Ivor Heller: “Endless Energy And Optimism”

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“Within the board what I valued most was his opinion, his extraordinarily wide network – he seems to know almost everyone and, equally important, they all know him – and his absolute commitment to doing what was best for the AFC Wimbledon club.” a tribute to Ivor Heller by Erik Samuelson.

WHEN I was asked to write a piece to mark Ivor Heller’s retirement as Commercial Director, the first thing that I recalled was that whenever anyone found out I was from AFC Wimbledon their first question was always ‘how’s Ivor?’  He has always been the one people remember.

It’s not surprising really. Despite his diminutive stature (more of that later) he would walk into a room knowing hardly a soul and very soon be at the centre of an animated discussion; he had an opinion (and an anecdote to tell) about almost everything.

I first met Ivor at one of the meetings to form the Dons Trust. We were in a sub-group in one of the pokey little meeting rooms upstairs in the Wimbledon Community Centre. As a result of that meeting I came to know him better when we, along with Kris Stewart, put together a business plan to take Wimbledon FC out of administration, where Koppel was threatening to put it if the franchise deal was refused.

But Ivor came into his own from 27 May. Yes, I know that’s the day before the FA commission reported but he was tipped off early by an insider and swung into action immediately. When I came to know him better I thought it odd that he moved on so quickly because he is by nature a fighter. But when I knew him even better I realised that whenever he knew a fight was lost he’d simply direct his energy elsewhere.

The origin story of AFC Wimbledon is well enough known by readers of the Wombles Downunder fanzine, but let’s dwell on it for a moment. What was achieved in those few short weeks was extraordinary.

I asked Dave Anderson for his memories of Ivor and he summed them up as ‘endless energy and optimism’.  And they were a key element that ensured AFC Wimbledon was created.

It often struck me that it must have looked odd that we got along so well. After all, we are opposites in many ways. While he could always argue a case it often felt to me that a lot of his judgements were rooted in gut feel whereas I preferred a more analytical approach.

Ivor with ‘The Beast’ Adebayo Akinfenwa

Ivor always thought about how to present things visually whereas I’m more at home with words and numbers. When it came to people he would quickly form a view and on the rare occasions where we appointed someone we regretted he’d suss it well before I did.

So in a perverse sort of way it turned out that despite our totally contrasting styles we worked together really well. Ivor is a free spirit, so we agreed a broad remit and I left him to get on with it. And because we shared similar values and objectives and talked regularly, it was a very rare event where I had to refuse a course of action he wanted to take.

Within the board what I valued most was his opinion, his extraordinarily wide network – he seems to know almost everyone and, equally important, they all know him – and his absolute commitment to doing what was best for the club.

One of the most obvious things about Ivor is his height. He uses this to effect when, for example, if something is dropped on the floor ‘I’ll get it – I’m nearer’.

Ivor with English football’s tallest player and former Dons loanee Kyle Hudlin (2.1m)

When he was due to speak at a Football League meeting he walked up to the lectern, peeped over the top, said ‘hmm, maybe not’ and stepped to one side to start his presentation amid loud laughter from the floor.

And when we were in 10 Downing Street to receive a Big Society award and David Cameron made a stupid joke about his height, Ivor dealt with it with great grace. And he could laugh about it too.

I remember when an opposition chairman told us he selected his people by reference to their star signs just as Ivor walked in. So I replied that I selected our staff by height; Ivor nearly choked with laughing and had to leave the room.

There is something about Ivor and royal boxes. Most readers will recall that after we’d won the League 2 play off final and in a state of euphoria, Ivor flicked Vs at a mate from the royal box.  I think that one went viral.

It was followed by some club employees sending him a spoof letter from the FA asking for his comments.  He wasn’t the only one to fall for it – at first I thought it was genuine too!

And then there was the royal box at Wimbledon.  As CEO of the club I was invited to their royal box for several years.  I always understood that it was the role that was invited, not me, so I wasn’t surprised that the invitations stopped after I retired.

The first time I went I thought it was about business networking so I took Ivor as my plus one.  And he distinguished himself with a comprehensively failed attempt to chat up actress Kim Cattrall.  She put him away so effortlessly that I stood in the middle of the reception area, away from the tennis, helpless with laughter.  I can’t remember laughing so long; I was so loud and so out of control that Ivor had to walk away from me!

To be fair to him he is just as likely to tell that tale as I am.

Another feature of Ivor is that he always seems to know (or claims he does) everything that is going on.  So Terry Brown was cheerfully mischievous in hiding the name of his first signing from Ivor.  It was at a meet the manager session that Terry told everyone he’d like to introduce them to his first signing – and in walked Marcus Gayle.   The look of surprise on Ivor’s face was a picture!

What else? Well running a football club you attract controversy, conspiracy theories and criticism, especially if you’re as high profile as Ivor. What always impressed me was that if someone attacked him he’d contact them and offer to talk about it.  He’s always been full frontal in confronting difficulty and not letting things fester.

Ivor with one of his favourite players and former Dons manager Glyn Hodges

One thing that I think we’ve done well as a club is to recognise and honour the past and a lot of that originally sprang from Ivor. He made sure that former players were invited and made welcome; he seemed to know them all. And he has an eye for history. So when we returned to the Football League in 2011 it was Ivor who got permission for a one-off change to our strip so that we could wear a replica strip as close as possible to the kit we wore when first we entered the league in 1977. These things matter and, let’s be clear, they were also good ideas commercially…

And then there is his extensive work for the community which was often done below the radar.  It has largely been unnoticed and unsung but he has been a great supporter of many charities across the borough, notably with The High Path Estate, and helped some of them to raise major sums.  He also instigated a renewal of hospital visits by players at Christmas.

Eileen told me that I forgot to say how kind and thoughtful Ivor can be.  I couldn’t attend the first Sutton friendly so it was one of the very few games she attended without me.  Despite the huge pressures surrounding the event he still found time to make sure she got a seat and was settled.  I often saw similarly kind and thoughtful acts on his part.

Ivor at a post-game man of the match presentation with Ayoub Assal

Well I’m nearly at the end and I’ve not mentioned his work as auctioneer at club events, hosting hospitality, engaging with sponsors and would-be sponsors, and telling our story to those who would listen and some who didn’t want to!

He has worked tirelessly for the benefit of the club and at some personal cost.

There comes a time when we should all move on and now that time has arrived for Ivor. The club is so embedded in him, and vice versa, that I suspect he will sometimes find that difficult. But I am absolutely certain that if a call for help comes from the club he will be there like a shot, bubbling over with enthusiasm, energy and optimism.

There’s lots more I could say but I will sign off with a statement of the obvious which I hope people will not forget: we wouldn’t have a club or a new stadium without Ivor. Well done Mr Heller!

 

[Ivor Heller: ‘Endless Energy and Optimism’ was first published in the March-April 2023 issue of the Wombles Downunder fanzine.  Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.]