x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Flight club

Saloon An English football chairman's long commute.

An English football chairman's long commute. Last Saturday was not a happy day in Paul Scally's house. Scally had flown out of Dubai the previous night to go watch Gillingham FC, the south east English football team that he owns, play Leeds United. The Gills had been thumped 4-1. "I'm a terrible loser," he says, speaking from his villa in Barsha. "If we get beat, I'm the worst. My wife and kids know to lay low." It's safe to assume that there weren't too many people in the UAE who shared Scally's anguish. While much ado has been made about Abu Dhabi-based investments in the Premier League clubs Portsmouth and Manchester City, Scally has been operating in Dubai in almost total anonymity. This is a strange turnabout for a man with a reputation as one of English football's more colourful and controversial characters. "I'm a chairman who speaks his heart and mind," he says. "I don't shy from the issues - if I believe something is wrong, I'll say so."

Over the years, Scally has banished reporters from his ground, fought the Football Association in court and argued openly with his own fans. One of his more famous battles was with Leeds chairman Ken Bates, so Saturday's defeat would have been especially galling. Also, the loss caused Gillingham to slip to ninth place in League One, English football's third tier, which puts a dent in Scally's desire to see his side play alongside Chelsea and Manchester United in England's top flight. "I know people laugh," he says, "but with a bit of investment and a bit of luck, we could get to the Premier League."

It was this dream, in part, that brought Scally to Dubai. He first came here a year and a half ago, brandishing glossy brochures, glowing financial forecasts and aerial photographs of a plot of land that he hopes will become the site of a new 22,000-seat stadium. The idea was to find a rich visionary who would help build the infrastructure he believes Gillingham needs to compete at the top. So far, rich visionaries have been thin on the ground. "With the recession, the appetite for property investment is nil," Scally says. "But we'll continue building, we'll push on."

While he might not be the wealthiest chairman in English football, Scally is at least among the most audacious. He bought Gillingham for the nominal sum of one pound in 1995, when the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. Before he committed himself, Scally visited the Gillingham ground and encountered fire-trap terraces, fatalistic fans and players who hardly knew how to kick a ball. Even the tea ladies were awful. "I took over a hopeless case," Scally says. "But I believed in this club. I believed I could take it somewhere."

Despite having overseen a relatively successful period at the club, Scally has difficulty convincing supporters that the Premier League is a realistic goal. "They'd love it to happen," he says. "But I don't think many of them share my deep beliefs." In fact, there are some Gillingham fans who flat-out don't like Scally, who believe that he's spent too heavily on infrastructure at the expense of the team. "I had a terrible couple of years where the whole stadium was slaughtering me," he says. "But all I want is for Gillingham to have a chance at being successful. I will fight anyone who tries to disrupt that."

At 53, Scally doesn't cut an especially daunting figure. He is friendly and talkative, with a slight paunch and glasses that make his eyes look a little bigger than they are. But Scally's professional life, by his own admission, has been marked by a ruthlessness that has often bordered on thuggery. "I was a bully," he says of his early days in business. "When I wanted something, I went and got it the only way I knew how, which was to give people a hard time."

Brought up in Blackheath, in South East London, Scally was an entrepreneur before he knew what the word meant. "I enjoyed the taste of money early," he says. By his mid-20s, he owned a successful photocopier distribution company. "That was the start," he says, "of me making a fortune." He dabbled in other enterprises, too, including a champagne importing business and an aviation club. And he enjoyed all the trappings of his success - fast cars, fancy houses, beautiful women. Scally was living the life, as he puts it now, of a "complete arse".

Then, in 1991, his one-year-old son, Sam, suffered a fatal fall. "That was the turning point in my life," he says. "When Sam died, I called all of my managing directors and said: 'Sell everything.' I didn't want to be in this life any more. I'd been stepping on people to make money, but all the money in the world wasn't going to help me now." For the next four years, Scally drifted. He split up with his wife, enrolled in law school then dropped out. He was little more than a man in a Mercedes. By chance, he saw a TV report about Gillingham's troubles, and the old hunger returned. "I couldn't understand how this club, this business, had never achieved anything," he says. "And being a football lover anyway, I had a natural attraction."

Scally took over Gillingham in the Spring of 1995 and began cleaning house. "The first job, I filled 17 skips with rubbish," he recalls. "I got rid of everything brown and had bright furniture brought in, new carpeting laid." Next, he got rid of pretty much everyone involved with the club - from the groundsman to the manager. "The place was a dump, there was nothing right about it," Scally says, pulling one of his brochures from a drawer. "This," he adds, pointing to a photograph of a bright blue stand, "this is what I've built."

While Scally insists that he has abandoned his bare-knuckle approach to business, his love of football is clearly tied in with his love of a good fight. For him, the game is about the clash of opposing forces - and, importantly, of unpredictable outcomes. This, he says, is why he has doubts about the astronomical sums currently being poured into the Premier League. "So you pour all that money in and win the league, big deal," he says. "Did you win it or did you buy it?"

When asked what he'd do if a sheikh came to him with £200 million to invest, Scally doesn't miss a beat. "I'd take it," he says.

* Chris Wright