‘We won the title and I was floating on air’

Peter Hill-Wood

This interview with Peter Hill-Wood - conducted by Arsenal legend Alan Smith - first appeared in the Arsenal magazine in the 2002/03 season…

Old school - that’s the best way to describe Peter Hill-Wood, Arsenal chairman for the past 21 years.

It’s not just the fact he wears the kind of suits that only Old Etonians can, or his close association with Hambros Merchant Bank, that bastion of City tradition, where he practically spent his entire working life.

It’s also the way he chooses to fulfil his role as chairman at Highbury. Never too obtrusive, always in the background, quietly overseeing the club’s affairs with dignity and pride. There are previous few chairman these days of whom you can truly say that.

This is the man whose face appeared on University Challenge recently along with that of several other Premiership chairmen. Guess which one the students couldn't name? 

Yes, it was our very own Peter Hill-Wood - a long serving figurehead at a world famous club yet largely unknown by the public at large. Under a tartan rug, a gin and tonic at his side, watching with quiet satisfaction as Arsenal go about their business - that’s the image we used to have of him, which, in truth, isn’t all that from off the mark.

As players, we always knew something special was afoot if the chairman popped his head around the dressing room door. There he stood - brown pinstriped suit, lucky red socks poking out underneath, with the obligatory cigar in tow. ‘Afternoon, Mr Chairman’, we’d all chorus. ‘Good afternoon lads’, came the low, throaty reply.

His reason for the visit? One of two usually. We were either about to win something and he had come to wish us luck or we had actually done the deed and he wanted to add his congratulations. There was also another reason and this happened only once. He made the trip downstairs to bring us into line.

This occurred after the infamous Old Trafford brawl in 1990, following which several players and the manager, George Graham, were heavily fined and the club was docked two valuable points.

Mr Hill-Wood felt at this point that he had to steady the ship, to remind us of our responsibilities as Arsenal players. On that score, he is more familiar with the values and traditions of this wonderful club than anyone else. It’s in his blood, something he inherited, following on, as he has, from his father and grandfather.

“We came from the north, from Derbyshire,” he told me recently, in his favourite Italian restaurant. “My grandfather, Samuel, played cricket for Derbyshire [he once scored a record 10 runs off one ball against the MCC] and he played rugby league. His private secretary was a chap called Harold Stapley who played centre forward for Glossop in the early part of last century. Glossop played in the old Second Division before the Great War.”

When his grandfather’s business went belly up, prompting a move down south in 1919, that connection with football persuaded Samuel to get involved with Arsenal. “I think he just thought they were the best football team in the south.” An astute judge if ever there was one. Samuel Hill-Wood went on to become chairman.

After his death in 1948, Sir Robert Bracewell-Smith was instated. When Sir Robert died in 1962, Peter’s father, Denis (whose bust sits next to the trophy cabinet in East Stand), took hold of the reins. His son joined the board in the same year. Quite clearly, then, Peter has a seen a few changes in football over that time. What, I wondered, were the biggest ones?

“I think the game was more fun 30 or 40 years ago. I remember the days when Billy Wright, a wonderful chap, was manager of the club. Although we weren’t very successful, I can remember those days were great fun. And then the 71 ‘double’ period was also good fun.

“We play better football now than we’ve ever done but football is now a very serious business. Money helps in a lot of ways but it’s also a root cause of a lot of troubles. In the old days, people didn't play for money because there wasn’t any.”

That’s not quite the case now, of course. Football has become a billion-pound industry, forging all sorts of changes at boardroom level. “We have executive directors, we have commercial managers, finance people. I try to oversee everything and hopefully help appoint the right people in the right jobs.”

During monthly board meetings the talk rarely turns to football as it used to, even though Arsène Wenger is present. There is a new stadium to build, commercial matters to discuss - that’s what resonates around the old oak-panelled boardroom rather than enquiries surrounding matters on the pitch.

The club has had to move with the times, embrace modernity, and at the same time try to retain Arsenal’s tradition values. “I remember my father being absolutely horrified at the thought of having perimeter advertising. It was a case of ‘over my dead body’, says the chairman.

“We resisted change but now you can’t afford to do that, which is one of the reasons we’re planning to move to a new stadium. Much as we all love Highbury, we cannot sustain a world-class team with a capacity of 38,000.”

And here lies controversy. Mr Hill-Wood has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism from supporters, upset at the move away from their traditional home. “People have questioned the decision to move on, but I’ve been going to Arsenal a lot longer than most. The good thing is that the new stadium is only approximately 500 metres away from where we are now and it will be better served by public transport.”

It was time to talk football, the stuff that has been played out below him in a variety of ways for the post 50-odd years. Of all of those great players to grace the red and white, which ones does he admire the most? 

“When you’re very young you can be impressed more easily, as opposed to getting older and becoming more cynical. Jimmy Logie, I thought, was fantastic. Alex Forbes and Archie Macauley in midfield. Later, George Eastham was a great player, Liam Brady, Frank McLintock. We’ve had some marvellous players in my time but to pick your top 20 is very hard.”

OK, that’s the players done, but what about the games? Which ones really stood out? “When we won the title at Liverpool in 1989, that was an unbelievable occasion. It was so unlikely, to actually win 2-0 at Anfield on that night. I couldn’t believe it. I was sort of unconscious for two days. I remember walking around the garden simply floating on air. That’s got to be one of the great matches.

“Beating Manchester United last year [in 2002 at Old Trafford] was very uplifting as well,” he continues, smiling with obvious understatement. That momentous victory was borne, of course, from the great work undertaken by Arsène Wenger. The Frenchman, now, is universally recognised as one of football’s greatest thinkers; one of the cleverest men to ever turn his hand to management. Yet it was ‘Arsène who?’ when Arsenal made the bold step to recruit from abroad.

“Every time you appoint a manager it is a gamble but, oddly enough, I don’t believe that Arsène Wenger was a major gamble. He had already been very successful, he was extremely easy to deal with and had very clear ideas of what he wanted to do. “A bigger gamble we’ve taken is moving to a new stadium.”

The end of the Hill-Wood dynasty is now almost in sight with none of Peter’s three children likely to follow in his footsteps. Rabid Arsenal fans the lot of them, but it is no longer so straightforward to do what their dad did.

There will be a feeling of great sadness when that moment arrives. After all, 83 years in the family is a very long time. As I say, the man is pure old school, as well as a gentleman. An integral part of Arsenal's proud history.

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