Dr Assem Allam: 'I don't mind them singing 'City till we die'. They can die as soon as they want'
The outspoken owner of Hull City has had enough of militant fans opposing his plans to change the club's name to Hull Tigers. And here's why... Richard Rae meets Dr Assem Allam
Sunday 01 December 2013
It may be that Dr Assem Allam, the owner of Hull City, is unaware of the unfortunate historical associations of the description "hooligan" in connection with the game in this country.
However, it seems unlikely given what else the 74-year-old businessman has to say about those supporters who object to his determination to change the club's name to Hull Tigers, and who express their feelings by peaceably unfurling a banner reading "City till I die" at a given point during each home game.
"How can they call themselves fans, these hooligans, this militant minority, when they disturb and distract the players while taking away the rights of others to watch the football, and of companies who have paid good money for their advertising?
"If they want to express their feelings they are free to do so, either outside the stadium or pay to take space. Seriously, they are welcome to talk to the stadium management about buying a space for a permanent banner, 10 times as big if they want. I am a supporter of democracy. I would have no issue with that."
So, as happened against Crystal Palace last week, will stewards attempt to prevent a second banner reading "We are Hull City" being displayed during today's televised game against Liverpool? When they did so against Palace the situation threatened to become confrontational, before wiser counsels prevailed and the banner was allowed a moment – and it wasn't much more than that – in the spotlight.
According to Allam it will not be his decision, as he insists it was not during the Palace game.
"I have professional management capable of handling the situation. The main thing is that freedom of expression does not prevent the freedom of others to watch the game, or the rights of those who have paid to advertise.
"But can I remind you, we lost that match. And we still talk about these people as 'fans'? Again, how can you be supporting a club when you distract attention during a game?"
And the chanting? "I don't mind '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.
"These people, they want influence and authority without responsibility. The fans went against me when I sacked the previous manager, Nick Barmby, a nice man and a local hero who I liked a lot. But it was my responsibility to act and thank God I did not listen to them. I will never have other people taking decisions while I take responsibility."
His message, he says, is very straightforward: look at my record and trust me. The alternative?
"I'm a simple man. Do they want me to stay? 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."
This appears to be the first time Allam has posited the nuclear option. Because that, effectively is what it is. Without his financial support, the club would almost certainly go to the wall, as they were within hours of doing when he paid £27 million to avert an HM Customs and Revenue winding-up order in December 2010.
If that was not an act of pure phil-anthropy, the most cynical would have to acknowledge it was not far off. Having arrived from Egypt in 1968 as a penniless refugee from the Nasser regime – he says he was beaten for his opposition to the dictator – Allam has become one of the area's richest men, owner of a company he describes as the country's biggest independent generator manufacturer.
Political and civil unrest in the Middle East – Allam Marine's primary export zone – means business is not as good as it was three years ago, when turnover was £185m and he paid himself a dividend of £16m. Even so, this year's Sunday Times Rich List esti-mated his family's wealth at £317m.
However, Allam has put plenty back. Hull University, local hospitals and Hull Truck Theatre have variously received substantial six- and in some cases seven-figure donations. Two years ago the rugby league club Hull Kingston Rovers were handed £1m. A great squash lover, he has sponsored the British Open – on condition it is played in Hull.
But it is the football club on which Allam has spent by far the largest sum: by last July, he calculates, some £66m. It was not, he says, what he originally intended: "After the initial £27m, I had in mind to spend another £30m increasing the stadium capacity by 10,000 [to 35,500], which would have cost about £12m, and the rest improving the infrastructure, build cafeterias, a small supermarket, a hotel, offices, to allow the club to generate income so it would never have to depend on someone like me again."
To do so, however, he required the club to acquire the KC Stadium freehold – "Would you build an extension on a house if you were just the tenant?" – and the city council, which built the stadium at a cost of £43.5m (realised by selling a substantial share in the unique publicly owned local telecommunications provider), wanted a co-operative approach.
Whether a compromise was ever possible is unlikely, but now seems almost impossible given Allam has severed relations, accusing some councillors of publicly misrepresenting what was said at a meeting between the two parties.
He has still pumped in a further £38m, though, money used to buy the players who got Hull promoted last season, pay the necessary uplift in contracts, then bring in and pay the likes of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to provide a decent chance of staying up.
Hence the need to generate more income, and so the name-change. Or, as he insists, the name-shortening, because he claims the word "Tigers" has been part of the club's official name "for ages". This is news to most supporters, many of whom find the marketing case – that "Hull Tigers" will be a far more effective global brand than Hull City, or even Hull City Tigers – unconvincing at best and spurious at worst.
Many feel it is some sort of reaction to the fall-out with the city council. The "No to Hull Tigers" campaign group, an amalgam of the various supporters' groups, has been trying desperately to make Allam understand that while every fan fully appreciates what he has done for the club, and is as ambitious for the future as him, tradition also matters.
When he met representatives of the group recently, Allam admits he was impressed. "They were good listeners and I was a good listener, and someone said, 'OK, what if we come back to you with alternative ways of generating commercial income?' I said, 'I would love that', we agreed to make a joint statement and that's how we left it.
"Unfortunately they issued their own statement and I am still waiting for them to come up with commercial alternatives. So far they have only come up with banners and actions that affect the players."
Even the announcement that Hull will be the UK's City of Culture in 2017 has not given him pause for thought. "I am very pleased about this, but it is not relevant to football. Every-body uses 'City', which is why I said it was a common name. What is relevant is colour, logo and name of area. The university is not Hull City University.
"Where were these militant fans when Hull City AFC was dead in December 2010? I made it clear to everybody that I will run the club the only way I know, on sound business policies. That is what I have done, and it is what I will continue to do.
"If the majority of fans are saying now, no, it doesn't work, OK, tell me that and I am off. Not a minority who shout loud, they will not force me out, that would be a Scargill scenario. You remember [Arthur] Scargill? Where is the mining industry now? No."
If the club stay up this season, Allam believes that next season mid-table will be achievable, followed by possible European qualification. And if not, and the income falls off a cliff?
"I don't want to answer hypothetical questions, but the militant fans will have to deal with the issue. Will it be their fault? If they affect what happens on the pitch it will be. If the majority want me to go, I will. Remember this. Trust me on this."
Fans: He's being offensive
The City Till We Die campaign group, who have set up a membership scheme aimed at forming a supporters' trust, is asking Dr Allam to launch a consultation on the issue of the name with all supporters, using the database of 20,000 season-ticket holders.
In a statement they said: "The intemperate suggestion that singing 'City Till I Die' or holding a banner with Hull City's name on it constitutes disorder is ill-informed, unhelpful and will be considered by many to be offensive; nor is it credible to believe that such measured actions will have any effect upon the team. We reiterate our advice to all City fans to continue their fine support for our fantastic team while positively expressing a preference for our current name. We remain committed to working with the club on this and other issues. We are particularly mindful of Dr Allam's comments when he took over the club in 2010 about broadening supporters' representation at Hull City AFC. We are keen to assist the club with establishing this."
1997 Former tennis player David Lloyd buys the club.
2002 Relocation from Boothferry Park to the 24,500 seater KC Stadium.
2003 First of back-to-back promotions to the Championship.
2008 Hull reach Premier League for first time via the play-offs.
2010 Relegation and financial turmoil. Assem Allam takes over.
2013 Promotion to the Premier League again.
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