x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hull’s Assem Allam just fans the flames

The Hull City owner’s comments will do little to attract supporters to the club – but winning matches will, says Ali Khaled

Assem Allam had plenty to smile about for once in the Hull City stand as his side defeated Liverpool on Sunday. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images
Assem Allam had plenty to smile about for once in the Hull City stand as his side defeated Liverpool on Sunday. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

In his 1956 autobiography The Clown Prince of Soccer, the legendary Sunderland striker Len Shackleton famously included a chapter entitled “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football”, which consisted of a single blank page.

He was, considering recent events, being too generous.

Despite his nickname, Shackleton was no fool and would have understood the importance of money in football more than most; his £20,500 move to Sunderland from bitter rivals Newcastle United in 1948 was an English record.

But he also knew that football was primarily about the fans.

“I’m not biased when it comes to Newcastle. I’m not bothered who beats them,” he said, and the Sunderland supporters adored him for it.

Few club owners or directors can claim such popularity today. Or would even care.

How else to explain curious case of Hull City’s owner, Dr Assem Allam?

Having saved the club from bankruptcy in 2010, the Egyptian-born Allam, who moved to Hull in 1968, has proposed changing the club’s name from Hull City to Hull Tigers, a re-branding he believes will broaden the club’s global appeal.

Not surprisingly, fans have not taken kindly to this idea, setting up a campaign group called City Till We Die.

“They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football,” Allam told The Independent in an interview published on Sunday.

These fans are, according to Allam, “hooligans”, and he compounded the insult by saying City was a “common” and “lousy” name.

“Do they want me to stay?” he asked. “If it’s, ‘No thank you’, fine, in 24 hours the club is for sale, I do not put in one more pound and hopefully things happen quickly.”

The message, if not a threat, was clear – without Allam and his money, Hull City would disappear.

Recent history has shown the dire consequences clubs can suffer when financially mismanaged, or abandoned, and none more so than the cautionary tale of Portsmouth.

A series of financial mistakes has left the club – in the Premier League as recently as 2010 – struggling in the fourth tier of English football. Sitting 17th in League Two, they sacked manager Guy Whittingham a week ago.

Yet despite being close to administration on several occasions, the club continues to survive. Today, thanks to fans that set up the Pompey Supporters’ Trust, which completed the purchase of the club in April of this year. Portsmouth is now the largest fan-owned club in England.

Allam cannot afford to dismiss fan power, and more importantly the resilience of football clubs.

In their 2009 book Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski set about debunking an enduring myth.

“Over the last decade people worried a lot more about football clubs than of banks.

“Yet it was many of the world’s largest banks that disappeared. The public perception that football clubs are inherently unstable businesses is wrong.

Despite being incompetently run, they are some of the most stable businesses on earth,” the book says, contrasting the demise of Lehman Brothers to the survival of clubs that are, financially speaking, “midgets” by comparison.

“So almost every professional club in England had survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, recessions, corrupt chairmen and appalling managers.”

They will probably continue to do so. The “brand” Allam’s marketers hope to create globally can never compete with the one that already exists at home, and no one has brand loyalty quite like a football fan. Portsmouth won’t be the last club saved by its fans.

“In most industries a bad business goes bankrupt, but football clubs almost never do. The 40 English clubs that entered insolvency proceedings through 2008 cut deals with their creditors (usually the players and the taxman and moved on),” Kuper and Szymanski wrote.

Allam’s astonishing attack on the club’s supporters is bad enough, but he commits the almost-bigger sin of assuming that “global” football fans, however flimsy their allegiances can be sometimes, will be dazzled by the change from “City” to “Tigers”.

Patronising doesn’t even come close. Does Allam genuinely think that changing the club’s name, just as the Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan changed the club’s colours from blue to red, is the way to attract fans?

Or that insulting the core fan base will have fans in the Middle East and elsewhere ditching their Manchester United and Real Madrid shirts for the latest Hull Tigers shirt?

Allam has accused a “militant minority” of Hull fans of distracting the players. On Sunday, however, their incredible show of support helped inspire Hull City to beat Liverpool for the first time in their history.

And that, Mr Allam, is how you win over new fans.