Until recently, Peter Leaver QC figured among the most important men in English football. As chief executive of the Premier League, he was frequently cited as an example of barristers who operate successfully in the “real world”.
But then last week he became the latest victim in football’s “night of the long knives” that has seen England coach Glenn Hoddle and Football Association chief executive Graham Kelly forced out.
I meet him in the basement library at his chambers, One Essex Court, where he sits, pretending not to be that upset at being the latest off-field player to be dropped. “I have not found it particularly terrible,” he states, forcing a smile. We’re in the library because Leaver has not been given his own room yet.
He looks smart in a blue suit with green and white striped shirt and engraved cuff-links. There are deep lines scored across his brow, down his cheeks and around his eyes. Every five minutes or so, he removes his spectacles to massage the bridge of his nose. However upbeat he affects to sound, this is plainly a man who has been through the wringer.
His mind is still focused on the events of the past few weeks – even when you try to turn his attention to the safer topic of his legal career.
“I was a pupil here for six months,” he says, impatiently chinking keys or coins in his jacket pocket. “Then I went away, got a tenancy in Arthur Irvine QC’s chambers, and came back here in 1972.”
All of a sudden, he stops in mid-sentence and grabs a pile of papers resting beneath my elbow. It’s a selection of cuttings from recent newspaper reports. They detail how he was invited to leave the League because of a contract he entered into on behalf of the League with two former TV executives, Sam Chisholm and David Chance. If the two could deliver a broadcasting contract worth more than u1bn to the League, they stood to gain as much as u50m.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, Leaver “flagrantly ignored the wishes of the League club chairmen” by secretly handing over retainer cheques to both men for their work. Leaver claims there was nothing secret about it at all.
Scanning the clippings with a scowl, Leaver declares: “You see this? At every single meeting we had, everyone went to speak to journalists afterwards.”
Leaver throws his hands up in the air, then carries on: “I often found out what people were nattering about from The Sunday Telegraph.
“You can see, can’t you, that there was no such thing as confidentiality? We actually lost a contract as a result of these activities.”
He continues to study the cuttings for several minutes, reading out one anonymous quote after another. “This is such tendentious stuff… just such nonsense,” he declares.
Certainly, the papers have made some silly mistakes. One suggested that Leaver – a commercial barrister best-known for his banking, insurance and financial services work – had been a prosecutor for the past 30 years. “Sports journalists don’t know much about the different types of law,” he says.
But have the papers got it all wrong? Leaver is unlikely to have resigned for no reason at all.
Chelsea FC chairman Ken Bates is reported as saying: “I think he must have had a rush of blood to the head.
“We asked Leaver why he had paid the two cheques against instruction and all he could say was he believed he was limiting any damages. There was no way he could justify his action.”
But Leaver justifies his actions at great length, and with force. And he intends to secure compensation for what was in effect a sacking.
First, he explains why he hired the controversial media advisers. The clubs, he says, believe they will earn vast sums of money from the new TV contract in 2001.
“But I don’t believe it’s as easy as that. Unless we [sic] can get some competition in the market, BSkyB will have the field to itself and we will have nobody pressing it on price.”
So what about the “secret payment”?
There was no secret, he says, the clubs knew that payment was due.
“The clubs got far more information during my time than previously. I instituted a series of meetings – and held regional meetings – and was on the telephone all the time. In fact, the complaint from time to time was that the clubs received too much paper.
“I was never asked by the clubs not to make a payment. I have no recollection of being asked that.”
Had he been asked, Leaver says he would have explained that he took legal advice from one of the country’s leading sports lawyers – Denton Hall partner Adrian Barr-Smith.
“I would have told them, as I did tell them last week: ‘I would have to resign if you do not pay, and I would have to warn you that the League would be liable for damages for breach of contract. And individual clubs might be open to litigation, too’.”
As Leaver sees it, the clubs all agreed Chisholm and Chance were the best men for the job and that the pair should be paid a retainer, as well as some kind of incentive.
“What the clubs don’t like,” he says, reverting to trusty legal jargon, “is the quantum of that. And they don’t like the possibility that if the company were floated then Chance and Chisholm would get an equity share.
“But that would have been a long way down the line and, if the clubs had employed merchant banks [instead of the two men], the banks would have been looking for a similar sort of deal – and at more expense. But they didn’t want to listen.”
Working with the League’s 20 clubs sounds like an appalling job: “When I arrived, I found a complete shambles. Some of the stories are hair-raising. Bank guarantees – which had expired – were found in the most extraordinary places.”
And yet he remains proud of his achievements. He moved the League’s headquarters to plush new offices in Connaught Place, hired key people, oversaw the Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the current broadcasting deal with BSkyB, pushed forward plans for a European League and established the FA Premier League Hall of Fame (which is due to open at County Hall in London later in the spring).
He also negotiated a range of contracts. An overseas TV deal was hiked from u20m a year to more like u35m. Radio contracts increased from something in the region of u115,000 a year to u5m. And a contract with ON Digital and BSkyB brought u10m to the clubs, despite an original offer being “significantly lower than that”.
Leaver, the son of an accountant, attended Aldenham School and Dublin University before reading for the Bar. He qualified in 1967 and took silk 20 years later.
The League job arose in early 1997.
Leaver, whose previous experience of top-flight football included advising Alan Sugar around the time he sacked Terry Venables from Tottenham Hotspur, was headhunted by Price Waterhouse.
His appointment was initially greeted with acclaim, with one headline reading: “Leaver the ideal man”.
Now that job is over, he intends to rebuild his practice.
Herbert Smith partner David Gold has instructed Leaver on a number of occasions. “He is thorough, he presents well in court, and he is a good tactician,” he says.
In one case, Leaver’s advocacy was especially effective. “He opened the case in such an authoritative and aggressive fashion,” says Gold, “that while he was on his feet I settled the case outside. If he is available for the right case in the future, I will be happy to use him again.”
But one solicitor with considerable experience of working with Leaver, though full of praise, cautions: “I don’t think he is the best brain in the business.”
If the work doesn’t come through, perhaps he will become a full-time judge. After all, he carried on sitting as a deputy High Court judge in the Chancery Division throughout his stint at the League.
“I wanted to keep in touch with the law,” he explains, “and the bench seemed the best way.”
But like most barristers, Leaver insists he has not even thought about becoming a full-time judge. “I have no plans to do anything other than practise as a barrister,” he insists. “These are the best chambers in the business. I’m glad to be back.”
Peter Leaver QC
One Essex Court