This article was first published in the June 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Football’s a funny old game. Nothing can stir the passions as much as a good run in the World Cup or the European championships or, closer to home, lifting the FA Cup at Wembley. Just an appearance at Wembley will do.

It is this last example that sticks in the memory of Stefan Gamble, chief executive of Walsall Football Club. One of his personal highlights of nearly 20 years at the club was taking his team to Wembley in March 2015 for the final of the English Football League Trophy. Despite losing 2-0 to Bristol City, it is a game that will stick in Gamble’s memory. ‘It was the first time in the club’s 130-year history that we had been to Wembley,’ he recalls.

It is moments like these that football fans live for but, for the CEO of a League Two club, it is as much the fight for financial survival off the pitch as the team’s performance on it that counts. Walsall’s regular home gate is around 4,500 – not enough to sustain any professional football club, and Gamble has to bring his financial skills to bear in the search for alternative revenue.

Off-pitch money spinners have included Europe’s biggest freestanding digital advertising screen. And then there was Elton John, who played his greatest hits show to 14,000 fans who packed out the stadium in 2015.

Gamble signed for the club back in 2002, joining its finance department, although he had previously been the club’s senior auditor when he was at BDO Stoy Hayward, the firm he had joined as a trainee five years earlier and where he achieved his ACCA Qualification after graduating from Liverpool University.

‘During my time at BDO I got to know Walsall’s then-chairman who was looking for someone to help on the financial side. It was an opportunity that really appealed to me. It meant I could take my professional qualification and use it in an environment that was my passion.’

His first role was management accountant. The finance function was relatively small, and Gamble worked with the FD, a purchase ledger clerk and a payroll clerk. ‘It is a £7m turnover business,’ he says, ‘but one whose profile far outweighs such a small size.’

Gamble took on more of the FD’s roles and set about professionalising the function. ‘We were in what is now known as the Championship, so the club was getting bigger, he says. ‘We brought in better financial controls over the accounts and cashflow side of the business.’ And it has paid off; the club has turned a profit in 23 of the past 26 years.

Gamble’s talents were recognised when he was asked to join the club’s board as FD in 2007. He then won a further promotion in 2010 when his predecessor as chief executive, Roy Whalley, decided to stand down.

Diversification imperative

The role of chief executive has brought diverse benefits, Gamble says. ‘On day one, I went from having responsibility for the finances to taking charge over the commercial, events and retail sides of the business. My inbox was pretty full, but by that time I had had eight years in the business at a senior level, so nothing was a shock.’

Off the pitch, in 2016 he sealed a renewed stadium naming-rights deal with a local beer brand and the following year struck a five-year sponsorship deal extension with an insurer for the team’s shirts. And, of course, there is that huge digital display in the car park – Gamble went to China to source the screen, which stands opposite the busiest stretch of motorway in the country. ‘The business model is that everything we generate in other parts of the business goes straight into the football pot and is at the manager’s disposal to be successful on the pitch,’ he says.

Unfortunately, the Saddlers, as Walsall are affectionately known, were relegated last year after 12 consecutive seasons in the third tier. This meant that Gamble had to relinquish his position on the board of the English Football League, which he had held since October 2016.

Football finances are notoriously varied. There are the super-rich clubs at the top of the Premiership top tier, those that are just about surviving, and those that have fallen into administration. ‘Clubs get into trouble when their hearts rule their heads,’ says Gamble. ‘We employ over 400 staff, full-time and part-time, and they all need to be paid at the end of the week, so you need to run the business properly and responsibly. The reality is that we support a large number of families in the local area and a number of local businesses as well.’

Know your limits

One of the biggest challenges is that a League Two club like Walsall is competing with 23 others for the best talent, which pushes up player prices. ‘One of the hardest things to do in football – but one of the best ways to ensure stability – is to be able to say no,’ Gamble says. ‘Sometimes there are players you can’t afford and you have to let them go. At the same time, you have to have ambition, because that is what we all do it for.’

Off the pitch, Gamble is trustee of a community programme that helps to deliver activities such as sports for disadvantaged children, as well as working with the local authority and NHS to encourage healthy eating. Some children come into the club for help with their maths by learning through the medium of football. ‘The list is endless,’ Gamble says.

‘We do walking football for the over-60s. Clubs do a huge amount in the community. We have a high profile, and so are able to work with and help many people.’

The current stadium was built some 30 years ago, but even back then, it was designed so that its facilities didn’t lie unused until Saturday afternoon came around. Conferences, exhibitions, sporting dinners and the occasional pop concert all figure in helping to make the football club a viable business as well as a thriving element in the community.

But perhaps most importantly of all, it is a home for those who have a real passion for their team. Come Saturday, Gamble is there with them.

The interview took place before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Philip Smith, journalist