Unless you’re well-versed in the history of phillumeny, the name Victor Gladwish may not be that familiar to you. But if you were involved in non-league football in the early 2000s, the self-styled “non-league Abramovich” was set to become one of the most influential people in the national game.
The one-time non-league benefactor has written a staggering 200 books on the subject of collecting matchboxes, but despite his best efforts, this isn’t where Gladwish made his fortune. By buying and selling-on small plots of land during the housing boom of the early 2000s, Gladwish established Gladwish Land Sales (GLS) and was able to amass a small fortune, enough to sponsor over 30 separate clubs, and the entire Hellenic League by 2004.
A small sponsorship at Herne Bay got the ball rolling, but when Crawley Town – then in the Southern League Premier Division – were handed out £250,000, heads began to turn. Gravesend and Northfleet were chucked £160,000, and Horsham YMCA £95,000. According to Gladwish, “Any club who wants sponsorship only has to ask”. He even tried to set up his own cup competition, but the FA quickly put a stop to this.
A new company, GLS Football was set up, and Gladwish was soon selling everything from full football kits to training equipment and goal posts.
Non-league football is a pretty cynical place at the best of times, and many were soon questioning a land speculator’s sudden interest in land-rich, but otherwise skint, football club. “It’s an advertising thing”. Said Gladwish “I want exposure so I can sell more land. That’s why we put our name on teams’ shirts. But I’m not an endless tap. I need to get something back.”
Gladwish’s generosity didn’t extend over the border though. When Flint Town applied for one of his free kit deals, the tycoon replied “Sorry, we do not sell land in foreign countries so do not do footy teams in foreign countries.” In an email spat with the Flint Chairman, Gladwish went on to say “Thousands of soldiers died unifying the countries. We do not sell land in Wales. You have Welsh on your Land Registry documents and as an ex-soldier I object.”
Adverts in club programmes offered punters a profit of 126 per cent on a £3,800 land investment over an average of 18 months, including a cut for their clubs. In 2004, the Advertising Standards Agency upheld a complaint against GLS for similar adverts. Gladwish claimed that his new adverts more accurate, and that the ASA checked his figures monthly. “We don’t have such a system,” an ASA official said. “We don’t pre-proof advertisements.”
This was the start of the end for Gladwish’s involvement in football.
By the end of 2005, with it becoming pretty clear that he wouldn’t be able to make as much money as he’d hoped, Gladwish pulled the plug on non-league endeavours almost as soon as he had come. He did, however, continue the “Famous Gladwish Merit Table”.
Gladwish would pay for adverts in club programmes, and in return clubs would be entered into the Merit Table, a competition based on points per game. The winning teams and manager would each be sent a trophy for their cabinet, come the end of the season.
Come 2010, Gladwish had resigned from all his company directorships, passing on control to his children.
Gladwish tightened his belt still further in 2014, when he stopped taking out adverts in club programmes after his total spend on non-league clubs reportedly amounted to £1.4m over the last eight seasons… That’s a whole lot of adverts. The Merit Table would continue to run, but clubs would have to carry one of GLS’ adverts for free to take part. Still, according to Gladwish, “quite a number of teams accepted the offer because they like the prizes and found that the competition encouraged strikers to score and goalkeepers and defence to keep the goals out.
By 2016, Gladwish had moved to Middlesbrough, something which seemingly rekindled his interest in non-league football, or at least trying to drum up interest in his Merit Table.
A comment on an article about Bedale AFC reads “I amVictor [sic] Gladwish (aka the Non-League Abramovich) and I have recently moved to Middlesbrough and I am seeking teams who play in the English Non-League Pyramid Steps 1 to 9. Not wanting to be the richest man in the graveyard I have so far spent over £1.4 million on nonleague teams and have stadiums and stands named after me. Google my name for proof, plus I have twice presented TV sports personality awards on TV. I give away 16 prizes per season and my contests are now in their 15th year involving teams from all over England. Entry is free. There is only 2 weeks to go until enrolment stops.”
The last record of Gladwish and his involvement in non-league football was last season, when he was listed as Horsham YMCA’s Patron, where the club also named a stand after him. The Merit Table was still going though, and at the end of 2017-18, Bridlington Town were crowned champions of the three solitary survivors in the competition.