Nigel Wray’s business empire covers everything from to the country’s favourite pizza company to high profile real estate and he has been happy to sink tens of millions of his fortune into making Saracens the double champions of Europe and the Aviva Premiership.
Wray, the Sarries chairman, admits some may consider him mad for funding such a costly passion over the last two decades, but his latest project is a real head-shaker. Not content with redefining English club rugby, Wray is now building a new secondary school for the club’s neighbours at Allianz Park in Barnet.
It will be a school based on the ethos that has underpinned Saracens rise from a small club with a rabbit hutch stand and a first team pitch that needed to be cleared of dog poo before matches at Southgate, to the star-studded outfit that sets the standards for the rest of the English game.
The Saracens High School Free Trust School will be located in the Colindale area of Barnet and has just been given the green light by the Department of Education and Wray is adamant his support for this project will not affect plans to add a West Stand to the Allianz Park stadium that has already cost £20m to update. That bill was shared equally by Wray and the club’s South African backers and this double act will no doubt fund the new stand which is due to be ready in 2018.
Wray, a Barnet resident, has Sarries board member Nick Leslau helping make the school plan become a reality and said:” I am not an expert on the funding arrangements but the Government funds the majority of the capital requirements of the new school. The West Stand will definitely take place and I do not believe you can be at the top of the sport in Europe in five years’ time unless you have a much better ground than we have at the moment. We have to improve everything, including training facilities.
“I would be disappointed if the stand was not there in two years. I have always said that once you stop improving you have had it.
“In terms of the school plan, Nick and I have put our hands in our pockets so far and then you get funding from the Government and we also have a great connection with the Ashmole Academy and their head master is on board which is very important.
“I hope what we have achieved at Saracens has helped convince people that we can make this work and hopefully there is still a lot more to achieve and goals to set for the rugby club. The Saracens name will be hugely important for the pupils at this school and I fervently hope they will want to go because the name will mean something to them even though rugby isn’t a big deal in North London – but they will associate it with the sport.
“ The most important thing is getting the kids enthused and we have spoken to headmasters who have had staggering success in tough areas and it can be definitely done. It won’t be done by me, but by talented people who will not take the project forward and making it happen. The young people at the Saracens Foundation see it as a real opportunity and I believe the players will want to get involved with the school.”
The need for extra school places in Colindale convinced Wray to get involved although, as usual, he tries to play down his importance to the project. Saracens is working in partnership with the Saracens Sport Foundation, Middlesex University, the Orion and Goldbeaters Primary School Gold Star Federation and Ashmole Academy.
“It wasn’t my idea and while I don’t have that many, I am pretty good at enabling other peoples!;”explained Wray.”It is a tough area of Barnet and there is a real shortage of school places in Colindale. Even though I come from a nice background ( Mill Hill School), we didn’t want to do it in a middle class area, we wanted to help kids from a rough, tough neighbourhood and give them a chance in life.
“It is following the idea of “ teams not gangs”. Teams are important for youngsters and if they not included in any then they form their own team which is actually a gang and that is dangerous for the rest of us. The idea is to give the kids a very good education and hopefully instil in them the Saracens values of hard work, humility, team work and discipline etc…
“Teams are not just sporting ones and any decent company has a team of people working together and caring for each other. It is a wonderful opportunity which up to this point we have been talking about and now we have to do it, which is the hard stuff.
“By September next year we would be hoping for a modest opening of the school and then going the whole hog with an entire secondary school for ages 3-18. Everything in life depends on getting the right guy at the top and that is our focus. We want to make sure we get the right head teacher and we need a great one who can inspire kids and make it happen. A fish always stinks from the head and if the person at the top isn’t right it won’t work. Passion, enthusiasm and competence are so important.”
Would he consider straight-talking former Sarries director of rugby Dr Brendan Venter, now helping London Irish, for the job?“I am a huge admirer of Brendan, but not as a possible head master!”