THE Hillsborough tragedy is back in the headlines but one man who was ahead of his time and helped change the face of football was former Huddersfield Town director and chairman Graham Leslie.
It was Mr Leslie’s vision, drive and determination that helped the Kirklees Stadium – now the John Smith’s Stadium – become the first all-seater venue built in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster which claimed 96 lives.
Here Mr Leslie talks to Examiner reporter Martin Shaw about the birth of a stadium.
ENTREPRENEUR Graham Leslie has achieved much in his business career.
The man behind Galpharm Healthcare is credited with saving the NHS billions of pounds in drugs costs.
He set up Galpharm in Huddersfield in 1982 and sold it 26 years later for 88 million dollars.
But for Mr Leslie, now 66, his proudest achievement and what will be his lasting legacy to Huddersfield is the pioneering John Smith’s Stadium.
Father-of-four Mr Leslie was the inspiration and driving force behind the Kirklees Stadium.
The recent publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report into the tragedy put Mr Leslie’s achievement into a historical context.
The Hillsborough disaster in April 1989 resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans.
Publication of the latest report has vindicated the families who have campaigned against police assertions that the fans themselves were to blame for the horrific crush which saw men, women and children die at a football match.
The Hillsborough disaster was the catalyst for Huddersfield’s new stadium.
It was the country’s first all-seater football stadium, with a design that broke the mould.
“Football stadia pre-Hillsborough were very different places,” recalled Mr Leslie.
“It was a different time and football was very different.”
Policing at smaller stadia back then was also ad hoc to say the least.
“It would be all about giving the chief inspector a couple of match tickets and an invitation to the boardroom and he would send a few lads down,” said Mr Leslie.
What happened at Hillsborough changed everything.
No-one could comprehend how families could go to a football match and not return home.
Mr Leslie, who would have been at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Notts Forest if it hadn’t been for a friend’s 21st birthday, got involved in football just after Hillsborough.
He had been asked to join the board at Town in 1989 and became commercial director.
“At the time Town were struggling in the Third Division and Huddersfield RLFC were in a difficult position with the leasehold and tenancy agreement at Fartown,” said Mr Leslie.
“It quickly became apparent to me that for the survival of both clubs – and major sport in the town – that we needed to create a brand new stadium.
“In 1990 the Taylor Report came out and stressed the importance of good, safe and secure facilities.
“Barriers and fences were to go, stadiums were to become all-seater and there were recommendations over policing.
“I thought it was a wonderful time to put the whole project together and create a stadium.”
Mr Leslie has never done things by half.
He has always been inspired by the best, and to be the best.
This was the time when Town’s decrepit Leeds Road ground was showing its age.
Mr Leslie recalls a board meeting where the Cowshed stand was under discussion.
“It needed a new roof and it would cost £15,000,” said Mr Leslie.
“The club just didn’t have the money. Both clubs were almost trading while insolvent and something had to be done.
“We started out with two struggling clubs and no money but great aspirations and a fabulous idea.”
Mr Leslie’s next stop was Kirklees Council.
The only way to make his grand vision a reality was for the local authority to buy into it.
He was introduced to then council leader John Harman by the Examiner’s sports editor at the time, John Gledhill.
Fortunately Clr Harman, later knighted, shared Mr Leslie’s vision and passion for sport.
Mr Leslie knew from his involvement with Town the impact the success, or otherwise, of the town’s two sporting clubs had on everyday life.
“We knew that if both clubs had good results on a weekend, the work performance on the Monday was phenomenal.
“Similarly if they lost, absenteeism on the Monday could be more than 30%. Some workers wouldn’t turn up or others would go in late.
“The fortunes of the two clubs were linked to people’s well being and lifestyle.
“We put this to the local authority and we found a sympathetic ear from John Harman and his No2 Dave Harris.
“I know the football club had made proposals and presentations to the council several times before and you would have to ask John Harman why he decided to listen to me.
“Maybe they could see I was genuinely concerned about the clubs and the community.”
With the council’s backing, Mr Leslie put together a team to put some substance to his dream.
George Binns, the former Town secretary, joined the stadium project along with Paul Sykes, a planning consultant and big Town fan.
There started three years of near obsession for Mr Leslie, which took a toll on his business and family life.
“It was my full-time focus,” said Mr Leslie. “It cost me my marriage and cost my business millions of pounds because I was away from it so much.
“I was working on the stadium 24/7 for three years and my home life suffered as a result.”
His marriage to second wife Anne ended in divorce with all the upheaval and heartache that brings.
“I was never at home,” said Mr Leslie. “But I think Anne has forgiven me now. At least I hope she has.”
As the stadium neared its completion, Mr Leslie even slept at the ground.
“We had some problems with security and brown patches kept appearing on the new grass,” he said.
“Eventually we found the patches were caused by a security guard’s dog urinating on the pitch!”
That probably illustrates the depth of Mr Leslie’s obsession or, put more kindly, his attention to detail.
Mr Leslie wanted the best so he went to look at the best.
By 1991 the football and RL clubs had joined with the council to form Kirklees Stadium Development Ltd (KSDL), a unique partnership company.
A chief executive, Paul Fletcher, was appointed and he and Mr Leslie went to see what Mr Leslie described as “the best stadium in the world” – the Toronto Skydome.
The roof of the stadium alone cost a staggering 298 million dollars.
“I am sure most fans would have been screaming for us to buy a left-back or a goalie and were wondering what the hell I was doing chasing the stadium dream,” smiled Mr Leslie.
Even in the face of criticism a driven Mr Leslie wouldn’t be deflected.
He had a vision for a stadium design that hadn’t been invented yet.
He sketched out a heart-shaped plan – for a stadium at the heart of the community – and Australian architect Rod Sheard, of Lobb & Partners, was the only one who shared the imagination.
“He was the only one who came back with a sketch that was not the shape of a pitch, a rectangular box,” said Mr Leslie.
“At the time it was thought that was the most economical way of doing it. It turns out that it wasn’t the most economical way.
“We had banana-shaped trusses for the roof which were revolutionary and different.
“We built two stands and a pitch for just £10.8 million.”
The Kirklees Stadium was not to be simply a sporting stadium.
It was to be a community stadium, a destination for learning and advancement.
“Up until then a football stadium was where people went for two or three hours and then went home,” said Mr Leslie.
“I wanted to make it inviting. I wanted to attract children there for education and learning.
“You could count steps and seats, plant flowers, run training courses, learn about how discipline in sport could benefit you in life. The possibilities were endless.”
In August 1992 the decision to build the stadium was taken.
Developers Alfred McAlpine, the stadium’s first sponsors, were appointed and construction began the following year.
The stadium opened for the start of the 1994-95 season and Mr Leslie’s vision had been realised.
The stadium opened with just the two side stands, the Riverside and the Kilner Bank.
The South Stand followed in December 1994 and the North Stand was completed four years later, taking the overall capacity to approximately 24,500.
The estimated cost of construction was £40 million.
Down the years the stadium has also played host to music concerts by top artists including Elton John, REM, Bon Jovi, The Eagles, Bryan Adams and Girls Aloud.
Mr Leslie got a kick out of that as much as anything else.
“I can’t think of anything much better than 30,000 or 40,000 people having a great night out,” he said.
Mr Leslie believes the stadium is a fantastic legacy and added: “I was in the right place at the right time to make a difference, and it’s very rare for something like that to happen in anyone’s life.
“I feel extremely blessed to have played a part, and I mean that genuinely.”
Mr Leslie didn’t want to stray into the politics surrounding the latest Hillsborough controversies.
But he said: “A lot of serious questions still need to be answered.
“People who didn’t make the right decisions should examine their own consciences.
“You can’t go too far back into history – look at Jimmy Savile, he is dead now – but there needs to be some justice for those who have suffered and those who are still suffering.
“So much has changed because of Hillsborough.”