Standing on the pitch at Saracens a few weeks ago I spotted Nigel Wray the Chairman/Owner chatting to Mako and Billy Vunipola’s Mum. As he moved away, on the basis of you don’t ask you don’t get, I introduced myself as a season ticket holder who writes for a hobby and asked him for an interview. There was no hesitation on his part, he handed me his card and asked me to call his PA to arrange a date! My day job, the one that pays my mortgage meant we had to look for a date a few weeks later. When I’ve interviewed players or ex-players I’ve managed to glean a fair amount of information from the internet before we met, I wasn’t able to find out too much about Nigel Wray. As the time I spent with him went by I think I grew to understand why; more of that later. I drove to Allianz Park feeling more than a little nervous and not really knowing what to expect; the team were just starting to come onto the pitch for a training session as I arrived which was a pleasant distraction.
I was able to watch some cricket as I waited for Nigel; another passion of mine and of the man I’d come to meet. Nigel came down to meet me and thank goodness we took the lift to the top floor, needing oxygen wouldn’t have been a good start! (I’m not that unfit honest!) In those few minutes any nerves I had felt simply disappeared as I was clearly in the company of a man with both charisma and passion aplenty. We basically had a really great chat about things we both have a passion for; I now need to get things into some sort of lucid order so I can share what I found out about this man conservatively worth £50m.
Nigel attended Mill Hill School an independent school probably no more than a stone’s throw from Allianz Park. In spite of not really being interested in the Academic he achieved A Levels in Latin, Greek and Ancient History. Sport was a major part of his life, with squash, cricket and rugby being amongst the games played. I asked Nigel to name a favourite and I’d say he struggled to choose; he played rugby for Hampshire in the Centres, in a team who struggled to win a game, this in no way dulled his passion for the game. He also fancied himself to be an all-rounder when it came to cricket, from the discussion we had about cricket it’s clear that his love of that game also endures. In fact we spoke about football too, it’s clear that Nigel is an all-round sports fan, in common with his cricketing skills.
Nigel’s enthusiasm for a wide range of sports is most obvious in his amazing collection of sporting memorabilia – The Priory Collection. I’d had no concept of the size of the collection amassed by Nigel, I had seen a number of paintings on the wall at Allianz Park but I had no idea that he had put together the largest private collection of sporting memorabilia in the world. I asked where he had started; back in the mid 80’s he bought a rugby ball used in the England v Wales game, the only snag was when he watched the game back on the TV the balls used were a different make! A lesson to all of us who have thoughts of dabbling in such matters! However, since that less than auspicious start he has added a huge array of unique items. Amongst cricketing items, Douglas Jardine’s Harlequin cap worn during the historical Bodyline series of 1932/33 and from the same tour , the ball hit for 6 by Eddie Paynter to secure the series win for Australia; and something that would be a real favourite of mine, the bat Ian Botham scored his 149 not out against Australia! I wonder if he’d come back in the summer? On the rugby front the collection contains amongst many other things the shirts worn by Jason Robinson in both the rugby league and rugby union World cup finals! There are also significant items from football, athletics and boxing. Several significant sporting homes are very lucky to house parts of the collection; including the Football Museum in Preston, Lords and Twickenham. When I asked Nigel if there were things he wants to add to the collection he explained that to find a space the item would need to be very unique.
From the passion for sport at school and the impressive collection of memorabilia it is clear that Nigel was likely to jump at an opportunity to become involved in a sporting organisation at a deeper level. Already a hugely successful businessman he was approached by Saracens in 1995 at the start of the professional era to become a sponsor. His response was to explain that he wouldn’t sponsor the team but he would invest; at that stage he bought 80% of the business; a business that had a turnover of £80K. In hindsight Nigel said had he known what that would entail he wouldn’t have done so; from the enthusiasm and the light in his eyes as we spoke about Saracens I’m not so sure he means that. Things were slow to pick up for the team from Bramley Road but things were to change dramatically when the current Chief Executive Edward Griffiths arrived at the club. In the businesses Nigel has been involved with he’s looked to the ‘man’ running the organisation in the first instance. In his words Edward Griffiths is outstanding! He started what Nigel refers to as the ‘Saracens Revolution’. Brendon Venter was appointed as Director of Rugby and Mark Mcall joined him for the 2009/10 season and a new ethos arrived at the club as well as a new playing style.
I can remember sitting in the stand during my first season as a season ticket holder shouting ‘boring’ as I watched yet another game of rugby tennis, how things have changed! The ethos change? The plan focuses on building wonderful memories and having fun together, Nigel used the word joy to describe the intention. The club pays attention to the whole family; he shared with me the words of the wife of a player Saracens are in talks with; at his current club she doubts that anyone knows her name. Saracens have a crèche both at the training ground and Allianz Park, they care and recognise that family life is hugely important to the players. I wondered what on earth players were doing going off to beer festivals and places such as Miami, I now understand. They like each other, want to do their very best and win for each other. An interesting insight from a very successful man in Nigel’s words ‘I wish I’d known 30 years ago what I’ve learnt from sport, I would have been a lot better as a businessman’. His eyes lit up as he spoke about the club that is so close to his heart, explaining that the corridor outside has on its walls photos of the players having fun rather than the obligatory men in shirts style shots. The plan is working for Saracens, as a fan you can see the genuine affection the players have for each other and in fact their Chairman. Nigel took me down to watch the boys training and he was greeted with enthusiasm by all.
We spoke about how Nigel’s involvement with Saracens has had a hugely positive influence on his life; the Sports Foundation as well as the team. Nigel is clearly passionate about charity and is very proud of the amazing work being carried out by the Foundation. The 17 bright and enthusiastic employees work with a range of people enhancing their lives, from the programme they run for autistic children and their parents to the work they do with young offenders, they’re making a difference. Nigel explained that he has a renewed passion for life; he’s getting energy from the people around him. We spoke about tragedy as I’d told him that I’d lost my son in 2009, he recounted a moment he had with Andy Ripley, suffering from cancer and near to the end he looked at Nigel and uttered the words ‘Life is Wonderful’. Powerful words to hear from a man losing his battle with a dreadful disease, but very true.
Having been nervous about meeting and talking to Nigel Wray I found that I could have talked to him for hours. A man full of joy and passion, I left with an even greater understanding of the club I support, and a very big smile on my face having met a thoroughly inspiring man. I have to share a couple of his sayings before I sign off ‘Any fool can criticise, complain and condemn and most fools do’ and another ‘To have success you must have failure’. Wise words, I can see no way this dynamo of a man will be slowing down any time soon, as well as Saracens he has a hand in around 25 companies. They must think themselves very lucky to have such a man on board.