x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

English Premier League chairman's journey from Sheffield to Sharjah

Sir David Richards is offering his experience to help further the development of the Pro League.

Phil Gartside , the Bolton chairman, left, with Sir David Richards, the Premier League chairman.
Phil Gartside , the Bolton chairman, left, with Sir David Richards, the Premier League chairman.

As chairman of Sheffield Wednesday and then the English Premier League, Sir David Richards knows a thing or two about English football. He has seen the sport's landscape in England change almost beyond recognition over the past 22 years.

He still remembers the day when Dennis Bergkamp, the Dutch master, arrived at Arsenal from Inter Milan in 1995. Richards reacted with disbelief back then that the league could attract such a high-class player in the prime of his career.

For the officials of football in the UAE, the arrival of George Weah at Al Jazira in 2003 was a similar watershed moment. The former Fifa Player of the Year opened the floodgates for world talent to arrive on these Gulf shores, from Ricardo Oliveira to Fabio Cannavaro to, most recently, Diego Maradona, David Trezeguet and Asamoah Gyan.

This influx of stars and the growth of the Pro League reminds Richards of the embryonic days of the Premier League, which was formed in 1992 after the First Division clubs decided to break away from the Football League.

There has been no such revolt in UAE domestic football, though, apart from the spat between the league and the Football Association earlier this year over the name of the league.

The switch towards professionalism is a manifestation of the mandate from the Asian Football Confederation; it is part of the former AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam's grand "Vision Asia" programme, which seeks to raise the standards of Asian football.

"I think if you look at the reasons why the Premier League was started and if you look at Vision Asia, they are actually two of the same things," Richards said.

"You aren't the FAs running the football, where the club's didn't have real say in what goes on. It's about the clubs because without the clubs, you haven't got an Association. So Vision Asia said: 'No, you must create a football club having a football licence and be independent.' And that's where you are and you have done very, very well, compared to the rest of the AFC."

Richards has been the chairman of the Premier League since 1999 and has helped turn it into the most-watched league in the world and a billion-pound product.

"The reason we are here is to pass on our experience because obviously now we've had 20 years at it," Richards said.

"If you were trying to do this on your own, it would take 20 years, but now you shortcut it because of the experiences that we've got."

He said the UAE's clubs have the facilities. "They just need a little bit of infrastructure in people, and we think that we can enhance that quite quickly.

"While the clubs have done fantastic in set-up and administration, they have been a bit slow on what we would call CSR [Corporate Social Responsibilty] - the development of the youth, the academies. We believe we can help you to shortcut all the heartache that we have had over 20 years."

The Premier League has marketed its product superbly; it is broadcast to more than 600 million people in more than 200 countries. The UAE is encountering problems exporting their own players, let alone any TV rights.

European clubs have shown an interest in the likes of Ahmed Khalil and Hamdan Al Kamali but Oman's Ali Al Habsi, who joined Bolton Wanderers before moving to Wigan Athletic, remains the only player from the Gulf to play in the Premier League.

"It's about talent at the end of the day," said Phil Gartside, the Bolton Wanderers chairman. "You've got to find the right player with the right talent. The decision to sign Ali Al Habsi was based on football; it was not based on anything else. Ali was an exceptional talent, so that made it easy for us."

Al Habsi, who has been voted the best goalkeeper in four consecutive Gulf Cups, moved to Bolton from Norway's Lyn Oslo in 2006 before joining Wigan for £4 million (Dh23.2m) in the summer.

"Ali was a great servant to Bolton," Gartside said. "Unfortunately, he couldn't get into the first team because we had a wonderful goalkeeper, Jussi Jaaskelainen, who has been with us for 13 years. It was difficult for Ali and we had long conversations with him. I have visited Oman and spoke to his family and the Oman FA.

"It was important for Ali, at the age of 29, to actually become a first-team player in another team and we got what we consider a good financial offer from Wigan to do that. It was a sad day for me, personally, because I have been friendly with Ali and his family."

Al Habsi's success in the Premier League should open doors for more players from this region, but Gartside envisions obstacles in the paths of even the best talents, most notably the Home Office criteria for issuing work permits.

Iraq's Nashat Akram could have been a Manchester City player in 2008, but was refused a work permit.

"I think you've got the barrier of passports and work permits and the standing in world football," Gartside said. "You've got to be in the top 70 nations in the world, you've got to play all your international games, with the exception of a special talent."

Players from the Gulf may not be flowing into England but the money certainly is. Arsenal's sponsorship with Emirates Airline helped them build their stadium, while Manchester City have been transformed into a championship contender since being taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.

"When you get an owner that has the kind of assets the Sheikh's got, it's not too difficult to move it up the league," Richards said. "He's got a good manager, he's got a good backroom staff, he's got a good set of players.

"But the Premier League's a hard league. You get clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United, they are difficult sides to beat these days. I think City will do well and they will be in that top echelon, but just where they will finish, I am not so sure."

Bolton, with their modest resources, would welcome investment from the Gulf.

"I think we would like some partnerships," Gartside said. "As a club, we are small and we would certainly be interested in partnerships."

arizvi@thenational.ae


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Ahmed Rizvi on @RizzoMumbai