Hugh Godwin: Kassam finds money can't buy a way in

The booming business of professional club rugby is by no means a sport for all. Newly thwarted in the latest of several attempts to gain a foothold in the Zurich Premiership, Firoz Kassam, the millionaire owner of Oxford United FC, has accused union's power brokers of "making the rules as they go along" to protect their own positions. The issue raises further questions about a league already deridedfor operating a closed shop.

The booming business of professional club rugby is by no means a sport for all. Newly thwarted in the latest of several attempts to gain a foothold in the Zurich Premiership, Firoz Kassam, the millionaire owner of Oxford United FC, has accused union's power brokers of "making the rules as they go along" to protect their own positions. The issue raises further questions about a league already deridedfor operating a closed shop.

Kassam built a reported £90m fortune running London hotels, and would dearly love to extend his hospitality to a Premiership rugby side at the 12,500-capacity stadium in Oxford which bears his name. Having been unable to attract a club as a tenant - deals with Wasps in 2002 and Bristol in 2003 narrowly failed to mater-ialise - Kassam returned to the idea of buying a lower-division team, relocating them and getting promoted.

In March 2002 he sought to take over Moseley and rename them the Oxford Eagles. Last summer, an arrangement to buy Wakefield fell through. Ten days ago, 100 members of Henley voted unanimously to reject Kassam's "informal offer" of a takeover of the club second bottom in National League One.

Asked whether he would commit the millions it would take to fund a Premiership squad, Kassam said from his home in Monaco: "I'm aware of what is required. The only way to survive in rugby is to get into the Premiership. I was prepared to do whatever it would have taken to do so. We've done our market research and there's a bigger support for rugby in Oxfordshire than there is for football. Any club who move to our stadium will do very well."

The significance of the Henley venture - which ended when members pledged £100,000 to a debenture scheme - lay in a change of RFU rules in June 2004. As reported at the time in The Independent on Sunday, clubs were forbidden to move their home ground from one RFU constituent body to another - in effect, confining them to their own county. The ruling did for Kassam's deal to purchase Wakefield. Instead the cash-strapped Yorkshire club resigned their position in National League Two and merged with Sandal. As the highest placed club in Oxford-shire, Henley became the next obvious target.

"The preference was to have a tenant rather than taking another expensive hobby on," said Kassam. "But because that wasn't proving easy, I was looking at other options of acquiring a club and working our way up. We'd wasted enough time on previous clubs to want to make it clear from the off where we stood with Henley. They are in a desperate financial situation but the members have decided to play on at a lower level rather than get somebody in and play at a higher level. That's their choice and that's fine."

All aspiring clubs outside the Premiership have been hit by dwindling central funding from the RFU in recent years, with more of the proceeds from England's successes concentrated in the top flight. But the increasingly well-off Premiership was investigated by the Office of Fair Trading over the league's entry criteria, amid concerns they were operating a cartel. The issue of primacy of tenure attracted particular attention from the OFT, with the Premiership clubs Wasps, Saracens and London Irish allowed to play at football grounds while promotion-seekers such as Rotherham in 2002 were required to establish first use over home venues.

In April 2002, Wasps' coach, Warren Gatland, inspected the Kassam Stadium before the club plumped for a ground-share with Wycombe Wanderers. In spring 2003, when Bristol were fighting relegation from the Premiership, their owner, Malcolm Pearce, reportedly agreed to move to Oxford if the Shoguns avoided the drop. They did not, and now Bristol, top of National One, are hoping to satisfy the criteria at the Memorial Stadium.

The Premier clubs admit to a lack of decent quality venues to cater for burgeoning inter-est. The Kassam Stadium proved its worth in 2002, staging a semi-final of the European Shield, and the final between Sale Sharks and Pontypridd; the following year the RFU used the ground for a Powergen Cup semi-final between London Irish and Northampton.

"The stadium and the pitch were designed for both football and rugby," said Kassam, who in 1999 followed Robert Maxwell among others as Oxford United chairman, finishing off a half-built ground. Of the constituent body rule, Kassam said: "They [the RFU] changed that, which was why we didn't do a deal we were working on up north. They change the rules every time it suits them. They [the union and the Premier clubs] have their rules and they have to protect their own positions, some of them.

"Rugby is run very differently from football and it's reliant on four or five big boys in there, and they make the rules as they go along. I have no expertise in those rules, so it's not very fair for me to comment on them. We haven't given up. We'll leave our options open and if something comes along, great.

"The only motivation, to be honest, is financial, because I'm not a rugby man myself. We're fine with just football at the stadium but if we can get somebody else in obviously it makes more business sense. It's depriving the people of Oxford the chance to watch some decent rugby."

Sugar daddies: Four for whom the game turned sour by Hugh Godwin

Sir John Hall, Newcastle

Property developer, owner of Newcastle United FC, and first of the entrepreneurs to wade into rugby when buying Newcastle Gosforth in September 1995. Recruited Rob Andrew from Wasps despite a supposed Rugby Football Union moratorium covering the first year of the open game. Had a dream of a Real Madrid-style colossus of football, ice hockey, basketball and rugby union. Severed ties at Kingston Park in February 1999 with the club's debts reported at £9m.

Ashley Levett, Richmond

Financial market trader and Monaco tax exile who bought then third-division Richmond and made Ben Clarke rugby's first million-pound signing. They soon outgrew the Athletic Ground and became tenants at the Madejski Stadium. But the numbers did not add up quickly enough for Levett, who pulled the plug in March 1999, leaving Richmond (and London Scottish) to be subsumed into London Irish - who ended up at the Madejski. Amateur clubs painstakingly regrouped in lower leagues.

Tony Tiarks, London Scottish

Paid £500,000 for the club in 1996. In the summer of 1998, Scottish, long-time co-tenants of Richmond at the Athletic Ground, were promoted to the top division via a play-off, and Tiarks forced through an ill-fated groundshare with Harlequins and London Broncos at the Stoop. By the halfway point of the following season, Tiarks was disillusioned and discussing selling Scottish's place in the Premiership to second-division Bristol. Bailed out in the summer of 1999.

Frank Warren, Bedford

Boxing promoter who bought a 90 per cent stake in Bedford, then languishing at the bottom of the second division, in 1996. A rash of big-name signings included Martin Offiah, Tony Underwood, Junior Paramore and Rudi Straeuli. Two years later Warren's assets were frozen pending a court case with the American boxing promoter Don King. Bedford caught a cold as a result and subsequently Warren sold up to Jefferson Lloyd International in March 1999.

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