Profile: Wish you'd never joined the club?: Alan Sugar, football's one-man angry brigade

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The Independent Online
ON MONDAY Alan Sugar was suffering through a press conference. It was called to announce that his company, Amstrad, was going to sell its personal computers direct to the consumer because the high street retailers were, he said, squeezing his margins. It was a typical performance, curt, grumpy, moaning that others were out to do him and his organisation down. And, he said, he wasn't going to stand for it any longer. The next day, though, he was really fed up.

'Tuesday,' he said, 'was one of the most frustrating and depressing days of my life.'

On Tuesday his other financial interest, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, saw its margins not so much squeezed as surgically removed without the benefit of anaesthetic. Found guilty of breaches of Football Association rules perpetrated long before Sugar took a stake in the place, the club was fined pounds 600,000, banned from next season's FA Cup and docked 12 Premiership points before a ball had been kicked. And what made 47-year- old Sugar even grumpier than usual was, he said, that he was the one who had brought the irregularities to light. He had helped the FA with its inquiries, and then it had gone and done this to him. 'Diabolical', he called it. There was no doubt in his mind what was going on here: someone was out to do him down.

Alan Sugar's association with Tottenham has not been the happiest of marriages: 'my single biggest mistake' he has called his decision to get involved. For three years it has added little to his wellbeing. The trouble is, like a rottweiler with a bone drained of marrow, he will not let go.

It seemed such a good idea at the time, too. In 1991, Spurs, due to appalling financial mismanagement, were pounds 20m in debt, facing bankruptcy, or, worse, takeover by Robert Maxwell. The team manager, Terry Venables, who had ambitions to own a club, saw his chance. He would bring in a sleeping partner to bankroll a bid.

Venables had heard that Sugar, one of the few Eighties business whirlwinds to emerge from the decade solvent and free of criminal investigation, had been to Spurs as a boy, taken there by his tailor father from their council flat in Clapton, east London. True, since then he had not shown any interest in football; but then he hadn't shown much interest in anything that didn't have a picture of the Queen's head on it. Besides, just then was a fine time for him to discover an interest.

Amstrad was the major supplier of satellite dishes. What satellite television needed to take off was an exclusive deal with a major sport, football perhaps. As chairman of one of the bigger clubs, Sugar could wield significant influence over television deals. Moreover, there was no question that he could afford the necessary pounds 7.5m to buy in. He had just made pounds 34.6m selling just 4 per cent of his stake in Amstrad, the company he had started from scratch in 1970. It was, Tel believed, the dream ticket.

In May 1991, two weeks after Spurs won the FA Cup, and not much longer after Venables had first made contact, the deal was done. Venables soon discovered there was one slight problem: Sugar, the man Rupert Murdoch called 'probably Britain's greatest entrepreneur' is not genetically programmed for the role of sleeping partner. Indeed, a former employee described his business style thus: 'Alan Sugar doesn't walk, he runs. Alan Sugar doesn't ask, he shouts. Alan Sugar doesn't hope his staff will work as hard as him, he demands it.'

As he built up his empire, flogging electronic goods cheaply to people who might not otherwise think of buying them, Sugar was not so much hands on, as hands all over the place. Typically, he would spend the day in the middle of the main office, bawling instructions, swearing copiously. If anyone rang to talk to him, they were generally put straight through: he didn't approve of clogging bureaucracy such as secretaries.

He didn't approve of a lot of things. Journalists, City advisers, his main shareholders who, during his abortive attempt to buy back his company in 1992, he called 'Karaoke contestants: keen to hear their own voice.' He suspected everyone in the Square Mile, everyone in the Establishment, everyone was out to do him down.

But he was charismatic, driving his staff on an adrenalin rush of money- making, making decisions on the hoof, challenging IBM and other giant corporations head-on in a ferocious effort to prove himself as good as them. His staff loved it and many grew badger beards as a mark of admiration. The other thing was that he was honest: belligerent, aggressive, but straight. As if to prove it, he has framed on his office wall a cheque dated 27-3-1989, for pounds 48,231,250, made out to the Inland Revenue.

Almost as soon as he arrived at White Hart Lane he discovered that Spurs was everything he loathed. It was flash, poorly administered and in the grip of brown envelope culture. What also irked him was that Venables was acting as though he owned the place. Sugar rolled up his sleeves and got involved. For two years he and Venables conducted a power struggle, usually on the phone at a volume loud enough to be heard at Highbury. Finally, in June 1993, Sugar sacked his rival. 'You're messing with people's religion,' Venables warned.

He was right. Sugar, not a football man, not, according to Stanley Kalms of Dixons, a man blessed with the vision to see another's point, was taken aback by the reaction. He thought football was just another business.

For a month the war of the East End lads dragged through the High Court. Venables, the clubbable smoothie, would leave from the front door, to the cheers of the fans out on the street, before heading for his Kensington bar, Scribes West, where he would feed stories to an entourage of friendly pressmen. Sugar, the snarling barrow boy, would go out the back, protected from the venom of supporters by minders, and disappear home to his mansion in Chigwell to scowl.

Sugar won the battle (he doesn't often lose) and soon afterwards, in an attempt to redress the PR balance, he went on television to address an audience of Tottenham fans. It was a disaster. He called the club a company, he got confused about how old the place was, he called the fans fickle. They hated him. Venables, meanwhile, emerged unsullied, the people's choice. He became England coach, the FA's most prominent employee.

But Sugar was determined to make Spurs work, make the press, the supporters, Venables, eat their words. He says his commitment to the club is such, he wants his infant grandson to take over eventually. For months, though, he remained on frosty terms with the fans. He refused approaches made by the Independent Spurs Supporters' Association. He said he wouldn't enter discussions with self- styled, unelected representatives. So the association organised an election, and its officers gained 90 per cent support of the membership. Sugar refused to accept the result, saying the only election he would accept was one where he could count the votes.

Eventually, after the association brought in the Electoral Reform Society, he met them. Beneath the snarling exterior, the fans found he was sensitive to criticism about his motives. Those who wrote letters of the kind all club chairmen must receive - you don't spend enough on the team, you don't love the club like I do - didn't get standard replies. By return of post, or faxed from the Amstrad machine on his desk, they received long, anguished rejections of every point made.

'Why don't they sing my name like they do Jack Walker's at Blackburn?' he once wondered. 'I saved the club and I'm about the only one not to get nothing out of it.' Well, not quite. Now he has put the place on a sound footing, the club has started paying dividends. Last year, he picked up pounds 375,000 worth.

This week, though, Sugar and the fans finally found themselves on the same side: united against the FA. And perhaps, some say, that is what he was trying to do all along. Some commentators believe that Sugar invited the FA in to investigate his club's past because he wanted to discredit Venables to prove once and for all that he was right to sack the golden boy. A theory Sugar claimed was 'bollocks'.

Typically, showing few signs of conciliation, Sugar has gone to war against Lancaster Gate, blustering on, as usual, about Venables. He was quick, in a statement in which he used the word 'paranoid' three times, to keep the heat on his rival, saying that the attack on Spurs was orchestrated to shift attention from Venables' other business failures, activity which might embarrass the FA blazers. Not the wisest of moves, perhaps, with an appeal pending.

Whatever the outcome of that appeal, it looks like being a tough winter. Sugar has made ambitious noises about recruiting top talent to help in Spurs' fight, but the chances of anyone of stature arriving at White Hart Lane to face a battle with relegation and no FA Cup are about as likely as Sugar being offered life membership of Scribes West. It looks certain that Alan Sugar is in for a season of frustration, anger, disappointment and misery. Perhaps he has become a typical Spurs fan at last.