Obituary - Leeds United mourn Bill Fotherby, the charismatic showman who brought Howard Wilkinson to Elland Road

Bill Fotherby, the former Leeds United managing director who was instrumental in appointing Howard Wilkinson as manager, has died at the age of 88.

By Phil Hay
Thursday, 14th March 2019, 8:50 am
Updated Thursday, 14th March 2019, 8:54 am
Leeds United's former managing director Bill Fotherby, photographed on the pitch at Elland Road in July 1989.
Leeds United's former managing director Bill Fotherby, photographed on the pitch at Elland Road in July 1989.

Fotherby passed away suddenly on Tuesday night while on holiday with his family in Tenerife.

A charismatic showman whose business career began in the clothing industry, Fotherby became synonymous with the rise of Leeds in the late 1980s and 1990s as the right-hand man of long-time chairman Leslie Silver.

He joined United’s board in 1978 at a time when the Elland Road club were financially stretched and about to suffer from a run of demoralising seasons in the second division.

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His business ideas and engagement with local business figures transformed Leeds’ commercial operations, underpinning their climb to the Division One title in 1992.

Fotherby’s crowning achievement was securing the signature of Wilkinson four years earlier, an appointment which followed the sacking of Leeds’ legendary ex-captain Billy Bremner.

United deciding that their strategy of employing former players as managers was flawed and Wilkinson was persuaded to leave Sheffield Wednesday for West Yorkshire in 1988.

His arrival heralded the club’s second golden era, bring the second division title in 1990 and the club’s third Division One crowd two years later.

Wilkinson remains the last English manager to win the top-flight trophy and would subsequently oversee the construction of Leeds’ academy and training ground at Thorp Arch.

Fotherby’s ambitious outlook stretched to the playing squad and the revenue generated by his commercial projects, combined with fierce, persuasive negotiating skills, brought signings of the ilk of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and Lee Chapman.

In 1987 he famously explored the possibility of buying Diego Maradona from Napoli, an idea which made headlines in England but failed to get off the ground. He was later responsible for sanctioning the controversial sale of Eric Cantona to Manchester United, six months after Leeds’ Division One title success.

One of Fotherby's final acts in the boardroom was to deliver a sponsorship deal worth almost £20m with Puma and Packard Bell.

He took the role of club chairman in 1996 but held the position for only a brief period before leaving the board and United for good. He claimed to have been forced out by the Caspian takeover earlier that year and was replaced by Peter Ridsdale.

After his departure, Fotherby went on to run non-league sides Harrogate Town and Ossett Town.

In an interview with The Square Ball fanzine in 2014, Fotherby told the story of how Wilkinson had been sceptical of him at first and insistent on dealing only with United’s chairman, Leslie Silver.

Wilkinson and Fotherby became so close over time that after the title triumph in 1992, Wilkinson presented him with a copy of his book ‘Managing to Succeed’ inscribed with the message: ‘To Bill Fotherby. You are the wind beneath my wings.’ Of the many people who the Wilkinson’s revolution could not have succeeded without, Fotherby was one.