Messrs Allam and Maguire on football and football finance…

Yesterday, at the Business School at Hull University, City owner Assem Allam and chief executive Mark Maguire spoke at an event entitled “The Power of Sport”. Amber Nectar took the afternoon off work to find out what they had to say…

Speaking at the Allam Lecture Theatre, the City owner was first to speak. He introduced himself, and told the audience about his father – a man possessing somewhat “Victorian” values in which education came first…and sport second. Participation in sport was aggressively encouraged and our Egyptian benefactor confided that he never really “messed about with girls” as a lad, he was too busy playing sport or studying. The Allam family had, and still has, squash players of international repute. He believes that sport instils positive values and protects young people from less salubrious temptations such as “drugs, smoking, drinking”.

He cited some research undertaken by the University of Cairo which suggesting that towns and cities with prominent sporting clubs and a multitude of publicly available sports facilities showed comparatively less gang activity and misbehaviour in the young. “Football connects society” in a unique way, he believes. As a long-time resident of East Yorkshire, he can remember as far back when there was no M62 and no Humber Bridge, Hull feeling like “the end of the world”, and noted the power of football and City being a powerful unifying force in the area.

This force drew him to City when the club’s finances were in such dire straits that his money men counselled him that the Tigers could become the first club to not recover from administration. This compelled him to invest £41m to buy the club that’d served its community for 107 years.

That desire to put the Tigers right, he continued, forms part of the inspiration for his current vision of a sports village. The remainder originates in a desire to harness the power of sport, which he repeatedly stressed has the capacity to do huge good for individuals and society. He talked about his family finding their preferred sports after being exposed to many, and believes a complex with numerous different facilities can do the same for the people of Hull, painting a rather utopian vision of families and friends all coming together thanks to sport, even suggesting that a visit to a cafeteria on a sports complex on Walton Street would be akin to having coffee on the ChampsÉlysées. Idealistic, or naïve? Who knows, but Mr Allam seemed quite sincere in wishing it.

This brought the 71 year old City owner onto his nascent discussions with the council about buying the stadium as a precursor to commencing work. He repeatedly expressed bewilderment at the council shying away from selling “their family silver”, divulged that the council baffled him by suggesting a joint venture (“what? why?”). However, he suggested “pressure from the public” is has “got them at least talking nicely to me”. His media forays bringing dividends perhaps. However, no offer has been made, and he railed against the council (not merely the current incumbents, but former ones too) as wishing to operate a “nanny state” and knowing best for everyone. Quite.

He offered reassurance to a questioner about moving City, joking “it’s too heavy, even after a good breakfast”, but admitting that despite there being a conflict of thinking between himself and the council both sides may be right…or wrong.

Up next was the City chief executive Mark Maguire, perhaps fittingly on the day when City’s new kit was revealed as possessing a somewhat, um, suboptimal sponsor (of which more in an upcoming piece). His background was in hotels, then Stockport County FC, latterly of the Football League, now a non-league outfit. He was invited to the club by Adam Pearson and tasked with implementing a business ethic.

Some of his observations were worrying. The club’s previous regime had little concept of profit and loss, margins or elementary business practice. He broadened that point to include the rest of the footballing world, accusing too many of operating a “roll of the dice strategy”, producing an arresting slide to illustrate the temptation:

–         League One revenue: £650,000
–         Championship revenue: £5.5m
–         Premier League revenue: £40m

The riches blind the gullible, it seems.

Mr Maguire reiterated Mr Allam’s point about City’s extinction being a genuine prospect, and identified his role as being to make it a credible business. Very much a businessman offering corporate rhetoric, he was at least quite open about that. He acknowledged that “brand” is a dirty word among football supporters but was unafraid of using it – would he have modified his language in a setting less geared to business and more sporting?

The club has remarkable reach, he opined. The extended reach of the Tigers Trust is an impressive 210,000 people, and the brand (that word again) is a “local one on an international scale”. We sense eyes glazing over a bit, but there is some football – he cited Swansea as a good example of competent financial governance and on-field excellence being perfectly compatible. An interesting comparison – Swansea, a smaller but not dissimilar club to City, have a strong and responsible business model that has aided their push to the Premier League. That, he stated, remains the club’s aspiration, but with “financial nous”.

There were two other speakers: Simon Morgan from the Premier League, who spoke about the top flight’s less publicised programme of socially responsible deeds, best summed up here.

Dr Neil Pease, Hull KR’s Strategic Development Director, also discussed Rovers’ contribution to the local sporting and wider community. With respect to Dr Pease, a decent speaker with a nice story to tell, rugby schmugby. Hull FC weren’t represented at the event, which was nice.

What to make of City’s head honchos, then? Mr Allam’s passion for sport, evidenced by his family history, and its potential to do good was quite genuine, though his vision is a long way off and has huge hurdles to overcome. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine a brick being laid any time soon.

Mr Maguire – well, he’s there to do a job, one he himself realises is unglamorous and is viewed with suspicion by football fans. If he helps to put the club on a decent financial footing, good luck to him. Is it appropriate to aspire to do a Swansea – solid on and off the field? After the fiscal nightmares of the recent past, hearing the club talking of keeping the club in the black while pursuing the ambition of re-entering the Premier League is comforting.

Sport is powerful stuff then, but you knew that already.