Football crazy Fayed set to pitch for Fulham

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The Independent Online
Soccer is now chic. Harrods, Britain's most exclusive department store, seems set to bestow a unique social endorsement on what was once a predominantly working-class pastime.

Mohamed Al Fayed, one the country's richest men and the owner of Harrods, which holds four royal warrants, is tipped to become the newest chairman in the football league.

It is understood he is in talks to take control of lowly Fulham FC, the Nationwide League club a couple of miles west of his Knightsbridge headquarters, and a long way down market - although in a highly desirable Thames-side location, not a stone's throw from the River Cafe. Mr Al Fayed has been holding discussions with Bill Muddyman, the football club's owner.

The move is likely to have greater impact in the fashion columns than on the back pages of the tabloids, as Fulham, although promoted at the end of last season, are second division minnows attracting home crowds of little more than 5,000 spectators.

In a surprising development that may have cleared the way for Mr Al Fayed's arrival at the club, Jimmy Hill, the BBC TV soccer pundit, last week stood down as chairman of Fulham.

In a statement issued on Friday, Mr Hill said: "For my part, nearing 70, I feel I have fulfilled my responsibility to repay football in some way since I finished playing 12 years as a professional from 1949-61." Mr Hill, who played as a defender for Fulham and was chairman for the past 10 years, will not be entirely severing his ties with the club that was once in soccer's top flight.

"I will have a seat in the director's box in the exciting new development in Fulham's history, having helped lay the foundation, with freedom from responsibility, finance, performance and salvation."

The Fulham ground, Craven Cottage, with its unique mock tudor building beside the main stand, is in need of redevelopment. And in common with the majority of other professional clubs outside the English Premier league, it is short of cash. However, it does have planning permission to build a new stand and 142 flats overlooking the river - a project which could prove extremely lucrative.

The club's bankers, the Royal Bank of Scotland - the same bankers who negotiated the sale of House of Fraser, which owned Harrods, to Mr Al Fayed - are understood to have recently offered the Fulham freehold for sale at pounds 7m.

The Harrods chairman has recently developed a fascination for soccer, encouraged by his young children and Professor Sir Roland Smith, the Manchester United chairman and a former business colleague.

Despite its size and lack of success over the two past decades Fulham has retained a disproportionate residue of fashionable support. Mr Al Fayed's involvement would immediately propel the tiny club back into the social big league

In the 1970s, soccer super-stars, in the twilight of their playing careers, entertained the Craven Cottage crowds. George Best and Rodney Marsh were briefly on the books .

But back in the1950s, Fulham's favourite son, Johnny Haynes, was skipper of England and helped keep his side riding high in the top division.

With Mr Al Fayed's Harrods millions behind them, Fulham or Harrods' FC perhaps, might begin to vie with more glamorous Chelsea just up the road.

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