug Ellis offered McGinnity a seat on the board. Nick Harrison estimates that Pel installs 150-200,000 seats a year, capturing between 40-60 per cent of the market.

A few, purely seating contracts, were funded directly with Football Trust grants. In others, where seats were supplied to newly-built stands, grants were awarded following tenders received from main contractors.

Throughout, until his 1996 retirement as FA chairman, Sir Bert Millichip was a trustee of the Football Trust, responsible for awarding grants. Sir Bert, who says he was a "personal friend" of McGinnitys, and of Ted Crokers, until Crokers death in 1992, was aware of Pels growth:

"I was aware they'd put in the seats at Aston Villa. I dont think I was aware at that time how extensive their activities had been, but I knew they were there in a big way."

There is no suggestion that Sir Bert acted improperly in awarding grants to Pel, but he may nevertheless have breached strict Football Trust rules requiring trustees to declare interests, which include longstanding friendships or associations with contractors, or sub-contractors. Football Trust spokesman Philip French says he is "not aware" of Sir Bert ever having declared an interest in any awards involving Pel. Sir Bert says there was no need:

"I can't see there was a conflict of interest anywhere along the line either with Mr Croker, Mr McGinnity or myself."

On his retirement, Sir Bert was asked by McGinnity to work for Pel. With British grounds rebuilt, Pel were looking to expand abroad. Millichip was to use his European contacts to make introductions for Pel.

"I was an executive member of UEFA and I had colleagues out there who I tapped to find out who was interested," he says.

For this, he was paid an annual, undisclosed sum:

"It wasn't much," he says. "It kept me in eccles cakes and gin and tonics."

Millichip denies any suggestion that his Pel connections are linked to his controversial "gentlemans agreement" at UEFA to allow Germany to bid for the 2006 World Cup. Nevertheless, he was perhaps unwise to take a paid job with Pel. Sales director Nick Harrison says that, despite Pel being part of Football Nation, which is endorsed by Englands 2006 bid, Pels interests would be best served by the tournament going to Germany:

"From a patriotic point of view we'd like to see England get it, but from a business point of view we'd prefer Germany because they still have a huge amount of (stadium) work to do."

Today, Pel is a flourishing, 75m turnover company, predominantly involved in shopfitting. Mike McGinnity recently handed its running over to his son, Nigel. One director, unnamed, is listed in the accounts on a salary of over 250,000. Their success has been based on stadium seating, which saw them through the early Nineties recession.

Sheila Spiers of the Football Supporters Association, who worked closely with bereaved families following Hillsborough, is shocked:

"The fans suffered and died and they haven't got any benefits out of Hillsborough, and so many other people have. This is an example of the people in the heart of footballs organisation and ruling bodies using Lord Justice Taylors edict on all-seater to make large amounts of money. It's quite sickening."

 
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