Mihir Bose: English football – where the American Dream is alive and kicking

A foreign owner jetting in to buy a club always produces the same response. The fans hope he will be another Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour. Then reality sets in and the fans, who so enthusiastically welcomed the new owner, act like jilted lovers and cannot contain their anger. So how should the Fulham fans treat Florida-based Shahid Khan’s purchase of Fulham?

The first thing to be said is the sale was no surprise. Fulham owner Mohammed Al Fayed has long been looking to get away from Craven Cottage. I first heard that Fulham was up for sale almost five years ago. The only problem seemed to have been Fayed could not get the price he wanted. Now, clearly, a buyer has paid what he wanted.

But what Al Fayed may not have told Khan is that in buying into the Premiership he has also bought into what can only be called English football’s own caste system. This is not quite the Hindu variety but nevertheless quite rigid and inflexible. So the question is which caste does the new American owner of Fulham belong to?

Fulham fans would like to think he belongs to the first and most glamorous caste composed of the two foreign owners: Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour. These owners are happy to bank roll success whatever it costs. Nothing would please Fulham fans more.

However Khan may belong to the larger caste of owners, many of them Americans, who generally do not invest a lot of their money, if any into the club. Indeed they borrow and use the club to generate income. The Glazers are the outstanding example of this caste.

But in Khan’s case there is a further complication in buying Fulham. Not only is he part of the foreign caste of owners but he also belongs to what may be called a sub caste, composed of both foreign owners and home grown ones. They are what Andy Green, a Manchester United supporter and a financial expert, in a very insightful analysis called the “squeezed middle” of the Premiership.

These clubs rely on their owners to keep them going and Green’s analysis of the six years between 2005 and 2011 shows the vast sums the owners put in to bankroll the club. That this was despite the flow of a glut of television money is one of the many contradictions of the Premier League.

These clubs in the squeezed middle are Everton, Bolton, Villa, Fulham, Sunderland, Newcastle, West Ham and Blackburn. The owners of these clubs, with the singular exception of Everton, whose owners have no money and have long put up a For Sale sign on the Merseyside club, have sunk immense money into their clubs. In Fulham’s case this has meant that between 2005 and 2011 Al-Fayed put in over £72 million.

The money has been spent as the clubs have searched in vain for the promised land of the higher reaches of the Premier League. In the case of Fulham it was no less than becoming the Manchester United of the south. At least that is what Fayed said his aim was. Then, having taken it over in its darkest days, he saw Fulham as a sort of Harrods of football.

We all know what happened to those Fayed dreams, how Fulham ran into opposition from residents on plans to build a huge stadium at Craven Cottage and how it had to settle back at its old and charming home with more realistic and modest plans for expansion.

Khan does not need to be told that had this been New York, not London, the club’s location could have been easily settled. Hammersmith and Fulham are the only borough in the United Kingdom with three major football clubs: Chelsea, QPR and Fulham. The simple and obvious solution would be one location with all the clubs sharing the ground. But in a country where traditions matter such an idea is unthinkable. The fans liked the idea of Fulham as the Manchester United of the south and growing bigger than Chelsea but not moving from its historic home.

As it happened the club did have to move. Fulham had arrived in the Premiership with the Cottage still having large standing sections, unheard of in top-level football at that time. According to the Taylor Report, a club had three seasons from their promotion to the second tier in which to convert terraces to seating areas. At the end of their first Premiership season Fulham moved to share Loftus Road. But this was always seen as a temporary move while it developed its long term plans to redesign Craven Cottage.

This is not the only thing that distinguishes ownership of clubs in this country from franchises in America. Indeed the Fulham deal emphasises that the Premiership has modified what used to be said about Americans during the Second World War. Then the popular song about the Americans went as follows: they are overfed, oversexed and over here. In the case of American ownership of Premiership clubs the first two, obviously, do not apply but they are certainly over here.

And they are over here because they see in British clubs opportunities they cannot have in their own country. This has been best described to me by Majid Ishaq of Rothschild, who advised the Glazers on their purchase of Manchester United:

“If you speak to the Americans they say, ‘We understand how to make money in a much regulated industry in the States in this space. Within our territory, within our geography’. But that is very tightly controlled in a way that American society is not tightly controlled. Then all of a sudden you say to them, ‘You can come over to England and you can sell Liverpool shirts in London, you can sell sponsorship in the Far East’. They say, ‘My goodness. I can make money out of this because if I can do it in the US in a much regulated market and then all of a sudden I have got the rest of the world to go for when I go and buy Liverpool or Tottenham or Arsenal’. They love it. The Henry’s of Boston who own Liverpool can’t sell outside Boston, can they? They are regulated. So those guys, the American sports business owners, bring two things. They bring capital, but not that much of it, and they bring sports business acumen.”

And all this is aided by English football authorities and the British government imposing no controls on anyone to come in and buy a football club. Consider that if Shahid Khan wanted to buy an NFL or Major League Baseball or NBA franchise in his own country he would have faced hurdles that he did not have to worry about while doing the deal with Al Fayed.

Back in his home country the sporting model is so different to the one in England that it has been rightly described as sporting socialism. The clubs in the league see themselves as a chain of restaurants where every restaurant in the chain must be given equal rights to prosper. There may be no promotion or relegation but the bottom club in the league gets the first pick of next year’s college players. Also the NFL, MLB and other leagues vet any possible buyers and the existing clubs meet and vote to decide whether a new owner can be accepted.

The Premier League may carry out checks on the new owner, as they did with Khan, but there was no need to call a meeting of the 20 owners and get them to vote on whether Khan should be admitted into this very select club called the Premiership. Can you imagine how that vote would have gone? This is not necessary because as the Premier League proudly boasts it is owner neutral. In other words, anyone can own a Premiership club irrespective of where they come from.

The question for Khan is what sort of American owner will he be? He would clearly like to follow the Glazer model but he must beware he is not sucked into the Randy Lerner model. Lerner, owner of the Cleveland Browns bought Aston Villa in 2006 in the wake of the Glazers. He paid Doug Ellis £62.6 million. Since then he has had to constantly find his cheque book. Unlike the Glazers at United Lerner came to a club that was struggling. The result is between 2005 and 2011 Lerner easily topped the list of benefactors of the clubs in the squeezed middle. His £163 million is well ahead of the £140m million Mike Ashley put into Newcastle during this period.

It is too easy to say which ownership model Khan will adopt. But there can be no doubt what his fast task is. This is to decide if he wants to match the eccentric and extraordinary owners Fulham have had over the years. They range from comedian Tommy Trindler, who made football history by making Johnny Haynes the first £100 a week player when the maximum wage was abolished. Appropriately a statue of Haynes welcomes fans to the club.

But then there is the legacy of Fayed, also a statue but of Michael Jackson, whose connection with football is less easy to discern. As Fayed left Fulham he threatened to come back and shave off Khan’s moustache should he remove the statue. If Khan reacts to that threat by removing the statue then there is no doubt he will win over many fans.

However, we shall have to wait much longer before we discover whether he has done enough for Fulham fans to sing ‘There is only one Shahid Khan’.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99