FA Cup countdown: Learning not to lose your shirt

With Kettering set to face Fulham in the FA Cup on Saturday, owner Imraan Ladak tells Glenn Moore why they are backing a Palestinian charity – even if it means missing out on a live TV appearance
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The Independent Football

Rich man with big ideas buys underachieving club and decides to make a statement by signing up one of football's biggest names. Then it all goes horribly wrong.

Not Manchester City, but Kettering Town after Imraan Ladak took over in 2005. The multimillionaire, and Tottenham fan, made Paul Gascoigne manager only to sack him 39 days later as the latter's alcohol problem resurfaced.

Gascoigne, tragically, has continued to struggle with his demons, but for Kettering a happier ending is in prospect. Ladak, contrary to suspicion at the time, is still there, having overseen promotion to the Conference and progress to Saturday's FA Cup fourth-round tie against Fulham.

Whatever the result it will be a day of celebration, but also reflection for Ladak, who has learnt some harsh lessons, lessons that even the likes of Sheikh Mansour might do well to heed.

Unlike City's wealthy owner, Ladak made his own money, but that experience did not prepare him for working in the football industry. "There is nothing like running a football club," he said when we met at his busy, open-plan office near Milton Keynes. "The biggest mistake I made was not being a director first to understand how it all works. People want to take advantage in any industry but football is incredible. It is a cash business, which is difficult, especially if you don't have the right structures in place. You have to trust a lot of people you don't know."

When he took over Ladak was full of self-belief. He talked of emulating Wimbledon, of having players with Champions League experience turning out at Rockingham Road. He had the chutzpah expected of a man who had built a multimillion-pound fortune from nothing at the age of 27.

Over three years on he is chastened. He said: "When you get involved in something you want to make an immediate impact, you want to make it grow and succeed. Success is all about growing your business, being profitable, looking after your customers, making sure everyone is always happy. In football you just can't keep everyone happy and you can't grow at that rate.

"I went in with these big plans. I thought, 'We will obviously win the Conference North as we will be the only full-time team in the division so we will obviously be better than everyone else'. That put a lot of pressure on Paul Gascoigne. It would have been better to have come in saying, 'We have Paul Gascoigne, that's brilliant, it's an honour to have him, but he's never managed before so he's learning his trade and we are going to enjoy it regardless of results'.

"The way we went in put too much pressure on him and I don't think he handled it very well. If I had my time again I would still appoint him, but I would approach it differently. That might have meant he would not have to turn to other things."

Gascoigne was followed by Morrell Maison, a non-league manager, assisted by Ron Atkinson, a former manager of Kettering as well as Manchester United. That ended badly when Maison was sacked in April 2007, putting Atkinson, admitted Ladak, "in an untenable position".

By now Ladak was collecting an unenviable reputation for courting publicity. He was, he insists, trying to raise the club's profile, not his own. Since Atkinson's departure, 21 months ago, he has kept a lower profile as Mark Cooper led the club into the Conference. Cooper may be the son of former Leeds United and England left-back Terry, but he was appointed because of his experience managing non-League Tamworth.

Now Ladak finds himself in the spotlight again, and not just because of Kettering's FA Cup run. Ironically for the first club to sport an advertising logo (under Derek Dougan in 1977, before the Football Association objected) Kettering do not have a shirt sponsor. Instead, like Barcelona and Aston Villa, they publicise a charity. Last year it was Water Aid; this year the shirts bear the word "Palestine", and the web address of Interpal, an aid organisation operating in the West Bank, refugee camps and, of course, Gaza. Suddenly a generous gesture looks, to some eyes, a political one, as does the decision of ITV and Setanta not to show live coverage of the round's only tie pitting a non-league team against a Premier League one.

"Is it the shirts? I don't know, but everyone tells me it is," Ladak said. "I understand Man United v Spurs will get better viewing figures, but will Hartlepool v West Ham?"

Ladak, keen to publicise club and charity, offered to forgo the £160,000 fee to have the game broadcast live. Setanta are now showing a delayed transmission on Saturday evening. He is grateful, but nevertheless disappointed.

Interpal is being investigated by the Charity Commission over alleged "indirect" links to Hamas, but two previous investigations have found no evidence. This has not stopped Ladak having to call in the noted libel lawyers Carter-Ruck to prevent one broadsheet newspaper carrying a pejorative article. "We have done it because for 60 years there has been a humanitarian crisis there," he said. "We picked Water Aid because water is not political. In Palestine there is a big water shortage because the water is unfortunately diverted away, but Water Aid don't work there. So we chose a British charity which works in Palestine.

"I could just make a donation but doing this creates awareness. I feel so much better than having a casino on the shirt [like Spurs], something that is not socially responsible. My parents come to the games and they are happy I have a charity on the shirt rather than a casino or a brewery, or a bank which is reliant on taxpayers' money."

Ladak has no personal links to Palestine. Born in Kenya of Kashmiri descent, he moved with his family to London as a toddler. At five they left for Milton Keynes. "We were burgled three times in a week," he recalled. "The last time my mum was walking me back from school and someone walked past and I said, 'Mum, that looks like our TV'. It was."

His break came when he was supervising a failing double-glazing telesales operation. When told, 'If you're so good, why don't you show us how it is done?' he cold-called a random number. He did not make the sale, but so impressed the recipient he was offered a job. The business was the recruitment and placing of locum doctors. He now runs his own company and was valued, in the 2007 Sunday Times Rich List, at £8m. A year later he was down to £6m. Had it all gone on Kettering?

"When that came out I couldn't believe it. I was next to Cristiano Ronaldo [on the under-30 list]. They just guess. It was ridiculous and not very helpful as our players thought, 'The chairman is rich.' It was grossly exaggerated."

Ladak said he is not in football to get rich, and since Kettering do not own their ground, and face a grading problem as the lease is running out while they search for a new one, he is not likely to.

He now talks of doing a Cheltenham, or Yeovil, rather than a Wimbledon. It has been, he said, "a steep learning curve. I knew I would make lots of mistakes, and the higher up you go the more expensive those mistakes are, that's why I chose Kettering. I didn't want to bankrupt myself chasing a dream.

"I feel like I am making progress with the football club, as a chairman, personally. I am happier with me than looking back a few years ago and thinking that kid was..."

The words go unsaid. Brash and naïve come to mind. There is still an element of the latter, but is that so bad?

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