Profile: Business is the spur: Alan Sugar: Norman Fox studies how the chairman of troubled Tottenham has changed his ways
Sugar, the predatory businessman who had no feelings about the game outside its potential for selling his satellite dishes, is a changed man. Nearly three years after becoming chairman and discovering that dissatisfied customers in the football business actually come and spit over your car rather than write in to say 'Sorry, but the pictures all fuzzy', he is standing on the line while Gary Mabbutt tries a comeback game after that awful facial injury.
Unfortunately, the Spurs he has now taken to his heart have also changed, for the worse. This afternoon the remnants of the
Gascoigne-Lineker inspired side Terry Venables built and took to the 1991 Cup final face Leeds United at Elland Road knowing that defeat could see them fall below the relegation Plimsoll line. Their Argentine manager, Osvaldo Ardiles, expects that at any time he could be called in by Sugar, thanked for his efforts, and thrown overboard. Never mind the earlier votes of confidence. Never mind the debilitating injury list. That's the way football clubs work and their chairmen react. Sugar may have set out to do things differently, but the sacking of managers comes with the territory. As for Ardiles, he may reflect on the irony that, unlike the man he first met, Sugar now knows a bit more about the game and cares about Tottenham's future.
At the outset, Sugar said that a big club like Tottenham should be viable, whatever happened on the pitch. Whatever happened on the pitch did not include relegation. What he never took into account was that even Manchester United, whom he looked upon as an example of football's commercial potential, did time in the Second Division. The reality of Tottenham's long bad run has demolished a lot of his preconceived ideas, but at the same time it has brought him closer to the reasons why otherwise sensible rich men still subsidise football clubs which promptly let them down.
Traditionally, chairmen stay while managers take the consequences. Two years ago, if anyone had foreseen today's situation at Tottenham, they would have had serious doubts that this chairman would be prepared to continue. But less than six months ago he said: 'Whatever happens, I'm going to stick with it. If I don't succeed it won't be for the want of trying. It won't be for the want of proper financial control. I've got to make this a success.' He says he likes a challenge. Dropping out of the Premiership and possibly losing any chance of a place in a future European super league (perhaps shown on Sky via Amstrad-made satellite dishes) is not the sort of challenge he had in mind.
Sugar, 46, bought his way into Spurs in June 1991, not because, as a boy, they were his local club, or because he felt anything appealing about being yet another football benefactor. He said Spurs were a business waiting to be taken over. Sugar saw the possibilities in getting in on the Premiership's negotiations for the televising of football.
He arrived in the commercially unstable world of football with a personal fortune of some pounds 100m and had recently sold a proportion of his Amstrad shares for pounds 34m. When he asked Terry Venables to prove his commitment to a joint takeover by putting in an initial pounds 3.75m, Venables struggled; for Sugar, it was like putting a house on Old Kent Road in Monopoly.
The fortune came out of his decision early in his business life that there was more to be made out of making television and radio equipment than selling other peoples'. Born in Clapton, a couple of miles from White Hart Lane, he was often taken to Spurs by his father. In his late teens he set up his trading company in Garman Road, Tottenham. By the time he was rich enough to start thinking about buying his way into Tottenham, he had to admit to not seeing them play for about five years.
Amstrad made him the 15th richest man in Britain with a mansion in Chigwell, in Essex, and a place in Florida - so why buy into a football club? 'I have not invested in a football club, I've invested in a company that happens to own one,' he said at the time. So what was the difference? He said it was his intention that Spurs would not have to rely on success to make a profit and that he would use it as a base for expanding into the leisure industry. But as chairman of a Premiership club he could have his say in the televising of football, and since Amstrad made satellite dishes for Sky, he could hardly deny a vested interest.
In their authoritative and comprehensive new book on football's problems Out of Time, Alex Fynn and Lynton Guest say that the crucial meeting of Premier League chairmen in May 1992 was the first anyone could remember Sugar attending (normally it was Venables). 'When Venables was called away, Sugar was left to vote on Tottenham's behalf. Sugar was in a delicate position . . . Amstrad were going through a rough patch and needed the sales stimulus that a deal with football could bring. It was a clear case of a potential conflict of interests. Far from keeping out of the discussions, however, Sugar produced a paper showing various income levels that pay-per- view television could bring. What Sugar did not tell the assembled chairmen was that when he had been in the midst of his battle with Robert Maxwell and Irving Scholar to take over Tottenham, he had been given moral support by Rupert Murdoch.'
An attempt by Arsenal's David Dein to disqualify Tottenham from taking part in the TV debate was defeated by 21 to 1. Sugar had openly declared his interest but the Sky bid still won the day by 14 to 6 and Fynn and Guest say pounds 7m was added to Amstrad's valuation on the Stock Exchange.
On the face of it, Sugar only wanted the chair at Spurs to get a Premier League vote and boost his ailing business. Most of what he said early in his time at the club indicated no feel for the game itself. He found Venables's popularity with the fans annoying and personally insulting, and he still does. 'I'm the one who so far has got nothing out of this but without whom Tottenham probably would not exist.' His sacking of Venables as chief executive because he believed he was not fit to hold the reins of a public company continues to have court repercussions. Venables's latest volley included the promise that he would give up his new job as England coach rather than relinquish his fight to prove that he was not guilty of any malpractice at Tottenham.
Sugar continues to hint that he has further evidence against Venables, who himself is probably waiting to see Sugar make a hasty retreat if the club get relegated. He may have a long wait. Although still far from an expert on the game, Sugar's involvement has penetrated his businessman's thick skin. However, he still relies heavily for his football judgement on two directors, Douglas Alexiou, who has worked with three previous chairmen, and Tony Berry.
When Sugar talks to Ardiles, at least he has some idea about the qualities of players. ('We get on quite well, but we don't always see eye to eye, though I don't interfere with the football side.') He now knows enough about the game to realise that Ardiles seems to be taking Spurs along the same dangerous road he travelled at Newcastle. Doubts about his buying and selling, which might hardly have been noticed by Sugar in his early days at White Hart Lane, are no longer ignored.
Watch Sugar at a match now and you see a fan. Most chairmen wince a little when the opposition score and smile reservedly when their own team do so; Sugar grimaces and roars. There is a commitment that has even won over a faction of the fans, though not, of course, El Tel's blue-and-white army that regularly forgathers outside the Law Courts. While the Tottenham Independent Supporters' Association has never wavered from its support of Venables against Sugar, a more recently formed group publishing Spur of the Moment accuses the TISA of being Venables's lapdog and insists on giving Sugar credit for his investment and growing interest in the game itself. (In fact, Sugar's interest has come about mainly as a result of his sons, Simon, 24, and Daniel, 22, becoming increasingly involved.)
These days Sugar talks about being a 'custodian' rather than owner of Spurs and of handing down his 'heritage' to his sons and even to his grandson, Nathan, who, being four months old, is hardly likely to understand the importance of this afternoon's result and its relevance in determining whether he will inherit a World Super League team or a Vauxhall Conference side hard pushed to hire a Super Nova.
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