Owner Assem Allam on torture, labouring and Hull Tigers
Assem Allam should be the most popular man in Hull. But he isn't. Far from it.
You have probably heard of the 75-year-old owner of Hull City. You may have read about him, too. He is the man who launched a thousand headlines after going public with his desire to alter the club's name to Hull Tigers, having viewed it as a more marketable brand. Some have labelled him a dictator, others call him crazy.
But what about the man behind the bluster? Talk to those who know Dr Allam and a very different picture begins to emerge. He is, they say, generous to a fault, polite and kind.
During the course of my conversations one employee tells me 'we'd all run through a brick wall for him'. It is a message that crops up time and again. But none of it tallies with the stereotype which has come to define him.
How, though, does Allam see himself? "I'm a man of my word," he says. "I do what I say, I say what I do. There is nothing to me, other than what you see."
He settles down into a leather chair, wearing a blue suit, with matching tie and pocket square. Beyond the vast windows of a panoramic room at the top of his factory, is the autumnal murk. The Humber Bridge is visible in the distance, as is the city which changed Allam's life after he and his family fled Egypt in the 1960s.
On the wall behind us is a photograph of Steve Bruce celebrating promotion, flanked by Assem and his son, Ehab. Underneath are the words 'more powerful than the will to win is the courage to begin'.
"I am not a football fan," he says with a smile. "I have never been a football fan. But I am a fan of our community, a fan of this city. I bought the club because I didn't want to see it die, I knew it would damage the community if the club failed.
"Football is a big, big thing for the community here. I wanted to save the club."
And so he did. With the accountancy firm Ernst & Young saying Hull could cease to exist were it to go into administration, Allam stepped in, against the advice of his advisors. With one £27m payment he cleared the debt and ensured Hull avoided a 10-point penalty that may have made relegation to League One a strong probability.
"When I go to the stadium I watch the crowd more than the football," he says.
"I go there to support the manager, to support the team. But I get the enjoyment of looking at the stadium full. I think about the achievement of giving the fans a nice day out on a Saturday and watching good quality football. And I feel good about it.
"Now the community can watch good quality football. It can go to Wembley. It can go to Europe. There were many football fans, many children who would hear names like Rooney, Gerrard but they could not afford to go and see them. Now they come to their back garden. Now they see the best players in the country playing in Hull."
There is pride in his voice, as he talks - emotion too, behind the hard exterior shell.
Allam could never have predicted he would own an English football club as he grew up in Egypt. During his formative years, politics was his passion. But as a known critic of Colonel Nasser's ruthless dictatorship, it was not an easy time.
"I was a very outspoken young man," says Allam. "Speaking out against Nasser was an act of madness. Imagine making a speech against Saddam Hussein at the height of his power in the centre of Baghdad?
"That is what I used to do. They got tired of me, I was arrested, I had my share of torture. The marks remained on my body for many years. In the end, my family pushed me to get out of the country. I had to leave."
A five-shilling train ride from King's Cross brought Allam, his wife and two daughters to Hull, where his sister had settled after marrying a doctor based at Castle Hill hospital on the outskirts of the city. "It was difficult," he says. "In Egypt, I had money, land. But I had to sell it all, convert it to dollars from the black market."
At the time it was illegal to deal in foreign currency in Egypt, it was a crime that carried a life sentence. Allam knew it was a risk he had to take. "When I arrived in England I put that money in what was Midland Bank.
|Assem Allam in focus|
|Allam was born in Egypt but came to England in the 1960s. He studied economics at the University of Hull and has remained in the city.||In 2014, the Allam family was ranked 295th in the UK on the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated worth of £320m.|
|Allam joined the firm Tempest Diesels as finance director in the late 1970s and later bought the company. He renamed the business, which manufactures and supplies generators, Allam Marine.||Allam has broken Hull City's transfer record on four occasions since taking charge of the club in 2010, the most recent being the reported £10m paid for Uruguay striker Abel Hernandez.|
"The following day the bank manager called and said 'all the money is fake'. I didn't cry. I don't have a habit of doing that. The bank gave my family £5 each. So we had £20 that was not fake."
Over the course of the 46 years that have passed, Allam has turned that £20 into £320m, a fortune that placed him 10 places behind the Queen on the 2014 Sunday Times rich list.
He estimates that he has put more than £70m into Hull City, but he has also donated more of his wealth to help fund a world-leading cancer research centre in the city and a new state-of-the-art university medical centre.
A £100,000 investment into North Ferriby United has helped provide coaching for hundreds of local juniors, while the family have put money towards junior football clubs, rugby clubs and have sponsored the British Squash Open, which is now hosted in Hull.
Does he feel like a rich man? "Not really. It doesn't mean anything to me," he says.
"I have lived in the same house since 1978. I have done one or two extensions but it's the same house. I didn't buy a mansion, a yacht or a private jet. I wanted to be able to do more for the community. I even bought my Rolls-Royce on hire-purchase. I want to put my money back in. To help if I can."
Allam's £250,000 Rolls-Royce is parked outside, complete with unmistakable personalised number plate but he has never lived more than four miles from the ground having initially settled in the Cottingham area when he first arrived in 1968.
"Back then I needed work. So I got a job as a labourer at the flour mill in Hull. I did it for a month and it nearly killed me," he says with a broad smile. "I was loading full trailers with flour sacks, it was very, very difficult.
"Then I found another job in a metal box factory, on a soldering machine. I was lucky to have a very good foreman who gave me every hour of overtime that God sent." Allam recently attempted to track that foreman, John Mainprice, down. Only to discover he had passed away.
Eventually his drive and his training in accountancy saw him land a job with a London bank. Allam was promoted every two months until he became the first foreign-born director of a UK company.
In 1981, he bought a subsidiary of the company he had been working for. And over 30 years, he has transformed that business into the largest manufacturer of industrial generators in the country.
And yet it is the football business that has brought him to the public consciousness and the issue of the club's name that so many know him for. Does he harbour any regrets about pursuing the Hull Tigers plan so vigorously? "Not at all," he says.
"In democratic societies the small minority often shout loudest. The majority is often the silent one and that was proved when we did a ballot. I didn't buy the club for the minority, I bought the club for the majority. We owe it to them to pursue this."
Local media reports back in April said 2,565 voted "Yes to Hull Tigers with the Allam family continuing to lead the club" and 2,517 voted "No to Hull Tigers".
A total of 15,033 were invited to vote, with 9,159 choosing not to do so and 792 claiming "I am not too concerned and will continue to support the club either way".
Having promised to put the club up for sale within 24 hours if the FA rejected the name change application, Allam was good to his word. Hull City are on the market.
|December 2010: Assem Allam takes over as Hull City chairman|
|May 2010: Allam gives £1m to Hull Kingston Rovers saying he had so far "done nothing" for the community|
|September 2011: Hull City Council opted to retain ownership of KC Stadium, despite interest from Allam|
|June 2012: Steve Bruce appointed manager|
|May 2013: Hull City Promoted to the Premier League after a three year absence|
|August 2013: Allam unveils plans to change club name to Hull Tigers|
|December 2013: Hull Tigers name change officially submitted to FA|
|December 2013: Allam told fans "they can die as soon as they want" in response to protesters chants and banners of "City 'Til We Die"|
|April 2014: Fans narrowly back name change in ballot. Days later the FA Council rejects proposed name change to Tigers|
|September 2014: Allam puts Hull City up for sale|
But surely it would hurt him and the community he loves to let it go now? "Yes. It would upset me," he says. "To sell this club before we reach my targets of being in the top four or five, before we are firmly in Europe, would hurt me. That was the target I wanted to achieve and I would not have stopped before achieving that."
Hull have reached heights, in recent seasons, that few thought they could. Last season's FA Cup Final was a high point, even in defeat by Arsenal. Hull manager Steve Bruce has been an integral part of that success.
"We get on very well," Allam says. "In business, I take care appointing managers, but once I appoint the right managers, I let them manage. The football club is no different.
"From day one I said I would run it on sound business policies. So once I appointed Steve, I have let him manage. He has an office in the training ground and I will not even go to the training ground without him inviting me to the training ground - that is his kingdom."
And yet Allam's relationship with Bruce, the football club and a section of the fans remains uncertain.
While few would claim to fully back his desire to change the club's name, there is a growing realisation among many fans that Allam is no Bond-baddy, even if his approach has, at times, been too direct, too stubborn.
Allam says one sponsor had agreed a deal with the club on the basis the name changed to Hull Tigers. The day the FA ruling went against them, that deal was withdrawn. The replacement bid came in at more than £1m less per season.
The protest group, City 'Til We Die have said they are disappointed to hear the Allam family have appealed against the FA's decision. "We continue to support the Allams' ownership of the club," a statement read.
"We remain grateful that in 2010 they secured the future of the club when it was uncertain and we appreciate their positive contributions to the club's history. But we still see no justifiable reason to change a name that has existed, been a pillar of the local community since 1904."
Hull legend Dean Windass added: "Assem Allam has done wonderful things for Hull City. He's been a fantastic owner who not only saved the club but has also given Steve Bruce the best squad I can remember ever being assembled.
"But I do worry that a number of fans who were either against the name-change issue and those undecided may start to turn against the owner as the name change rumbles on."
And there is the conflict. Very few fans want to see Allam leave. But there are a section who want to keep the club's Hull City name, even it it means losing the owner.
If Allam fails to overturn the verdict in FA arbitration he will sell the club, walk away. He will not, however, be giving it away, despite earlier claims. "I was being sarcastic," he says with a smile. It is thought the asking price is more than £50m.
"We have now a team in the Premier League, with a very good manager and a very good squad. It is very unfortunate that we have to be in this position," he says.
Allam is not for turning, however. If his life story illustrates anything, it is that this is a man with an iron will, a determination and a drive to make his dreams a reality - whatever the consequences.
"There is more to life than football," he says. "I can do more things in the community. Football is just part of my life here. Only part."