Curious Events at Hull City
A regular contributor to TTU, Phil Ascough is the author of Kissing the Badge, a book that recalls the twenty years of the Premier League in quiz format. A fan of Hull City, he here turns his hand to the curious events of the past week at the club. He can be followed on Twitter at @philascough.
As bombshells go, to Hull City fans it was right up there with being told that Santa was dead and his chief elf was not expected to last the week.
On Tuesday, Assem Allam, Egypt-born owner of the football club, and his son Ehab confirmed they had sacked Adam Pearson from his job as head of football operations. That answered one of the questions which had arisen the previous day, when it was revealed that the manager, Nick Barmby, had been suspended.
Shocked? Dunno really. Having lived in Hull for years the Allams aren’t exactly your archetypal overseas investors who parachute in, strip the football club of all its assets and then tiptoe away under the cover of an administration order.
They’ve been around the city of Hull longer than most of the people who currently support the football club. They’ve failed with some business projects, and they’ve done spectacularly well with others. They’ve ploughed money into the University of Hull, into Hull Truck Theatre and into any number of other causes.
And their name has come up on the numerous occasions in recent years that the football club has found itself strapped for cash, with fans looking longingly at the millions amassed by Assem.
Since the Allam family finally took control of the club after the financial meltdown that came with two years in the Premier League they are reported to have invested around £60 million. That’s a commitment of just over £50 million to take on the debts of the previous regime, and some sizeable ongoing losses.
It is that investment which has kept some fans on the side of the owners during the highs and lows that have followed, but it is the family’s insistence on running the club as a ‘proper’ business that has frustrated others.
Many of the highs were the result of City’s direct link to the Manchester United production line, which brought in the likes of Cameron Stewart, Corry Evans and James Chester, with Robbie Brady and Josh King on loan.
And the fans liked the strong words of resistance from the Allam family when Leicester came calling to take Nigel Pearson back to the Midlands, even though Hull ultimately lost the services of the manager who had masterminded the turnaround on the pitch.
But missing out on the play-offs at the end of the first season back in the Championship was seen by some as failure. Replacing Nigel Pearson with Nick Barmby was branded a penny-pinching move by many. And persevering with a stretched and tired squad during the exhausting run-in at the end of the latest campaign, rather than bringing in the couple of signings that might have taken the Tigers into the top six, was rued as a missed opportunity.
If the events of the last week were unforeseen, the reaction was definitely predictable. Fans, many of who had doubted the wisdom of Barmby’s appointment and would probably have dumped him on a couple of occasions before the season ended, were furious, some close to tears. The row even prompted Henry Winter to write a piece that wasn’t about the Premier League.
The rage was fuelled by ‘the silence of the Allams’ – definitely one of the Hull Daily Mail’s better headlines – as they attempted to stifle any discussion.
It didn’t work of course. On Monday I was invited to joining Radio Humberside’s Sportstalk show as a guest presenter, and quickly discarded my rough notes about City’s season, that night’s Manchester derby, the Premier League relegation battle and Roy Hodgson’s England link as news broke from the KC Stadium.
Calls, texts and tweets came in non-stop; the majority critical of the Allams, but a good few in favour.
One chap said he had been watching the club for 60 years but had missed the last few games because of his annoyance at something Assem Allam had done. He wouldn’t elaborate, and it was hard to look beyond the club’s fading play-off challenge as the real reason for his absence.
Another caller said the Allams had bought the Hull Kingston Rovers rugby league club for £5 million. That was news to the rest of us, and it really didn’t fit the profile of a family being careful with their cash having thrown millions at the football club.
The official silence continues over the reasons for the bust-up and the players themselves have taken to Twitter to try and find out what’s going on, but it is pretty clear that Barmby was suspended for having spoken out a couple of times towards the end of the season, challenging the club to match his own ambitions by making money available for new players.
Adam Pearson appears to have paid the price for working more closely with Barmby than with his employers, and both men have got their lawyers on the case for what could be a fascinating but strictly confidential battle with an Allam legal team still warm from the tasks of taking over the club, trying to buy the stadium, squabbling with Leicester City and sacking Jimmy Bullard.
So we’ve had a few issues over the years, but this one matters because it was Adam Pearson who rescued City from administration in 2001 and led the rise up the Football League and into the new stadium before heading to Derby County and leaving others to complete the job of getting into the Premier League.
It was also Pearson who returned to steady the ship when the club crumbled under the weight of Premier League debts. He couldn’t keep them up, and he was the man who hired Iain Dowie, but he also played a big part in securing the future by attracting new investment – from the Allams.
Barmby, notwithstanding question marks about his managerial experience, will always be a local hero. Hull born and bred, he signed for the club in 2004 when he could undoubtedly have continued at a higher level and he spearheaded the push into the Premier League.
He was still one of the club’s most influential players when he was persuaded to become full-time manager, and he took weeks to make that decision because of his concerns over the level of ambition and investment he could expect from the owners.
It’s no surprise then that he should seek to call in a few promises in an attempt to improve the terms of some key players and bring in a few more to join them.
The Allams have spoken, although not about the reasons for the action against Barmby and Pearson. They say that money was available during the January transfer window and subsequent loan period, but that Barmby and Pearson decided not to act.
They also claim to be committed to building the club as a means of protecting their investment so far, and they say they have the football knowledge to do that – only 18 months after Assem Allam admitted to having little interest in football.
Meanwhile the most positive reaction from fans is ‘bemused.’ In the main they’re ‘angry’, ‘incandescent,’ and ‘pretty cross.’ They don’t know who to believe and while social media enables them to air their views it’s also a breeding ground for misinformation.
Most fans see Pearson as a bigger loss than Barmby, although some have started an online petition demanding the manager’s suspension be lifted. Meanwhile discussion has inevitably turned to a possible successor, with Billy Davies, Mick McCarthy and former boss Phil Brown all being mentioned.
At the moment there appears to be no great support for any of them as people stare at the wreckage and scratch their heads. But a feeling of resignation is sinking in and calls for action will intensify among fans who fear that Hull’s unsettled rising stars will be easy pickings for rival clubs.
Season ticket renewals have not yet gone out, and the Allams have warned they may increase prices by as much as 15 per cent, so what happens next is vitally important. If the Allams apply the most basic business principles, they will surely understand that they risk losing a huge chunk of their customer base unless they make a couple of progressive, imaginative football appointments very quickly.