profile Sam Hammam

Simon O'Hagan studies the singular style of a man with more than his share of troubles Defender of the Dons
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THIS most extraordinary of football seasons, the name of Sam Hammam may not have been the most prominent among the protagonists. But it is uncanny the way so many rocky roads can be traced back to Wimbledon, the club where his role as owner and managing director barely hints at the scale of his power, influence and involvement.

Jack Walker and Sir John Hall may be richer, Ken Bates may be more outspoken, Doug Ellis may have been around longer, Alan Sugar may have a flashier way with transfers. None, however, can claim to be any more staunch a defender of their club's cause than Hammam is of Wimbledon's, even when such defending has itself seemed indefensible.

Wimbledon were a byword for controversy long before the events of the past few weeks. These have merely added to the myth of incorrigibility that surrounds the club, a myth which Hammam has sometimes seen fit to help propagate, at others to try to play down. Hammam complains if he thinks Wimbledon are judged on reputation rather than reality, but is then as likely to say something which only reinforces the general prejudice against his club.

Even the normally irrepressible Hammam has found the latest scandal in which Wimbledon have found themselves caught up - the arrest of their goalkeeper Hans Segers last week in connection with bribery allegations - hard to come to terms with. "He's been absolutely shattered by it," Bobby Gould, one of Wimbledon's former managers, said. "Suddenly everything that was dearest to him seemed to be falling apart."

It did not help that one of the other players arrested, John Fashanu, is associated far more with Wimbledon, where he spent nine seasons between 1985 and 1994, than with his present club, Aston Villa, and has been very close to Hammam. Fashanu once said that Hammam was like a father to him, to the extent that he was frightened to suggest to him that perhaps he might leave to join Villa when their offer came along last summer. But the two of them, neighbours in St John's Wood, north London, talked it through after Hammam, unconventional as only he could be, woke Fashanu up in the early hours of the morning and invited him round.

Other Wimbledon-related incidents this season include the lambasting of referees by their manager, Joe Kinnear - FA charges of bringing the game into disrepute have resulted - and that in which Vinny Jones, Wimbledon's most infamous son, saw fit to bite a reporter's nose in a Dublin bar in the week that rioting by some England supporters caused the abandonment of the friendly fixture against the Republic of Ireland. And then there was Dennis Wise, a Wimbledon player for five years until 1990 and steeped in their tradition of combativeness, being sentenced to three months in jail for attacking a taxi driver.

It was typical of Hammam that while not exactly leaping to Jones's defence over the nose-biting incident, he was quite happy to explain it away as high spirits, with no relevance to football, much as he has when Jones has transgressed before. It was Kinnear who took the decision to drop him from the team.

As for Kinnear's excesses, Hammam was hardly likely to express his disapproval since, in one of the matches that had the manager raging about the referee - against Manchester United at Selhurst Park two weeks ago - he himself joined in the protests from the touchline before the official ordered him back into the stands. It is not often you see Martin Edwards, the chairman of that night's opposition, behaving quite like that.

Hammam, though, has never worried about doing or saying things that others might not think appropriate, his espousal of the crude and the wayward at odds with his courteous, educated, rather suave demeanour. More remarkable still is how this Lebanese businessman came to occupy so central a position in the English game in the first place.

Now 47, Hammam came to London in the mid-Seventies, or rather he sent his pregnant wife there so that she could give birth in a place where there wasn't a war. Hammam, a civil engineer who grew up near Beirut, stayed in Wimbledon when he visited her for no quainter reason than that he was a fan of the tennis tournament. That was when he was first approached by the club, and by 1977, the year of their graduation to the Football League, he had bought into it.

Although largely ignorant of the game itself, something about rough-and- ready Wimbledon, forever the underdogs, forever maligned as they bludgeoned their way through the divisions and to victory in the 1988 FA Cup final, struck a chord in the man who, in a football sense, hailed from somewhere equally unpropitious. Pretty soon Hammam had fallen in love with the club, regarding the players as his sons, and fighting for it like a rebel leader in an outpost of empire.

Some of Hammam's pronouncements evoke less the football field than the battlefield, and a rather medieval one at that. Skip to the next paragraph unless you are a fan of Quentin Tarantino. "Before we go down, we'll leave a stream of blood from here to Timbuktu," Hammam once said when the club was threatened with relegation. "I'd rather die and have vultures eat my inside than merge with Crystal Palace," was his sober assessment of one possible future for Wimbledon in 1992.

Hammam's notoriety reached a peak on the opening day of the 1993-94 season when, in an attempt to gee up his team, he scrawled graffiti on the wall of their dressing-room at West Ham. The home club were not amused, but the repercussions fell short of disciplining by the FA. Hammam, who had the satisfaction of seeing his team win 2-0, later apologised, although he had initially reacted by blaming the then West Ham manager Billy Bonds for coming into the away team's dressing-room in the first place.

This is pretty much the line taken by Bobby Gould, the manager of Wimbledon when they won the Cup and a huge admirer of Hammam, "without whom Wimbledon would be nothing". Neither Hammam nor the club have ever got the credit they deserve, he says, and if both have sometimes gone over the top, then that has to be understood in the context of the little man up against giants.

Certainly Hammam commands enormous loyalty among the players, who appreciate his commitment and the real interest he shows in them. In this Hammam has an unlikely partner in the Wimbledon chairman, Stanley Reed, an octogenarian gentleman of the old school whose presence adds yet another layer of paradox to the Hammam story. It is not unknown for the two of them to attend team- talks at half-time, or throw impromptu parties for the players after returning from an away match.

Wimbledon may be Hammam's weapon against the world, but it is also his indulgence. Why bother to buy a football club if you are not going to have a bit of fun with it? Hammam's idea of that was to go down to the training ground and have bets with the players over how many penalties he could score - this in his suit and smart leather shoes. The result was usually none. "It was just Sam's way of giving us an extra few quid," one player said. And given the tight financial rein that Hammam used to keep at the club, they could probably have done with it. Pay has since improved considerably and, Gould believes, compares surprisingly favourably with much bigger clubs.

The best example of Hammam's unique way of conducting himself was written into Gould's contract when he took over as manager in 1987. In it, Hammam stipulated that he should have the right to change any team of Gould's up to 45 minutes before kick-off. Gould was so taken with Hammam and Wimbledon that he was prepared to go along with this.

Over the ensuing three years there was not one occasion when Hammam attempted to exercise this right, and when Gould's contract came up for renewal in 1990 he asked Hammam whether this clause could now be taken out. "No", came Hammam's reply. "I felt by then that surely Sam knew me and could trust me," Gould said. "I'd never heard of such a thing anywhere in management. It was certainly one of the reasons why I left." And one of the ways in which Hammam is surely the most singular figure of his kind in football.