Bernie Coleman, successful publican who became a committed benefactor of English cricket and football – obituary

·3-min read
Bernie Coleman, far right, with Elton John and Alan Smith, Melbourne, 1986 - Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Bernie Coleman, far right, with Elton John and Alan Smith, Melbourne, 1986 - Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Bernie Coleman, who has died aged 97, bought Wimbledon FC when it was a semi-professional club, introduced perimeter advertising boards on cricket grounds, and raised large sums for sports and youth charities; he also owned a string of pubs, putting on music nights which attracted young performers including the future star singer-songwriter Paul Simon.

There were no other takers when Coleman bought Wimbledon in 1972. He wrote off the debts and in 1976 introduced a new potential owner to the club’s committee, Ron Noades. Coleman sold on his stake in 1977 – when Wimbledon were elected to the Football League – for the same sum he had paid, £2,971.

The following decade the Dons were competing against the best teams in England, winning the FA Cup in 1988. Coleman’s regret was that he did not stipulate in writing that if the club was re-sold, this sale should incorporate the ground.

The land at Plough Lane was valuable and was sold to a supermarket by Noades’s successor as proprietor, Sam Hammam. Coleman also had a financial stake in Crystal Palace, which Noades went on to own. When this club in due course was also sold, he agreed to use a third of his entitlement to create a charitable trust to provide coaching for promising young cricketers.

His first love was the summer game: he was on Surrey’s committee and became president at the Oval, where he would watch matches with John Major. The mercurial Labour minister George Brown once asked him whether he would like to stand for parliament for the Labour Party: “ I said: ‘No thanks.’ ”

Bernard Coleman was born in south London on January 13 1924, left Balham Grammar School at 15 and three years later was serving as a coder in a frigate in the Atlantic.

According to an oft-told story he had trained at Royal Troon, where he once struggled to find the right wavelength in a bunker on the golf course. “Have you found the wavelength yet, Coleman?” a sergeant enquired. “No,” Coleman replied. “But I’ve found Glenn Miller.”

He could not find a job at the end of the war so his father passed on to him a pub he ran in Tooting, called the Castle. He bought a piano and put on music events. Eventually Coleman’s 12 pubs included the Dog & Fox in Wimbledon and Woodies, next to Wimbledon’s training ground in New Malden.

Coleman campaigned that Surrey CCC should obtain the freehold of the Oval from the Duchy of Cornwall but the Prince of Wales did not play ball. From across the river, Gubby Allen, who presided over Lord’s, objected to Coleman’s proposed sponsorship and advertising boards at the Oval.

Coleman told Allen that he could not stop Surrey doing what it could to raise money and, besides, the club was “skint.”

Coleman was more or less a lone voice in English cricket to approve of Kerry Packer’s breakaway series in the late 1970s. He also persuaded Sam Chisholm of BSkyB to cover England’s tour of West Indies in 1990, resulting in the satellite station becoming the leading broadcaster of English cricket. It was also Coleman’s idea that BSkyB should cover Premiership football.

When a consortium of businessmen decided to relocate Wimbledon FC, in the manner of an American sporting franchise and against strong local opposition, to Milton Keynes, and subsequently a new club, AFC Wimbledon, was formed by a committed band of volunteers from the ashes of the old one, Coleman remained involved. He donated money and bought season tickets for local children. In 2020 the Dons returned to Plough Lane, yards from their old home, with a brand new stadium.

Coleman was appointed OBE in 1990.

His partner in his pubs business was Joyce Jones and when they retired, both in their eighties, they married at Morden Register Office, recruiting two council gardeners as witnesses. She predeceased him.

Bernie Coleman, born January 13 1924, died November 13 2021

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting