The takeovers of Manchester City and Portsmouth both involved Sulaiman Al Fahim, but there the similarities end.
By David Conn
The claim by Sulaiman Al Fahim in late August that he had finally completed his takeover of Portsmouth meant that the Dubai-based businessman has been involved in two such Premier League deals in successive summers. However, the contrast between them could hardly be more stark.
Last year, Al Fahim brokered the Manchester City takeover by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi – a deal signed, sealed and delivered before the outside world had a sniff. Mansour instantly served up £32million to sign Robinho, just to show the world he was serious.
We learned that Al Fahim was something of a Dubai D-list celebrity, and he preened in the limelight just a little too much, bragging about City signing one galactico after another, babbling names like Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo, and boasting about his backers having “very deep pockets”.
For Mansour, and Abu Dhabi’s ruling figures, this posturing went against the grain of their philosophy, which is to let their actions – and what they do with their unfathomably deep pockets – speak for themselves. Since that first spectacular signal of intent, Mansour’s new regime has stayed loyal to the manager, Mark Hughes, and executive chairman, Garry Cook; spent around £15m on refurbishing training facilities, the medical treatment room and other infrastructure at City; and delivered almost a whole new team for around £250m in two industrious transfer windows.
In the first, Hughes delivered left-back efficiency in Wayne Bridge, midfield enforcement in Nigel De Jong, sparky forward Craig Bellamy and Shay Given, the reliable goalkeeper who many are speaking of as, among more celebrated stars, City’s most important signing.
In the summer they went shopping again: Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry – the midfield muscle long coveted for Liverpool by Rafael Benitez – and a new central defence of Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, the latter for whom £22m of oil money proved an offer too good for perennially overstretched Everton to refuse.
Alex Ferguson had begun to drip vitriol, which Hughes insisted he took as a compliment: recognition from the old manipulator that the scruffs from across town were finally a threat. The most penetrating of Ferguson’s attacks, though, was that City were the “Bank of England club”. This referred to Sunderland of the 1950s, who spent huge money signing mesmeric Len Shackleton from Newcastle, Ivor Broadis from Carlisle United and many other stars of the day, only to finish the decade relegated from the top flight.
Ferguson’s charge was that buying a team of ready-made stars does not work; footballers take years to gel and a good club has a spine of home-grown players. He levelled the same sneer at Real Madrid’s borrow-to-buy galacticos policy.
Yet Hughes’ City began the season, despite ever playing really well, by winning their first four games. They beat Blackburn, Wolves and Portsmouth – with Al Fahim in the stand – then, in their first top-four test, slapped Arsenal 4-2. All this before much in the way of gelling had taken place.
At Portsmouth, Al Fahim had spent the summer doing entirely the opposite of the sheikh he formerly represented. He spent weeks doing due diligence while one quality player after another sprinted through the Fratton Park exit. He was doing no public talking this time, and his spokesman, Ivo Ilic Gabara, always available, always prepared to answer the obvious difficult questions, said repeatedly that the deal was on course, as planned. Why a multimillionaire, with money to spend, would watch players drain away at a club he was about to buy was never quite explained.
Glen Johnson left, Peter Crouch rejoined Harry Redknapp at Spurs, Sylvain Distin was signed to fill the hole left by Lescott at Goodison Park and the Pompey chief executive,
Peter Storrie, finally admitted that the club had been facing major financial difficulties because the banks had demanded their very substantial loans back.
Gabara said not to worry, his client would sign players in January. Portsmouth began with five straight defeats, nil points at the bottom of the league, yet again it was difficult to understand why a genuinely rich man would allow that to happen.
It underlined again the obvious modern truth that allowing football clubs to be available to sundry international buyers is a random process. If you get breathlessly lucky, you get Sheikh Mansour, who can turn blue moon to gold. If you are desperate, and unfortunate, a bloke like Al Fahim arrives in jeans and an away top with questions buzzing around his head.
Yet anybody tempted to conclude that “foreign” ownership sums up the problem needs to remember that in the roulette wheel of takeovers between 2005 and 2009, only one club, Newcastle, was taken over by a football-loving Englishman: Mike Ashley…and his reign turned out to be the most calamitous of all.