Sam the 'Welshman', still crazy after all these years

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The Independent Football

To the people of the Welsh capital he is a footballing saviour who helped to bring about one of the FA Cup's great shock results of recent years. Fans at his old club, Wimbledon, are more cynical.

But one thing is certain. Sam Hammam, the Cardiff City chairman, is renowned for courting controversy. The result is that instead of his club savouring their 2-1 win on Sunday over the Premiership leaders, Leeds United, he faces censure for his supporters' subsequent conduct and his own.

The Football Association is investigating crowd violence that saw the Leeds players pelted with missiles and the referee, Andy D'Urso, require treatment after being hit on the head. Riot police with batons were also called to deal with a pitch invasion.

Hammam himself is under scrutiny for leaving his seat in the stand during the game and moving to a touchline spot behind one of the goals. He later strode across the pitch, waving a Welsh flag. After the match, in an interview with Jonathan Overend, a BBC journalist, he took umbrage at being asked about the crowd disturbance.

"Hammam made it clear that he thought the fans had done nothing wrong," Overend said yesterday. "Then he launched into a rant about the anti-Welsh English media." When Overend challenged Hammam's opinions, the interview was terminated and two security guards were called. The reporter's Mini-disc recorder was briefly confiscated, the Mini-disc was destroyed, and Overend was "forcibly ejected" from the premises with another BBC journalist, the commentator Ian Brown. The BBC's head of sport, Peter Salmon, has asked the FA to start an urgent investigation.

Hammam was also involved in a verbal spat with the Leeds manager, David O'Leary, who Hammam said had "wanted to attack me". The Cardiff owner said: "O'Leary was very lucky that he stopped short of that as I had four or five people with me and he would have had to face a very, very humbling and instantaneous experience."

While Hammam's behaviour is at odds with the image of a genial benefactor he promotes, there is a less generous side to his nature familiar to many who have dealt with him since he arrived in English football.

Born in Lebanon, Hammam apparently made his fortune from building projects across the Gulf while working as a civil engineer based in Riyadh.He moved to England in 1975, buying Wimbledon FC in 1981 as they began their ascent from non-league football to the First Division, then the top flight of the game. They reached it in 1986 and won the FA Cup in 1988. Hammam's reign was known as the "Crazy Gang" era and characterised by endless pranks, from training-ground drenchings to contractual obligations to dine on sheep's testicles after poor performances. The same antics have continued at Cardiff, where the victims, willing or not, are viewed either as "family" or outcasts, depending on their acceptance of his humour.

In 1991, Hammam moved Wimbledon from their Plough Lane home in Merton, south London, and into a ground-sharing initiative with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Hammam sold Plough Lane for £8m to Safeway in 1998, pocketing the profits. This came a year after he sold Wimbledon, for a reported £30m, to a pair of Norwegian businessmen.

Hammam bought Cardiff in August 2000 for £3.1m. From the outset he promoted the venture as an opportunity for the Welsh people to forge a superpower of a football club and wasted no opportunity to gain attention. Plans to change Cardiff's club colours and even name were rapidly withdrawn in the face of local opposition. Random stereotypical comments are not uncommon. A recent example was: "In Cardiff we're Welsh, all we care about is sheep shagging." Crude nationalist calls for support are not unknown.

Some argue that Hammam is simply having fun. Others say he verges on bullying. Wimbledon fans, once enraptured, simply lament. Marc Jones, a founder of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association, said: "What really stuck in my throat watching Cardiff beat Leeds was people talking about the new Crazy Gang. No one is talking about what he did to the old Crazy Gang. Hammam said Wimbledon was his baby but he's left the club homeless, in the hands of owners who know nothing about football and with about £38m in his back pocket. What Cardiff have to hope is he's going to stick with them and not do what he did to us."

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF 'A LEBANESE MOUNTAIN MAN'

Sam Hammam, Owner of Cardiff City football club.

Born: Lebanon, 1947. Married to Naida, three adult children.

Career path (official version): Civil engineer, who made his fortune as a building contractor in the Gulf. Businessman, football entrepreneur.

Self-styled description: "Basically a Lebanese mountain man."

1975: Moves to England.

1981: Buys Wimbledon FC, a lowly league club not long out of the amateur game, for £100,000.

1986: Wimbledon reach the old First Division, famed for their Hammam-inspired "Crazy Gang" antics.

1988: Wimbledon win the FA Cup, beating Liverpool in the final.

1991: Hammam moves Wimbledon from Plough Lane to ground-share with Crystal Palace, where they remain. For 10 years, he says he will move Wimbledon to new home, suggesting even Dublin.

1997: Hammam sells 80 per cent of Wimbledon to two Norwegian businessmen for a reported £30m. Three years later, he sells the other 20 per cent for a reported £1.2m.

1998: Hammam sells Plough Lane ground to Safeway for £8m.

2001: Buys Cardiff for £3.1m, promising to turn them into a huge club. Urges Welsh to get behind him.

2002: Cardiff eliminate Leeds from the FA Cup. Hammam under investigation for his role in crowd trouble and a fracas with BBC reporter.

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