2006-2010 Denise Watts

Biographical Text

Denise was appointed to the role in 2006, after being elected as Chair of the ECFC Supporters' Trust.

After more than 100 years of Exeter City Football Club, she became the first female chair, and only the second female director in the club's history.

She held the role during one of the club's most successful periods to date, with two visits to Wembley, where on the second visit she invited to watch from the Royal box for the Conference Play-Off final.

The following year was also in post when the Grecians won promotion again to League 1.

Denise has written the following.

“It’s quite amazing how one split-second decision can change your life forever but this is what happened to me, Denise Watts, who became Exeter’s first female Chairman in 2005. It was a cold, wet September morning, (2002) and my two (then) young sons asked to go to their first football match, little did I know that some 3 years later I would be the Chairman of the whole Club! As a single parent I had always dreaded the moment my 2 boys Ross and George would ask to go to support their local team, Exeter City. My family weren’t sport minded and certainly not football so with my mobile phone in hand, knitting and other small tasks I embarked on that visit which turned out to be much more than their first football match. Sadly on that day no-one actually knew the catastrophe that was happening behind the scenes with Russell & Lewis and the level of debt, it transpired that the amount that was over £4million pounds.

The losses of such a huge amount of money was devastating for the Club and threatened its existence, we were in trouble and very shortly we went into a CVA situation.
All apart from this we were also deducted points because of this (this rule still exists) and the Club and fans fought back, regaining our points after massive protests in and out of the stadium.

So that left a small problem of a 4.2 million pound debt and the day to day running of a football club with no money, I’ll deal with that later. Now what about my role in all this? A single parent who had fallen in love with the beautiful game, every home match was a blissful retreat with my 2 sons, I met other parents and their children, it was addictive, it was fun and we all loved it, I also made friends, lots of them and a large majority still remain, I was hooked! After several months of football fun on the terraces, and knowing what a dire situation the Club was in, I made enquiries as to how I could help. In my normal life I always worked full time, I had to, I was a teacher of 21 years but had recently changed direction and had taken on a sales/training role for a French pharmaceutical company. I didn’t have much free time but I figured that volunteering at Exeter City would enable me to include my boys in this.

I approached the Club (Ian Huxham) to offer help in any way I could and this was accepted gladly, we were in so much trouble financially I had to do something. At just the same time a group of Directors plus others had decided to form ‘The Trust’ selling memberships (minimum £1) to anyone that would buy a share, it was hard work for everyone. My volunteering was going well when the FA Cup came along, we had got through to the third round, after beating Doncaster Rovers. Dean Moxey having scored a wonder goal that day... we were in the draw with premiership clubs entering at this level, not totally unusual but the chances of drawing premiership club were slim, we needed a miracle, we needed money, only a lottery win or an away fixture to a premiership club would save us... guess what? Tony Cascarino picked out ball 64 away to....Manchester United... a miracle had happened!
By this time I had done a lot of volunteering, so much so, I had been invited to apply to be a Trustee on the Supporters Trust Board and I was duly elected and was enjoying my role.

It was good being a voice for the fans on the terraces as the then Chairman, David Treharne, also had a seat on the Club board. After the Russell and Lewis scandal which saw them imprisoned, Julian Tagg was the acting Chairman of the Club board which technically remains today as the Supporters Trust still remain the majority shareholder. Which brings me in.
Shortly after our Manchester United windfall which saw us pocket just shy of 2 million pounds, David Treharne resigned and an election for a new supporters trust Chairman began. It was a big role which was vacant and which came off the back of boardroom struggles between club and trust, it wouldn’t be easy. Somehow or other, subject to my acceptance of course, I was elected as Trust board Chairman, what had I done? I was a single parent, worked full time and had taken on this huge role which carried no pay whatsoever.

I must have been mad but I was a fan, cared for the club and wanted to make a difference if only to lead by example. There were monthly board meetings to attend (which I had to take annual leave for, 12 days a year) plus chairing supporters trust meetings and being a conduit between the club and trust... this was not easy let me tell you and of course away games. I joined the club board as a director being the Supporters Trust Chairman with Julian Tagg acting Chairman. Julian has been at the club for more years than he or I would care to remember but he did a good job. There were finance, team, manager and training ground matters, finance and budgeting all apart from running the match day and a host of other things... it was mind boggling but I picked it up with the help of a few people and of course we were in debt although a cheque for a million pounds or 2, was awaited from Manchester United.. this had the potential to solve our problems. I know my story has been rather long-winded but it’s important to get the time line clear. When that cheque finally arrived (we were fending off our creditors as they thought we were rolling in money but that was far from the truth). Frances Farley our legal/human resource director and I went immediately to our CVA administrator with the cheque and a huge ASK. Would he please take our cheque from Manchester United, write to all our creditors asking if they would accept a small amount of return (it turned out to be 9p in every original £ they invested) in order that we could be debt free. It was simply an enormous job, in fact sometimes impossible as Russell & Lewis has created ‘fraudulent’ share certificates in some cases, some investors had died it really was arduous but in the end the answer was YES.

With the CVA gone the Supporters Trust became the majority shareholder and their Chairman, ME!, automatically became Chairman of the whole Club. I remember the moment the CVA was signed off, I was with Frances (another director) who was delighted, 2 women on the Board and one Chairman of the whole club! The other amazing thing is that with the Club on a zero balance we became the 17th most profitable club in the country and at the time I remember Chelsea being £61 million in debt, that was some achievement for a fan-owned club! The initial press hype was big, there were the obligatory photos for the papers posing, one foot on a football, in the stadium, there were interviews etc but eventually when it all died down we were left to get on with it all, it was really hard but I had help, guidance and leadership from the other directors after all I chaired the club meetings and they all had their individual areas of responsibility. It really was a bit of a novelty being a lady Chairman for a while, I was met by several car parking stewards at away grounds convinced I was an imposter. There were several notable instances, one particularly, who had to change their ancient policy ‘NO WOMEN IN THE BOARD ROOM’ pretty quickly the week before my/our arrival!

Matters took a further turn for the worse that day when my son Ross, who often accompanied me suited and booted of course, ‘accidentally’ sat in the ‘Chairman’s chair’ and was ceremoniously removed from it! It really was the best kept secret I believe in football at the time, apart from Delia Smith, a director of Norwich and Karen Brady (now a Dame) also a director there were few women in the game let alone at the top. It really was a privilege and an honour. Whilst there was little I could change (I tried!) I wanted to do things differently when it came to our fans. I wanted them to have no fear when approaching the club.. I really enforces our ‘Trust run Club’ ethos that if you are a fan, then you will be heard and we changed things at Trust level by opening up our meetings to fans who wanted to attend. I also promised that if there was an issue however large or small, we would raise it to the Club board meeting as soon as we can. We needed to reassure the fans we were solvent, transparent and got things done. One of my other roles was to write the ‘Chairman’s’ page in the match day programme. This was very enjoyable but at the same time a thorn in my side as there were really strict time restraints to get ‘copy’ to the printers in time and with the demands of my full time job it was hard. However I loved researching our next opponents and I learned a lot about the league this way, it was fun. I still have many of them it makes good reading plus my appearance has changed (having recently lost a lot of weight) so I would badger the then club photographer ‘Cheggers’ to always be kind and get my ‘good side’! I was also keen to be and remain ‘a fan’ after all that’s where I started and I would arrive at the ground and go straight to the Centre Spot and the then ‘Exec 100’ club to see how everyone was doing.

Whilst it was an honour and a privilege being in the board room and meeting and greeting the great and good of football my heart was down in the stands. A win when I was a fan down there was a celebration, a chance to jump around and a loss just a sadness. As a Chairman it’s completely different, a win, sometimes against a big opponent guarantees you a good gate the next week however a loss is not only sad for manager and team but I could expect a barrage of abuse from whoever cared to sling it and this undoubtedly meant an urgent plea to attend our next game.. we needed the money. There really are so many wonderful moments, too many to mention here (maybe I will get a book deal one day) however perhaps the proudest moment was, after the disappointment of losing to Morecambe the year before, and sitting in the Royal Box, us winning the play-off final at the new Wembley, the vital win we needed to put us back in the football league, no more conference football for us. I’ll forever be indebted to Rob Edwards for that simple header and the fact I was the very First Lady Chairman to lift a promotion trophy at the new Wembley.

Apart from getting married, giving birth and other huge life moments this will live with me forever. I remember my son Ross and I being taken down the back VIP stairs and onto the pitch... unbelievable. I also remember ‘Dion Dublin’ asking ‘who the hell are you?’ after our win and whilst celebrating our promotion in the Royal Box. I was talking to him for quite a while about Exeter (everyone loves a winning team at Wembley eh?) but I’ll never forget his face when I announced I was leaving, to go home on the Supporters coach, with Ross and I grabbing our belongings and running as fast as we could... who would miss that journey home? I bet there are few Chairman that do that... always a fan, always with the fans. After that success the next season we were promoted again to League 1 at Rotherham, that too was a special moment. The Club took on a whole new world and grew. I was delighted the community of the Exeter City family have kept this legacy growing and I’m so proud to see hoards of women attending matches and getting involved it’s no longer a man’s domain. Volunteers remain the backbone of our club, I’m so proud of what they achieved when I was Chairman and what they are still achieving. I made a point of thanking each and every one of them whenever I could and would often write every single one a personalised letter, I know they appreciated it, whilst it cost me time and my own supply of stationery it costs nothing to be polite. So finally it all ended albeit quite swiftly for me in July 2010 when my services were no longer required.

The Club had moved on from its ‘conference’ days and needed structure, solid structure and with the stadium development gathering pace it was time to hand over. Ed Chorlton a former Devon County Council employee, was appointed.
I’m proud to say I didn’t take a single postage stamp out of the Club I did it for free.. and my gift... a half a season ticket. Since then I’ve bought my own every year. So I retreated to my home with 6 years worth of tidying to do, jumble-filled but to spend more time with my 2 lovely sons and re-connect myself with friends I had neglected... and reality... but still a fan.. even today!”

Written in June 2019.

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Denise Watts

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