As an increasing number of foreign owners come into football in this country, the debate over whether they might be good or bad for the game becomes increasingly muddied. It’s easy to the point of facile to get stuck in the ‘foreign owners are bad because they’re foreign’ line of thinking, but this is an argument that almost wilfully overlooks the fact that there have been plenty of dreadful club owners that have been entirely domestically produced and that nationality alone isn’t a terribly reliable way of defining whether an owner has the best interests of their club or themselves at heart.
In some cases, a football club owner can be very good and very bad at the same time. To pluck one example from thin air, it could be argued – simultaneously and without one argument necessarily contradicting the other – that Stan Kroenke has been very good for Arsenal in ensuring that his club remains out of the choppy financial waters in which so many of his fellow clubs have found themselves in recent years, whilst also pointing out that, during a period in which the richest clubs have an opportunity to hoover up all before them in ways that they never have done before, Arsenal, one of England’s richest clubs, have now stagnated on the pitch to such an extent that eight years have now passed without the club winning a major trophy. It’s possible, therefore, to argue that any individual can be both a good and bad owner of a football club at the same time.
All of which brings us on to the somewhat touchy subject of Hull City. This club passed onto the ownership of the Egyptian-born Assem Allam in December of 2010 for the princely sum of £1, with the promise of a further £30m of investment to follow. It’s difficult to argue that Allam’s time in charge of the club hasn’t been successful. Steve Bruce’s team hit the right form at the right time last season and squeezed into the Championship’s second automatic promotion spot behind Cardiff City. But what should have been a summer of anticipation and excitement for supporters of the club has been tempered by a drip, drip, drip of information which has led many to the conclusion that Allam is attempting a rebrand of the club which will see its name change from Hull City AFC to Hull City Tigers.
It all started with some changes so surreptitious that all by the sharpest-eyed might easily have been forgiven for having missed it. At the Hull City AFC Player Of The Year awards in April, it was noted that a subtle change to the club’s badge had been made, altering it from saying “Hull City AFC – The Tigers” to just “Hull City Tigers”. Shortly afterwards, a little light checking with Companies House confirmed that the came of the club’s parent company had been changed in March of this year from “Hull City Association Football Club (Tigers) Limited” to just “Hull City Tigers Limited.” Nick Thompson, the club’s Managing Director, said at the that:
We tidied up our logo for marketing purposes to make it a little bit sharper and slicker. The badge is on the shirt; it’ll be on the shirt next season. I think sometimes people try to make a story out of the flimsiest of pretexts. What we have to bear in mind is actually those traditional names have changed over the course of the years. Hull City AFC changed into being a number of years ago but there was a name before that. We’re very proud of our heritage. We’re very proud of the fact we represent the region. Whatever the situation is, we are Hull City and we are Tigers. The badge on the shirt is entirely different to the way we present ourselves in a marketing context.
The change of the name of a limited company which runs a football club is not that uncommon, and this would have been little more than a non-story had it ended there. After all the denials and all the comments which did little more than pat those amongst the club’s supporters who had been suspicious at what had been going on over the previous couple of months, though, two weeks ago this photograph appeared on Twitter, which indicated that there may be more going on here than merely the change of name of a limited company, and in addition to this the revised badge which gives the impression that the club’s name may now be “Hull City Tigers” was also added to the entrance to the club’s training ground.
At the time of writing, no-one knows whether this all goes as far as a revised badge here and a sign there. The arguments for and against this form of re-branding are a well worn path, as has been evinced by the ongoing debate at Cardiff City over the last year and a bit or so. The extent to which re-branding a smaller club to appeal to a foreign market is highly questionable – what evidence there is usually indicates that potential supporters are more likely to be influenced by how successful a club is than what colours they wear, what animals they may or may not be named after, or whatever – whilst it might even be suggested that football in this country has a certain proportion of the popularity of the English game abroad – though by far from all means all of it – comes from that storied history, that sense of continuity which stretches back to the very birth of this particular game as a professional sport.
Ultimately, though, as this superb editorial from the Hull City fanzine Amber Nectar suggests – and forum posts on the subject seem to back up – the supporters of the club who have spoken on the matter seem to be largely against it. Perhaps, though, a silent majority, giddy on the club’s return to the Premier League, will put up with it if a perception starts to grow that the club will benefit from it, even if it’s highly likely that any such benefits are, in reality, largely mirage-like. Perhaps more important than this, though, is the notion that a football club owner can come into a club and do whatever he likes because he owns it. It is his possession. The fact of the matter is, however, that it isn’t – or, rather, that it only is if the supporters of that club allow this situation to come to pass. For ultimately it is the supporters that are the “club.” It is they who are the shared history and experience, the voice, the colour and the sound of the organisation that they represent. And it will be down to them to decide how strongly they ant to fight it all, should that eventuality.
This is a critical point for the supporters of all football clubs to remember. If you were to hire, say, a cat-sitter to mind your moggy for a week, you wouldn’t praise them if they spray-painted it pink, shaved an advertisement for a pawn brokers into its back and changed its name to “Cat-Sitter Junior” after five days because said cat-sitter had looked after the cat pretty well for the previous four days and had spent a lot of money on the most expensive cat food that money could buy during that time. You’d report them to the RSPCA and they’d have a restraining order put against them from going within five hundred yards of any felines ever again. Just as people don’t tend to think, “You know what? The Mona Lisa would look really good if I added a tattoo to her neck; edgier, more twenty-first century, and I bet it would play better in the youth market,” so it should be with football clubs.
If Assed Allam wants to own a football club that isn’t called Hull City AFC, he is perfectly at liberty to form one, but he should leave the name of this one be. The owners of football clubs are in a privileged position. They are the custodians of institutions that have survived through decades, often through many hard times, and they only have to visit those clubs’ home grounds on match-days once for even the stupidest and most venal amongst them to surely realise how much these clubs and their identities mean to those that turn out and pay – often through the nose – to watch them every week. It doesn’t matter what nationality these owners are so long as they treat their acquisitions with the respect that they deserve, and there is still plenty of time for Allam to take a step back and stop what is now being considered by many Hull City supporter to be a re-branding that they emphatically don’t want. All he has to do is not do what many of the club’s supporters think that he is going to do next, and issue a statement confirming that the club’s name is safe on his watch. And if he doesn’t, it may be up to the supporters to Hull City to prove to him that he whilst he may well own the limited company, he will never own the club in the way in which he may believe that he does.
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