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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Football's tycoons chase the dream
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online business reporter

Alan Sugar and Terry Venables
Alan Sugar had high hopes for Spurs
The new owner of Chelsea football club, Roman Abramovich, joins a long list of business tycoons seduced by the glamour of top level football.

A football club may be the ultimate rich person's plaything.

But unlike fast cars and yachts, it gives the average billionaire something money can't buy - respect.

The opportunity to play the local hero - and milk the acclaim of the crowd - has proved to be a powerful lure over the years.

Even though, financially, the figures rarely add up.

'Profligate spending'

Chelsea's new owner does not have to look far for an example of what can go wrong.

Mohamed Fayed
The days of profligate spending are over
Mohamed Al Fayed, Fulham chairman

Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed bought Chelsea's Premiership rival and South London neighbour Fulham in a blaze of publicity, signing up a string of expensive foreign players and top manager, Jean Tigana.

But the club recently announced record losses of 33.6m - the second biggest in Premiership history.

Reviewing Fulham's finanancial year, which included its first season in the top flight, in which they finished 13th and reached the FA cup semi-final, a chastened Mr Al Fayed had a message for the fans.

"The days of profligate spending are over and we subsequently must tighten our belts."

Premiership winners

Fulham's losses were topped only by those at Leeds, another club that gambled on glory and lost.

The maddening thing for Mr Fayed and deposed Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale is that it is not impossible to buy success.

Just very difficult.

Steel magnate Jack Walker pumped millions into Blackburn Rovers, transforming the sleepy first division club into premiership winners in 1995.

The reclusive millionaire shunned the limelight and never even became the club's chairman.

But he is believed to have spent about 30m on Ewood Park and lavished more than 80m on players.

'Sad failure'

The dream eventually turned sour, with Blackburn briefly sliding back into the first division.

An influx of television money had transformed football into a branch of showbusiness

But Walker, who died in 2000, had achieved his boyhood dream of seeing his team win the league and had few regrets.

More typical is the experience of Amstrad entrepreneur Alan Sugar, who characterised his time as Tottenham Hotspur chairman as "a sad failure".

He sold the club in 2000 for 22m, 14m more than he had paid for it, but success on the pitch had been thin on the ground.

Unappealing formula

Sugar came in for criticism from some fans for not spending enough on players.

But his shrewd grasp of finance made the salaries demanded by Premiership stars appear absurd, with revenue passing straight through the club to players leaving little left over for profit.

Sugar memorably commented that football's finances were "like drinking prune juice while eating figs".

The formula may sound an unappealing one - but there has never been any shortage of takers.

Crooked Daily Mirror magnate Robert Maxwell offered the textbook example of how not to do it.

He presided over the rise and fall of Oxford United before his death in 1991, probably saving the club from financial ruin but alienating the fans with his abortive plan to merge Oxford with Reading to create Thames Valley Royals.

New idea

Maxwell then installed his son Kevin as chairman, leaving the club 10m in debt, switching his allegiances to Derby, where his money and luck eventually ran out.

Other controversial figures to have had a hand in their local clubs include Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose control of AC Milan has led to accusations of conflict of interest.

Industrialist Bernard Tapie led French side Marseille to the European Cup in 1993, before being convicted of match-rigging and fraud.

In the UK, the idea of making serious money from football is a relatively new one.

Chairmen and directors used to regard themselves as "custodians" of the club.

Showbusiness

Dividends were limited by FA rules to prevent profiteering and asset-stripping.

This all changed in the 1980s when Spurs chairman Irving Scholar worked out a way of sidestepping the rules by creating a PLC holding company, which could be floated on the stock exchange.

By the time the FA scrapped Rule 34, which limited directors' income, an influx of television money had transformed football into a branch of showbusiness.

But even as late as 1989, Martin Edwards was ready to sell Manchester United to entrepreneur Michael Knighton for 10m.

Edwards decided instead to oversee the transition of the club into a PLC, before nearly selling again - to BSkyB - for 623m.

Dreaming on

Few clubs will emulate Manchester United's success, both on and off the pitch.

But it will not stop the fans - and the chairmen - from dreaming.

Among those who have battled for Premiership status in recent years are porn baron David Sullivan, co-owner of Birmingham City, and saintly cookery guru Delia Smith, whose Norwich City failed to gain promotion in 2002.

Among the Premiership intake for next season is Wolverhampton Wanderers, whose promotion - after 11 years of trying - is a dream come true for fans.

But no one will be happier than Wolves' Bahamas-based chairman Sir Jack Hayward, who has spent an estimated 50m on players over the past decade.

Let's hope it has been worth it.




SEE ALSO:
Chelsea announce new losses
31 Mar 03  |  Chelsea


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