From Roman Abramaovic, via Mohamed Al-Fayed, to Vincent Tan, the Premier League, and the supporters of the clubs that make it up, are very much used to tolerating the flighty behaviour of eccentric owners. Hull City’s (and it is still “City”) own maverick chief, Assem Allam has recently revealed that he, as promised, put the club up for sale immediately after the English FA denied his request to change the club’s name from Hull City, the one they’ve sported proudly since 1904, to his preferred “Hull Tigers”. Allam said in a prepared statement:
This announcement is in accordance with my decision 10 months ago that I would walk away within 24 hours. In actual fact it was 22 hours. When I say something, I mean it. I don’t call bluffs, what I say is what you get exactly.
Allam continues an ever-lengthening tradition of owner-initiated silliness. The rich men in charge of some of England’s beloved clubs seem intent on outdoing each other when it comes to displaying their own finely honed senses for the erratic and whimsical. You could say that it began, in the Premier League era at least, at Fulham with Al-Fayed, though his craziest antics didn’t begin until some way into his time as owner. Really, the first visible, active club owner to meddle was Roman Abramovich, the despicable Russian oligarch, who was less Chelsea’s watchful overseer, and more a very present participant in the dealings of the club. If it was to be his plaything, he would play with it. The £30 million acquisition of Andriy Shevchenko, one that horribly backfired as the striker was very much a spent force when he arrived, was a direct result of Abramovich’s courting of the Ukrainian star. “Because of his [Abramovich’s] persistence and as my life situation changed I decided the time was right,” Shevchenko said of his transfer from Milan. He finished his time in London having scored 22 goals in 76 appearances, and is now widely regarded as being one of the most expensive flops in Premier League history. Abramovich bizarrely repeated the storyline when he paid an English record fee of £50 million for Liverpool’s Fernando Torres. His hapless time at Chelsea needs no further reiteration.
Al-Fayed, meanwhile, was planning a most fantastical stunt of his own. In 2011, the fomer Harrod’s magnate erected a statue of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, outside Fulham’s stadium, Craven Cottage. Apparently, 12 years prior, Jackson had attended a game between Fulham and Wigan Athletic at the Cottage, and such was his enamour at what must have been a wholly mediocre match, Al-Fayed decided to mark the occasion more than a decade later with the most bafflingly flamboyant of gestures. Al-Fayed was forced to defend the statue’s presence, saying “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift this guy gave to the world they can go to hell. I don’t want them to be fans.” When Al-Fayed sold the club in 2013, the new owners wasted no time taking down the giant effigy of the youngest member of the Jackson 5, looking at the statue much like Ned Flanders, after the Springfield community rebuilt his house which had been destroyed by a hurricane, looked at the toilet that Chief Wiggum installed at the bottom of the stairs. But at least Abramovich and Al-Fayed’s actions didn’t directly alter the very fabric of the club, it’s very history.
Vincent Tan, perhaps the archetypal eccentric club owner, decided to do exactly that at Cardiff City. After purchasing a majority share of the club, he decided that he didn’t really fancy the whole blue thing they were going with, and that red was a much nicer colour for the team to play in. Never mind the many decades of tradition, or even the fact that the club’s nickname is the bluebirds, Tan finalised the colour and badge revamping at the beginning of the 12/13 season. Tan felt that the colour red, and the new dragon-crested badge, would be a big hit in Asia, and he enthusiastically showed off the new colours in a rather sartorially questionable manner at every home game. The change was initially met with furious protest, which I’m sure still remains, because the promise of investment and support that was supposed to come in return for the change didn’t stop the Bluebirds from making an immediate trip back down to the Championship last season. It is doubtful that any Cardiff City supporter would speak about Tan in anything other than damning terms.
So, now to Assem Allam, and his fervent desire to own a team called the ‘tigers’. This is a man who has lent Hull City close to £100 million to buy around a dozen new players, who has lived in Hull for 45 years since emigrating from Egypt in 1969. This is a successful businessman who apparently never, ever changes his mind once a decision has been made, no matter how petty the circumstances. He’s willing to sell the club, to throw a very expensive tantrum because he can’t have ‘tigers’ in the name. A team by any other name plays just as well. The club, led thoughtfully and successfully by Steve Bruce, is primed to have perhaps their best ever season this year, after exceeding all expectations last season, but are now being forced to try and make progress in the midsts of this farcical maelstrom.
Cardiff were unable to survive the multiple distractions that Tan caused, and they went down. Fulham were also relegated the season they removed Al-Fayed’s “lucky” statue. The financial blows that Chelsea must have suffered as a result of Torres and Shevchenko are difficult to even conceive, not that the money matters to Abramovich. When there are eccentric owners involved, things rarely go smoothly in football.