David Conn: New breed of owner typified by Hammam

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The Independent Football

The Welsh and English Football Associations will decide today the scope of their investigation into Cardiff City and the club's owner Sam Hammam, but it is almost certain to be restricted to the behaviour of some of the crowd and Hammam's own antics during and after Sunday's FA Cup victory over Leeds United.

Concern over what critics regard as Hammam's inflammatory posturing since taking over Cardiff in August 2000 is likely to be beyond the inquiry's remit. Furthermore, the FAs cannot be expected to censure money-making from football club ownership which is arguably epitomised by Hammam's stewardship of Wimbledon. He left that club in April 2000 £36m richer, having sold the ground and club.

While Wimbledon continue their wretched search for a new home, at Cardiff Hammam is whipping fans into an embattled frenzy.

Any view that directors and chairmen are there to serve their football clubs and communities, not themselves, is now fading. The FA's century-old rules restricting shareholders' and directors' ability to profit from their involvement were removed in 1999 on the advice of Nic Coward, the FA's head of regulation who is involved in the Cardiff investigation. There are now no regulations defining what is expected of chairmen, except for the FA's rule against bringing the game into disrepute, which is worded so widely, but used so narrowly.

Hammam took over Wimbledon in 1981, reportedly for around £100,000 and was chairman throughout the club's rise from the old Fourth Division to FA Cup winners and the Premiership. He fostered the spirit known in fond cliché as the Crazy Gang and referred to the club and its players as his family, but it was also a business which he made money from.

In 1988, Hammam applied for, and was granted, outline planning permission by the London Borough of Merton to move Wimbledon from their Plough Lane ground to a new stadium in the Wandle Valley. But Hammam did not proceed with a planning agreement which required him to make improvements to the area, and the plan died. Plough Lane was subject to a restriction imposed by the council that it should always be used for sport or recreation. In 1990, Hammam bought out this covenant, leaving Plough Lane free for development, reportedly for between £300,000 and £800,000. The following year the club moved to share Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace and have been stuck there, homeless, ever since.

Hammam himself, rather than the club, owned Plough Lane, via his holding company, Rudgwick Limited, which charged Wimbledon rent. Rudgwick, which is registered at the London offices of Kennedys solicitors, is wholly owned by Sam Hammam; he and his brother Nijad are the sole directors. In 1998, he sold Plough Lane to Safeway for a price reported to be £8m – the Rudgwick accounts for that year show a £5m profit on the sale of a property. Then, in 1997, Hammam sold 80 per cent of the club shares – which he held via a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, for a reported £28m to the Norwegians Kjell Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten. He sold the rest for a reported £1.2m three years later. His fortune from the former Fourth Division club: around £36m.

He wasted little time finding a new club: Cardiff City, the Welsh capital's club struggling in the Third Division under local directors, then chaired by Steve Borley. Hammam contacted a former chairman, Tony Clemo, who brokered the deal to bring Hammam to Cardiff. Since he arrived, he has talked of awakening a "sleeping giant", using the emotive language of Welsh nationalism to create a similar embattled support to that which fuelled Wimbledon's rise. From proposing to rename the club the Cardiff Celts to offering to burn English clubs' replica shirts, critics say he has appealed to some of the baser elements of Cardiff's support, who were already notorious.

John Nagle, a Football League spokesman, said that the League has received "numerous" complaints about Hammam's antics, including his walk around the pitch during games and an incident in which a journalist, Grahame Lloyd, had buckets of water thrown over him by four Cardiff trainees. Cardiff City later apologised for the incident.

Yet until Sunday, Hammam was widely regarded as a "colourful character", and admired for what he has done to revive Cardiff's fortunes. It is difficult to establish how the financial arrangements have been structured, but Hammam was reported to have paid £3.2m for a controlling interest in August 2000 and Cardiff have since spent around £7m on players, expenditure which paid for promotion last season and a squad which could compete successfully with Leeds last weekend.

The club has been reorganised to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Cardiff City Football Club (Holdings) Limited. It, like Rudgwick, is registered at Kennedys solicitors and the sole directors are Sam and Nijad Hammam. It is, though, impossible to find out how or where the shares are held, because according to Companies House records no annual return has been filed, although it was due last August.

On the property side, Hammam cannot make money by selling Ninian Park, which is owned by the local council and leased to the club. Hammam has proposed moving the club to a new stadium in nearby Leckwith, which currently houses Cardiff's athletics stadium. The plans include a 30,000-seat stadium, with the capacity to increase to 60,000, together with a vast 450,000 square foot shopping complex. The council asked the club to prepare a traffic and environmental impact assessment report and a more detailed business plan, but the club protested that these would be expensive and asked for a firmer commitment from the council. The council has repeated its request for further reports.

"The club's plans are not clear and we have asked for more detail," a council spokesman said. "Generally we're supportive of the idea of a new stadium, but the club knows how much more work there is to be done."

Lawrence Llowne, a spokesman for the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, which is deeply opposed to Wimbledon's proposed move to Milton Keynes, sounds a cautionary note. "We heard a lot about new stadia for Wimbledon, but never got one and Sam Hammam left us homeless and a great deal richer," he said. "We'd advise Cardiff fans not to believe in the new stadium until they see the bricks and mortar."

Hammam refused to talk to me this week, but said he was producing "a pamphlet" for tomorrow's match at home to Peterborough which would answer many questions about his stewardship of Cardiff. Steve Borley, the former chairman, refused to talk unless Hammam authorised it, and would only say: "Sam is the best thing to happen to this club for 50 years."

But one senior football source said this week: "We're very concerned. Hammam appears to be fanning the flames of nationalism at Cardiff." If Hammam is successful in focusing Welsh support on Cardiff, that could have the effect of boosting the value of the club and, indeed, Hammam's bank balance.

In documents filed at Companies House, Hammam has always previously listed his occupation as "engineer". For Cardiff City, though, he describes himself as "Owner of Professional Football". This might be a misprint; certainly it is a novel occupation. It is also regrettable that the only qualification for football club ownership today is to have plenty of money; if success follows it guarantees popularity with most fans, too.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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