Hull City owners Assem and Ehab Allam talk to Yorkshire Post chief football writer Richard Sutcliffe about life in the Premier League and the pride felt at reaching an FA Cup final.
RICHARD SUTCLIFFE: It is a little over three-and-a-half years since your family bought Hull City. Could you have imagined in your wildest dreams 2014 bringing not only Premier League survival but also an FA Cup final?
Assem Allam: Yes, I could – though it has happened maybe a year or so earlier than when we expected. We bought the club in December, 2010, and our thinking was that within three to four years we would be promoted to the Premier League. Then, the next step would be going to Europe. So, yes, it was always in my mind to try and achieve big things. From day one, we believed we could do this.
Ehab Allam: If you don’t set your sights high, how can you achieve them? You have to aim high.
AA: It is similar to what happened in our business here (Allam Marine, where the interview takes place). Many years ago, we were one of 100 to 200 companies doing what we are doing. But now we are the biggest independent company in this field in the country.
RS: How have you managed to turn the club round so quickly? Hull seemed certain to go into administration before you came in.
AA: The key has been to run the club on business policies. And also put in a lot of money. We had to spend in the first two years to spring-clean the club. And then we went out and got the best manager, put more money in and here we are today.
EA: I think one of the main differences between Hull and other clubs is we weren’t football fans when we came in. Our reason for buying the club was for the sake of the community. We had been successful locally as a company and it was a case of wanting to save the club, rather than because we were passionate about football or anything like that.
RS: I presume that has changed after three-and-a-half years in charge?
EA: I can’t speak for anyone else but I am still not a football fan. I am a fan of the Tigers but not a football fan. I will watch games on television but only to see what difference it makes to us, in terms of the league position.
AA: Personally, I am not a football fan, either. But I am a fan of the community. I do it for the community and feel happy that the community is happy with it. Promotion, the FA Cup and Europe next season – these are all things that make the community happy. People may find that strange but it is no different (to Allam Marine). I am not a fan of generators but I am a fan of the business.
RS: Most chairmen say that football is like no other business in the world. Doesn’t that make it hard to apply ‘normal’ business rules and practices to a club like Hull City?
EA: Not at all, though I understand what you are saying about how other clubs can be run. We get told examples all the time of what can happen at clubs where fans are in charge. They are very passionate and want to get involved, which can often mean them being up at the training ground all the time and trying to assist with team selection. Or giving their opinion, at least, just like a frustrated football manager. They get sucked in and tend to micro-manage. We don’t do any of that. We leave Steve Bruce to manage. We do have a monthly meeting, which this season has been every four or five games. But the meeting is not to discuss things like, ‘Why did you make that substitution?’ Or, ‘Why play him and not him?’ We want our role to be to assist Steve to do the job to the best of his ability. And without Steve having to look over his shoulder at people pointing the finger at him. That is not our style. To us, that is how a business should be run. This is a proper business environment.
RS: What do you discuss at these monthly meetings with the manager? And do they take place here or at the training ground?
AA: We discuss everything at those meetings. Money for new players, the club’s strategy.
EA: Strengths and weaknesses, what we need to improve on. We don’t get involved in the fine detail of the football side. We give him a certain autonomy that I can’t imagine too many managers have. Things are working well for us.
AA: The meetings always take place here at our business. The training ground at Cottingham, to me, is Steve’s Kingdom. And I only go there when Steve Bruce invites me. I have never been to the training ground without an invite. But I would like to go more often, especially as the lunches are very good. That is why I look forward to my invite (laughs).
EA: The main point is that we don’t turn up unannounced. We don’t go down there and ask why they are doing this and why they are doing that. Most owners are fans and very passionate. So they run the club with their passionate head on.
RS: The club recently announced plans to relocate the Academy to Bishop Burton College and an upgrade of first team facilities at Cottingham.Youth development has long been an area in which the Tigers have seemed to lag behind others.How aware of this have you been?
EA: Totally. We are a Level 3 academy at the moment and were in danger of slipping down to Level 4. Most Premier League clubs are Level 1 so, clearly, the matter needed addressing. One of the most galling things when we first came into the club was the total lack of investment in that side of the club. Hull had been in the Premier League for two years, banked around £100m and yet the facilities were poor. There had been zero investment, from what we could see.
RS: I recall writing a story in the Yorkshire Post with then chairman Paul Duffen about relocating the Academy further down the A63 to improve the club’s catchment area but it got lost amid the financial problems that hit City.
EA: Yes, it was going to be built on that field over there (points to a vacant piece of land on the Melton business park that also houses Allam Marine). But nothing happened and the result is we are losing our best young players through a lack of infrastructure. Barnsley took one recently because their Academy is a good one, while another signed for Swansea City. It is really unfortunate that we have lost players to clubs that are no bigger than ourselves. That is not a good position to be in as a Premier League club, which is why we spent 12 to 18 months developing a new strategy. That strategy has culminated in tie up with Bishop Burton College. They have fantastic facilities and we should be able to get up to Level 2 status next year. The Academy will open (next season) but the partnership with Bishop Burton has already saved us from losing Level 3 status because the authorities know we are moving. Had we stayed where we are then that would have been Level 4. It isn’t just the football facilities that will benefit the lads but also the educational opportunities it will bring. Plus, the 16s and above will have on-site accommodation. I do think it is important for them to be part of a normal school environment and not live isolated in a bubble.
RS: What plans do you have for Cottingham?
EA: Indoor facilities, which is a requirement for Level 2 status for an Academy, are something we are looking at. Our exciting plans also include knocking down the existing buildings and re-building. But not for another year. We want to leave a legacy, and part of that will be the move to Bishop Burton and the new training facility at Cottingham.
RS: Back to the football, how have you found the Premier League?
AA: I have been to the home games and nothing pleases me more than seeing the stadium full – and people enjoying themselves.
EA: It is a different world and a much tougher league than what we had been used to in the Championship, where you tend to win a higher percentage of games. In the Premier League, we had a target of 10 games and reached that target. It was just a shame that we slipped a few places in the last couple of weeks.
RS: Finally, what has reaching the FA Cup final done for Hull as a city?
AA: In the past when I was travelling abroad for business, people would ask where I was from. When I said Hull, I always then told them in relation to the nearest football club. I’d say, ‘Hull is to the east of Leeds’. Because, back then, Leeds United was huge. Then, later, I would say, ‘Hull is east of Manchester’. Nowadays I say where I am from and they immediately say, ‘Ah, Hull, they are in the Premier League’. To illustrate this, a few days ago I met someone from Australia. I asked if they had heard of Hull and they said, ‘My local pub at home was packed for the semi-final against Sheffield United so, yes, we all know about Hull’. I thought that was wonderful.