Hammam sells up without moving out

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The Independent Online
Q: When is the buy-out of a football club not a buy-out? A: When Sam Hammam is doing the selling.

Hammam, the Lebanese owner of Wimbledon, confirmed yesterday that he was relinquishing his majority shareholding in the Premiership club to two Norwegian businessmen for pounds 26m. And he intimated that the new investors would probably bankroll the building of a stadium in south-west London.

Yet within hours of appearing to step out of the front line, Hammam announced that the Oslo-based fishing magnate, Kjell Inge Roekke, and his business partner, Bjorn Rune Gjelsten, had agreed to leave him "in complete charge" of all "key decisions". He would carry on as managing director and run Wimbledon much as he had done for two decades.

The football world has come to expect the unexpected from Wimbledon and Hammam. A fierce defender of the "Crazy Gang" spirit, he claimed he chose Roekke and Gjelsten precisely because they understood the unique nature and traditions of the club.

The Norwegians, who lost out to the Caspian Group in an attempted takeover of Leeds United last summer, began their friendship at school. Roekke dropped out and began working on a fishing boat, eventually saving enough money to buy first a boat and eventually one of the world's biggest fleets; Gjelsten went on to complete a business degree in Colorado.

Pooling Roekke's entrepreneurial flair and Gjelsten's financial nous, the pair took over one of Scandinavia's leading holding companies before forming the Aker RGI ASA group in 1982. They also hold the controlling interest in Molde, who developed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before transferring him to Manchester United, and have already intimated that the Norwegian club could be used to develop players for Wimbledon.

For Hammam, who has failed to persuade Merton council to pay for a new ground since the club vacated Plough Lane for a ground-share at Crystal Palace, the deal offers the prospect of Wimbledon returning to their spiritual home. "We have no definite plans," he admitted. "All we know is that we probably will move. Selhurst Park is a good stadium, but if we want to be among the biggest then we need our own ground."

Amid a maelstrom of metaphors, Hammam insisted that Roekke (whom he likened to Clark Kent: "No one knows that he is Superman") and Gjelsten were not actually taking control. "I'm not selling out. I'll be in complete charge of all key decisions. I am the steering wheel. My foot is on the accelerator and the brake.

"All we have at this stage is an engagement to get married, and it will be at least a few months before the marriage is consummated. I'll be delighted to call them my partners in the future, but we're not looking at them as sugar daddies."

Seemingly contradicting himself, he added: "Money is available, though it's embarrassing to say how much. The only thing that matters is that it's profitable to Wimbledon.

"The way I see football going is that you need to have a lot of money to survive. If we want to continue to progress then we need these people. We need to be ready for things like pay-per-view and the European League, which will be here in a few years."

Hammam, who said he had picked the pair after talking to "some of the most influential people in the world", also spoke of making Wimbledon "one of the biggest clubs in Europe". But alluding to Fabrizio Ravanelli's reputed earnings at Middlesbrough, he warned: "We'll still do things the Wimbledon way. There'll be no figures of pounds 42,000-a-week at this club."

The deal marks another remarkable chapter in the story of the club who began life 108 years ago as Old Centrals FC, playing in the shadow of the windmill on Wimbledon Common. Initially members of the Clapham League, they might never have turned professional but for Clacton's withdrawal creating a vacancy in the Southern League 34 years ago.

Wimbledon went on to replace Workington in the Fourth Division in 1977, reaching what is now the Premiership within nine years and winning the FA Cup in 1988. Now, having established themselves among the big fish in playing terms, they appear to have landed the financial clout to move into uncharted waters.