Meet Andrew Howard: Football Chairman, Ice Cream Entrepreneur, And Champion Racing Driver
It's not all that often that you meet a Football League chairman who is also a successful racing driver and ice cream entrepreneur, but then Andrew Howard is not most people.
Jakob Ebrey Photography / British GT
It's not all that often that you meet a Football League chairman who is also a successful racing driver, but then Andrew Howard is not most people.
The founder of the Beechdean ice cream company, Howard won the British GT championship for a second time last year in his Aston Martin Vantage GT3 and plans to defend the title in 2016. He's also readying an assault on the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), with a view to contesting the Le Mans 24 Hours. His ever-expanding team, Beechdean Motorsport, will run extra cars in the entry-level GT4 class for single-seater converts Jordan Albert and Jack Bartholomew, as well as Aston Martin enthusiast and Great British Bake Off presenter Paul Hollywood.
That's before we even get to the football. A lifelong Leeds United fan, Howard only took the helm at League Two Wycombe Wanderers to honour a bet, but it's quickly apparent from spending time with him on a match-day that the role of chairman is one that he fulfils with enormous pride. In 18 months under Howard's stewardship, the Chairboys have undergone a remarkable upturn in fortune: after surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2013/2014, Wycombe only narrowly missed out to Southend on penalties in the Playoff Final last season. With a hard-earned FA Cup replay against struggling Aston Villa coming up – and the mouthwatering prospect of Manchester City in the fourth round – these are exciting times for the Buckinghamshireclub.
"It's very interesting, but it's all very interlinked as well," Howard says. "All of them are areas that I have a massive interest in, but I wouldn't say I suddenly woke up when I was 10 and said 'this is what I want to do.' Everything has evolved, really. It's a commitment, and as with any commitment you make to people, if you respect them you want to see that commitment through.
"I was very lucky to work with various Dukes early doors when we used to make ice cream for them, and I'll always remember the Duke of Wellington telling me that he was simply a custodian. He was just there to do a good job and hand it back in a better condition than he found it, and I think that's the role of anyone who is responsible for a football club that's been here for 128 years."
Our chat comes as Wycombe host 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth, now a fan-owned club in English football's fourth tier, but still capable of attracting players from Championship-level teams (Matt Tubbs joined from Bournemouth in January) and paying the hefty wages that accompany them. Wycombe are also fan-owned, but operate with one of the division's smallest squads and a fraction of the playing budget of their South Coast visitors, making this the proverbial David versus Goliath tie.
Small in stature they may be, but Wycombe are a club with a big heart – footage of a ball-boy joining in the celebrations after Aaron Pierre's injury-time equaliser against Dagenham & Redbridge in August achieved viral status – and that was soon evident on the pitch as Gareth Ainsworth's men raced into a two-goal lead. Adams Park was bouncing after a long-range effort from winger Michael Harriman, who moments later set up veteran forward Garry Thompson for the second. Portsmouth refused to submit, however, and scored either side of the break to force a 2-2 draw.
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"We're trying to do something different here," Howard says. "We're trying to work over a period of time, so rather than saying to Gareth 'you've got three matches and you're out', we're actually trying to say 'you've got 46 matches' or 92 matches, whatever that figure is.
"Football is very dependent on what happens on the pitch, because that's what brings the fans in and that's what people support, but if we can keep going, we're on a journey that will lead to stability. We have a five-year plan, and we've still got a long way to go."
That 42 year-old Ainsworth is currently the eighth longest-serving manager in the Football League would suggest that Howard practices what he preaches. Best known for a seven-year spell at QPR before arriving at Wanderers first as a player, then as a manager, Ainsworth has had to do a lot of learning on the job. After successfully pulling off the great escape, then picking his players up off the floor after their Wembley heartache, he has certainly vindicated Howard's gamble on youth.
"It's a bit like losing a championship in racing: you can get close, finish second, and either go away and lick your wounds, or learn from what you've done and move forward," he says. "Gareth went through a massive year when they were battling relegation and I think he was a lad who needed more support, but everything is there. As a manager, he's brought the same ethos he used to play football with.
"We had [former manager] Martin O'Neill down a few weeks ago for an old player's do. Listening to Martin, it was uncanny how similar Gareth's attitude is in the way he does things. He's a motivator, hard but fair, and people will follow him. Commitment and heart have a massive value in sport and if you can get a team to pull together, you don't have to have the all-stars – that's true of both [football and motorsport]."
Howard believes his two sports have more in common than people might think. If you look past the short-lived Superleague Formula series – where teams ran under the banner of football clubs, providing the likes of Liverpool and Spurs with some welcome silverware – he might have a point. Aside from managing the team to maximise the efficiency of every component, there's the small matter of liaising with corporate sponsors, not to mention contractual negotiations with players and drivers alike.
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To demonstrate their similarities, Howard invited the entire Wycombe squad to Brands Hatch for a round of the British GT championship in 2014, although the day quickly went sour as he finished out of the points in 16th ("it was a nightmare, I was on pole and had a brake issue – everyone said 'yeah of course you did Andrew!'") A former karting prodigy, Ainsworth has expressed a keen interest in his chairman's other weekend hobby and was spotted around the Beechdean garage several times in the title run-in, including at a sodden Snetterton and the dramatic season finale at Donington Park, significantly strengthening the rapport between the two.
"It's a massive boost to have Gareth come and support me," says Howard. "It's the same pride I have watching them play football; it's about respect at the end of the day.
"Anyone that's trying to run an organisation and a business has to go out and earn the respect of the people that they're working with, and that's especially true when you're working with sportspeople. They want to know that the chairman of their football club is competitive and isn't just doing it to balance the books, but also understands what it's like to win.
"The reason we took the whole team to Brands Hatch was firstly to see that the players are proud of wearing the badge, and secondly to show them a different kind of team-work. When you look at a pitstop, there is no conversation involved, and I wanted them to understand that while communication is important, you also need to be instinctive."
To all intents and purposes, the comparisons should end there. After all, football is a young man's game, and motorsport – an expensive hobby if ever there was one – is notoriously unforgiving of youthful exuberance.
But Howard's passion for youth development has allowed promising talents to prosper in both fields. Unheralded loan signings Alfie Mawson, 21, and Fred Onyedinma, 19, were both instrumental in Wycombe's promotion push last season, while Ross Gunn, 19, and Jamie Chadwick, 17, became the youngest-ever champions of the GT4 class in British GT. Now an Aston Martin factory driver, Gunn will step up to the top GT3 class to join Howard in his title defence, a truly remarkable turnaround after spending the entire 2014 season sidelined by a budgetary shortfall.
"I find football is more embracing of young talent than motorsport; footballers at 16 or 17 will be put in front of 30,000 people, and we should be more comfortable with allowing youngsters in motorsport those types of opportunity," he says. "If you go back to our factories, they are all run by young people who have come up through the business. We don't have any senior management and we don't have a board. Of course it means you get mistakes occasionally, but with that you get a lot of enthusiasm, which I love."
But while they complement each other up to a point, balancing his responsibilities at Wycombe Wanderers with racing Aston Martins, all while keeping his ice cream business ticking over, is not something Howard is keen to do forever.
"As, unashamedly, Gareth's absolute love in life is football, my love in life is Le Mans," he admits. "My ultimate aim is to race in the World Endurance Championship and to one day be world champion, and at 52, it's probably the last chance I'll ever have of doing something like that. I just don't think that the two go together; it would be unfair of me to think that I could do both at that level, because the person who runs the football club needs to be involved.
"But at the same time, I would never leave in a [manner] that I thought would ever cause the club any problems. Will I be Chairman of Wycombe Wanderers in 20 years' time? No, but I'm hopeful that the structure will be in place that allows whoever takes over to continue the good work we've done."
And until that day comes, you can bet he'll enjoy the ride.