Hull still weighed down by Allam millstone – Opposition profile
Friday, 18th Aug 2017 14:43 by Clive Whittingham
A relegated Premier League team with huge parachute payments should be a promotion favourite, but Hull City are being drained of life by their Egyptian owners.
The yo-yo nature of Hull City and Queens Park Rangers recent fortunes mean our paths cross infrequently – just six league meetings since 2008. Probably just as well. A flurry of meetings between 2005 and 2007 bred considerable contempt, with Hull’s first match in the Championship on the opening day of 2005/06 marred by chants about that summer’s bomb attacks on the London tube network.
That afternoon showed nobody in a good light. A section of the Hull crowd for thinking it was an appropriate thing to sing about (the chant itself, ‘town full of bombers’, also ignored the fact the attackers came from Yorkshire) and a section of the QPR support for overreacting. Newspapers were only too pleased to publish the completely untrue additional allegation that the home fans had sung “not enough Londoners died” (good luck naming that tune). Football has long had this problem with tribalism where supporters will be as deeply hurtful, unpleasant and inappropriate to each other just because. Hull City fans pointed out they’d endured years of “you’re going down with your trawlers” chants in the grim and distant past. Nobody came out of it well.
No love lost then, but you can’t help but look at Hull City in the present day and – as with Blackburn, Forest, Blackpool, Orient and any number of other clubs happily handed over to rich men to mismanage either incompetently or maliciously – have a deal of sympathy. This is a club being run as a dictatorship by the Allam family which at times, for several years now, has sought to deliberately antagonise and alienate the club’s supporters and the city it plays in.
Outside Kingston upon Hull, it’s Assem Allam’s insistence that the club should be renamed as Hull Tigers that caught the public attention. The somewhat questionable theory that a club in existence since 1904 suddenly cannot possibly compete in the modern game under its current name has been through two separate FA hearings and appeals and – thankfully, in a rare moment of the football authorities in this country doing the right thing by the paying public – been kicked out each time. In the strange fantasy land the club’s Egyptian owner exists in, millions of Far Eastern supporters desperately itching to support Hull City if only it was named after some sort of fucking animal have been left disappointed.
Allam has responded by basically making the change anyway through stealth. The club’s official website is taglined “the official site of The Tigers” and includes links to Tigers TV, Tigers Leisure and a charity protecting tigers in the wild. The only mention of the word ‘City’ anywhere on the home page is through an associated Twitter feed. The club’s Facebook page is headlined “Hull Tigers” with an address ending in facebook.com/hulltigersofficial. The URL of the official site itself is hullcitytigers.com and there is no mention of ‘City’ in its banner – just a badge, which features a picture of a Tiger and the club’s formation date. Press releases, team sheets and statements refer to the club as Hull Tigers, The Tigers or Hull Tigers Ltd.
But it’s the club’s KCOM (formerly KC) Stadium that actually lies at the heart of all this.
Home sweet home
Hull was once famous for its cream telephone boxes. It used the sale of its publicly owned telephone operator, Kingston Communications, to the private sector to fund developments all over a city which is regularly - lazily - stereotyped as one of the worst in the country but has improved immeasurably in recent times and was named the UK City of Culture for 2017 to much unfair derision.
One of those developments was the construction of a community stadium in the city’s West Park primarily to enable Hull City and rugby league side Hull FC to move out of their respective dilapidated grounds short walks away on the other side of the Anlaby Road. Publicly owned, built at a cost of £44m and opened in 2002, the stadium has been a springboard to significant upturns in fortunes for both teams – Hull City were a Third Division side when they moved in, Hull FC had been so financially destitute before their crowd-doubling move to the new venue they’d had to merge with Gateshead Thunder just to survive. It has also brought significant stadium concert acts to the city over the years. As new grounds go, it’s a beautiful design and perfectly located.
Assem Allam likes it very much as well. He’d like to make it bigger (a second tier can be added to the East Stand to match the West) and use the large rubble car park behind its North Stand (home of the famous Hull Fair) as the site for a retail village filled with all the zero hours contracts Sports Direct can offer the good people of West Hull. He’d like to do all this for the benefit of the city and the club, you understand, out of the goodness of his heart and would therefore be jolly grateful if Hull City Council would just turn the keys to the stadium over to him for a nominal fee so he can get to work with his very charitable offer to build hugely profitable personal projects on publicly owned land.
The council, meanies that they are, haven’t been so keen to just let some private businessman have a civic asset for a quid though. It’s this refusal that has set in motion a train of flagrantly antagonistic behaviour from the owners towards the Hull City supporters, the rugby club and the city as a whole. This conduct continues to this day under Assem Allam’s son Ehab, who now controls the business thanks to his father’s ill health and has further exacerbated a situation which saw City playing Premier League games in front of thousands of empty seats last year having won promotion at a Wembley play-off final for which they sold a quarter of their ticket allocation.
Allam Snr first of all responded by threatening to move City out of Hull altogether, and would stand in fields near the village of Melton clutching blueprints for another new stadium all of his own while the Hull Daily Mail took pictures for another of his “don’t push me” press stunts. Then came the name change bid, which he said would have to go through for Hull to remain competitive and if it didn’t he would immediately withdraw all his backing from the club and cut it adrift with no money within 24 hours. He told supporters who formed a “City till I die” movement against the proposal that they could “die whenever they wanted”.
Initially the natives were sympathetic towards the dear leader. City were performing superbly on the field under the management of Steve Bruce. Supporters enjoying the football, the victories, the performances, the Premier League, the FA Cup final and the signings Allam’s money financed cautioned against rocking the boat too much. David Burns, ordinarily a combative presence and excellent broadcaster on the local BBC Radio Humberside station, would conduct sycophantic, puff-piece interviews with Allam, referring to him as “sir” throughout. Allam has behaved throughout as if his initial investment in the club and new players should give him absolutely free reign to do whatever the hell he likes with it and for a while, when results on the pitch were good, people, by and large, agreed with him.
But with no name change, and no keys to the stadium, things have only got worse as time has gone on and the mood has changed considerably.
The ownership of Hull City comes hand in hand with a seat at the top of the independent Stadium Management Company (SMC) which oversees the running of the stadium and its accounts. The Allams have abused this position on multiple occasions since being refused ownership of the stadium.
The adjacent Airco Arena, built at the same time as the stadium and also under the control of the SMC, was a hard-floored sports hall home to a dozen local sports clubs and teams including netball, basketball, hockey, gymnastics, trampolining and wrestling clubs for people of all ages, able-bodied and disabled. The Allams, without planning permission or warning, effectively evicted all of them when they dug the floor up and replaced it with a synthetic grass surface so Hull City’s academy could use it. The council failed with a court action against them despite still technically owning the building, and the move contradicting the lease conditions, but you can judge for yourself the morality of evicting wheelchair basketball teams and kids trampolining clubs from a sports hall built with public money so your youth team has somewhere to go when it rains.
The SMC has also engaged in open conflict with the stadium’s other tenant, Hull FC – a club currently owned by former Hull City chairman Adam Pearson. FC, who the Allams say have a very favourable rental agreement signed 12 years ago when they moved from the Boulevard a mile away, have found one thing after another chucked their way by their landlord.
FC are unable to play home games in June, the height of their season, because the SMC insist the pitch needs to be worked on. Second at the start of the month this time around, they slipped to fifth after successive defeats in consecutive away games at Castleford, St Helens and Leeds. When they returned home last summer after their enforced exile they found the pitch had been shortened to such an extent the grass now doesn’t stretch to regulation Super League distance and space has to be pinched between the 30 and 40 metre lines. Allam also deemed it appropriate to build temporary squash courts over one end of the field and stage a tournament there in front of nearly two dozen paying spectators during the rugby season – when Hull FC returned for the next home game they found the area of the pitch that had sat under the courts was just solid bare earth as a result, right in the middle of the in-goal area.
The Allams may be allowed to destroy the pitch, but that luxury does not stretch to all employees. Two groundsman who’ve worked for City and FC respectively for most of their adult lives are trying to crowdfund a legal challenge having been sacked on the field after a recent rugby match for “gross misconduct” – one is accused of moonlighting as FC’s kitman, the other of ordering too much grass treatment product amidst various other trumped up bollocks.
The Allams also previously ordered the removal of all Hull FC memorabilia from the walls of the stadium that is meant to be their home ground - including the pictures of Johnny Whiteley from the Johnny Whiteley suite which were replaced with ones of Steve Bruce -
The SMC has quoted Hull FC such extortionate rates to play friendly games at the stadium that Richard Whiting – a utility back of ten years' standing at the club – and one of the game’s modern greats, Gareth Ellis, have both had to stage their testimonial matches as away games at Featherstone and Wakefield instead.
Hull FC were informed a fortnight before the start of last season that the SMC was withdrawing cash at the turnstile admissions, despite the majority of non-season ticket holding rugby league fans across the country doing exactly that. Hastily arranged kiosks and tables have had to be erected to sell tickets in the car park. Having reached this season’s Challenge Cup semi-final Hull FC were the only one of the four teams unable to sell tickets over the phone or online, or indeed from the box office at the stadium, because the SMC would charge them for the privilege. Supporters camped out on garden chairs all night after a recent game with Wakefield to buy theirs over the counter at one of the ground’s sports bars the following day.
Once inside, the Hull FC fans have found their beer price has gone up to £4.20 a pint, while Hull City's has stayed the same – a fan going to the rugby on Friday will pay more for the same pint from the same pump than he would the following day at the football.
Like I say, a section of City support had been happy to go along with this sort of behaviour as long as the team was doing well and playing in the top flight. There’s not much love lost between City and FC either for various small-minded, petty reasons. But their patience has long since run dry as well.
Last summer the Allams and the SMC revealed a new approach to season tickets. Instead of the standard season pass, City fans now have to buy a membership which vice-chairman Ehab Allam heralded at the time as a new dawn. He said: “For too long, the price of football in this country has been much too high. This new scheme will at least ensure the same cannot be said of Hull.”
Problem was, not only did the scheme mean huge amounts of fans would have to relocate to different parts of the stadium or face a big price hike, it also abolished concession tickets. Teenagers attending games without adults faced eye-watering price rises. The lack of discounts for children, the elderly or the disabled extends to match by match ticket sales and away fans – contrary to Premier League and Football League rules. It’s been so successful that with thousands upon thousands of City fans no longer attending games, even in the Premier League, the upper tier of the West Stand now no longer opens for every game. The average attendance last season, in the top division, was 5,000 short of capacity.
Those who do still attend were given brief hope of Premier League salvation when Marco Silva (written off as some foreign nobody by luminaries such as Paul Merson despite a formidable record in Portugal and Greece) put in a sterling effort trying to keep them up. Given Hull only had a dozen senior players contracted when August rolled round last year it’s astonishing they ran it as close as they did. Silva has since left for Watford to be replaced by former Russian national team boss Leonid Slutsky who has spent the last six months living in England and learning English in an attempt to nail a job here.
The Allam’s do seem quite adept at appointing a manager, twice now from leftfield. But supporters believe they’re asset stripping and draining the club in the absence of anybody willing to buy it from them. Mo Diame, Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore were all sold for big money last season. Harry Maguire fetched £17m from Leicester this summer but Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone have both been flogged to Derby on the cheap – Huddlestone, bizarrely, had a release clause of just £2m and said cryptically that he’d happily have stayed at Hull if Derby had bid three weeks previously but was suddenly keen to get out. Josh Tyman, a youth team product who looked adept at Premier League level, has gone to Stoke on a free amidst talk that Hull’s contract extension offer to one of their own was derisory, if indeed it was made at all. Excellent Scottish full back Andy Robertson has gone to Liverpool for £8m.
Despite the considerable income from sales, the huge amount of Premier League television money received last season, and a £46m parachute payment for 2017/18, very little is being spent on reinforcements. A claim that Liverpool’s Kevin Stewart cost £8m sounds fanciful. Sebastien Larsson and Fraizer Campbell have arrived on frees. The Guardian’s investigative football reporter David Conn quotes sources close to the club saying the Allams aimed to make a £40m surplus from last season - either to put in the bank and make the club more attractive to a buyer, or to put in their bank by way of repayment for the £77m they previously invested when they thought they might be able to get the stadium for a quid. With BBC Radio Humberside now asking the sort of tough questions of the club lacking in the early Allam years, they’ve had their access to the commentary box to broadcast games live to fans who can’t or won’t go to games withdrawn.
The club’s relationship with its remaining supporters is beyond repair now. Four separate foreign consortiums have had a sniff around and moved on. A dozen more players left during the summer – Alex Bruce seemed to imply he was told of his release via the club’s Twitter account.
The supporters can do nothing but vote with their feet, or hope for change at the top. The rugby club can only wait and see what their landlord has in store for it next. The Football League and Premier League could act but choose not to. And there are a dozen or more cases like this up and down the 92 professional clubs in this country at the moment.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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