‘Ring-fencing would be a bit like Brexit, wouldn’t it?’ says Mike Gooley as he settles into a red leather seat in his plush boardroom in Kensington.
To add some context to his remark, Gooley — who is the owner of Ealing Trailfinders — runs an international travel company and made a £1million donation to the remain campaign.
Over the past 21 years, he has also pumped £25m into his local rugby club. They have moved up from the amateur London leagues and, sitting second in the Championship, now have their sights set on the top flight.
Millionaire owner Mike Gooley says clubs will fight plans for Premiership to scrap promotion
Those ambitions, however, could soon be scuppered. Leaked board minutes reported in last week’s The Mail on Sunday revealed that Premiership clubs want to scrap promotion and relegation in favour of a cosy ring-fenced league.
‘This business of ring-fencing is absolutely counter to the spirit of sport,’ says Gooley. ‘Incidentally, it might also be unlawful. It could be open to challenge in law that they’re abusing a dominant position — a monopoly — by forming a closed shop.
‘Some Championship sides have invested a lot of money with the possibility that they could reach the Premiership. A barrister’s opinion would be needed on that — and those opinions would be sought if they are going that way.
‘On another note, what happens if one of the teams ends up so weak that they’re an embarrassment to the Premiership? Promotion and relegation takes care of that. At the very least, a team have to regroup in the Championship and prove themselves again. There could be some unforeseen consequences.’
Gooley’s Ealing Trailfinders have moved up leagues and now sit second in the Championship
One of the first hurdles for Ealing is that their home ground — Vallis Way — does not meet Premiership requirements. Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty sniffed at the notion of Ealing winning promotion, describing it as a ‘concern’. However, plans are afoot for a ground share should the club achieve their ambition.
Alternatively, Europe’s PRO14 has been identified as a more welcoming alternative than the English top flight which will imminently receive a £200m cash injection from its deal with private equity firm CVC.
‘Our first aspiration would be to play in the Premiership,’ says Gooley. ‘That’s the Corinthian of rugby. We talked to Brentford who were already talking to London Irish. Supposing we pipped London Irish in the league, then how about we take over their commitment of Brentford? They could play at Vallis Way! On a serious note, we have been talking to other venues for some time.
‘Perhaps the PRO14 would be a second aspiration. We have looked at the PRO14 because they would accept our stadium.’
A former SAS officer, Gooley first invested into Ealing in 1999 with a £10,000 shirt sponsorship. The club have struggled to consolidate a fan base but their efforts have focused on developing an academy. Their goal is to emulate the success of Exeter Chiefs.
The club’s budget is currently under £2m per year but Gooley, who is worth £360m, revealed it would not be a struggle to spend up to the Premiership’s £7m salary cap.
‘Myself and my wife, Fiona, used to travel around the country watching the team play in a muddy field with four other people,’ he says. ‘I haven’t written cheques to accelerate us straight into the Premiership but if we need to spend £7million, then I’m good for it.
‘I could sign a cheque now but at the moment it’s all hypothetical, isn’t it? If I couldn’t sign a cheque it’s a f****** pointless exercise.
Ealing Trailfinders’ home ground Valis Way does not meet Premiership requirements
‘If being in the Premiership was the be all and end all then I would have bought London Irish. Instead, we have built from within. We’ve developed our own coaches and we want to have the most outstanding academy in the country. I don’t want success just by writing another nought on the end.’
Gooley and his Trailfinders are not alone in their quest to move into the promised land. Nottingham, Coventry and Cornish Pirates also have one eye on the Premiership, despite being seen as second-class citizens. The Championship has been a breeding ground for players such as Harry Williams, Guy Thompson and Sam Simmonds, and Gooley feels the league deserves more recognition.
‘The Championship, to me, doesn’t seem to command a great deal of respect,’ says Gooley. ‘At least five of our squad from last year are in the Premiership but we don’t get anything in return. It seems to me that the notion of a transfer fee should be brought in. We don’t believe the Championship is properly respected and supported.
‘We were made the guinea pig on the tackle rules. It’s “Oh we’ll just use the Championship”. That’s an indication of the attitude.
‘It’s amazing how, as human beings, we make everything as complicated as possible. It starts out as a lovely game and it turns into a game of Monopoly.’