Lee Wellings: The Tiger’s tale of football, business and identity

Who actually owns a football club?

“Legally it’s the owner, emotionally it’s the fans.”

A fan of Premier League club Hull City gave me this assessment while discussing his opposition to the owner’s plan. That plan is to change the name to Hull Tigers.

Who’s right and who’s wrong? Can there be any definitive right or wrong? Both have their reasons, both have their wishes and needs and ambitions.

In this dispute, this issue, lies at the very essence of football in 2013. Football is now a business. Is anything sacred anymore? Even names.

Assem Allam is the club owner at the centre of this story. He fled Egypt in the late ’60s and says there was little option – he was an opponent of the regime. He came to Hull with next to nothing. Now he is the proud owner of the UK’s biggest generator business. For more than 40 years this city in the north east of England has been his home.

Allam is generous with his time, showing me around his factory and explaining the reasons behind his decision-making. No-one I spoke to in the city denies his generosity, having effectively saved the football club three years ago, and made large donations to for the benefit of the community. “Giving something back,” as he puts it.

No-one really wants to be at loggerheads with Mr Allam. He lives and breathes Hull. But on one matter there is no compromise from either side. The issue of Tigers.

The original name from 1904 Hull City AFC has already changed. The AFC has gone. Allam points out the club has been registered as ‘Tigers Limited’ as part of its name long before he arrived. The club is now registered as Hull City with the Football Association, who would need to approve a name change. What Allam wants the club to be called is simple. Hull Tigers.

“I’m not changing the name,” insists Allam. “I am actually shortening it. When I came to the club I was clear. I am not a football man, I am here to run it as a business. The shorter the name the more powerful the impact on the market. Twitter. Google. Apple, it’s all one word. When I bought the club there was no reason to shorten the name. Only when you go into the Premier League, that’s the best chance to go global and generate income.”

But there is no tradition of English football clubs having basketball style names, with American franchise-style animals appended. A line from comedian Stephen Merchant in the brilliant comedy ‘Hello Ladies’ (about an Englishman fitting into American culture) comes to mind. Trying to banter with his American builders he says disparagingly: “What are American team names anyway? A city with a random animal on the end. Oooo look at me, I support the Chicago Squids!!”

But this is no laughing matter for Hull fans, including Andy Dalton of the fans group ‘City Til I Die’.

“In English football, and also in football in Europe, we do attach a lot to the history and heritage that it comes from. You don’t get animal team names in English football and you don’t get them in places like Italy, Spain or Germany either.”

If I hadn’t spoken to Andy, and other Hull fans from various supporter groups I would believe the rift is getting wider. The banners before the home match against Crystal Palace ‘No To Hull Tigers’, and the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction suggested a compromise won’t be reached.

But there don’t seem to be many of the ‘militants’ Mr Allam refers to. These are reasonable people, “emotionally attached to their club” as Andy puts it. They appreciate the owner running it as a business when there has been so much mismanagement in the past. But they are unconvinced renaming them Hull Tigers will achieve anything. And to them, the name is not for changing, under any circumstances.

“There’s a huge tradition in this city and I think a lot of people will fight tooth and nail to protect that,” says Hull fan and director of theatre group Ensemble 52 Andrew Pearson. So proud in fact that Hull has been named UK City of Culture for 2017, with Pearson part of the successful bid team.

“I can see both sides. They both really do have a point. But whatever happens I’ll still be there every Saturday.”

Another local man echoing the issues facing fans around the world. What are fans going to do – stop going?

Allam has pledged money back to those who don’t want to follow his path – or even that he’ll walk away. If that’s what ‘the community’ wants. But it’s the last resort of the fan whose club has lost its identity. Wimbledon’s faithful made their own club when their name was taken by Milton Keynes. Manchester United fans, thousands of them, swapped Old Trafford for FC of Manchester when the club they grew up watching drifted away from them. And what a dilemma for Coventry fans. How your heart bleeds for this proud club – should fans really be expected to watch them play in Northampton because they have been so appallingly mismanaged?

The Hull situation is not an irreparable breakdown of the relationship between owner and fans, but is a perfect example of football’s basic contradiction. It is a business that doesn’t want to act like a business. A game that doesn’t want to act like a game. It is both. And while the fans pour their heart and soul into their club, their identity, their NAME… Mr Allam remains emphatic about how he sees the hard realities of the situation:

“The owner of the football club is whoever provides the money to continue the football club. Without money there is no football club….there is no name.”

The Football Association tell me no official application has been received yet. That would need to come early next year to propose a name for next season. And there’s no guarantee they will allow it. So in 2017 when Hull is officially City of Culture, what exactly will the football club be called? Hull Tigers? Or will the idea be extinct?

You could see this story as the opposing ideals of owners and fans. I certainly don’t having spent time in Hull.

There is dialogue between Mr Allam and the fans. Let us hope they find a solution. The Tiger tale is a tale of football, business and identity. Trying to hold on to what’s precious while trying to survive in the jungle.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1716783108reeza1716783108jla@s1716783108gnill1716783108ew.ee1716783108l1716783108. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport