There are now six American owners of English Premier League teams. A statistic that would once have been mind boggling.
The latest is Shahid Khan, and to spend time with him at Fulham FC is an education into the mindset of the new breed of owners.
I say new breed, but he is very much an individual. Smart, practical and innovative, the fact he has been ‘ranked’ as one of the world’s 500 richest people should not surprise.
Khan first arrived in America from Pakistan in 1968. He was granted American citizenship in 1991 and says that in the USA if you ‘work hard enough anything is possible.’
If his rise in business could be roughly described as dealing in car parts he is now at the wheel of a trans-Atlantic sports link-up. He owns NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC of London.
In 1991 I was a young reporter covering matches at Fulham, in Division Three with no money and buckets being passed to supporters – even media – to keep them in existence.
Remarkably, despite their ascent to the Premier League, decade of durability and Europa League final appearance in 2010, the place hasn’t changed. The charm of the old cottage itself, where the dressing rooms remain, a relatively small stadium, a friendly club in a pleasant part of south west London. The only downside to reporting on their games was in winter when the wind could whip in from the Thames and freeze your pen nib.
“I think this is a special place,” says Khan as we sit in the Cottage observing the unwritten rules of trans-Atlantic beverage consumption. Him coffee, me tea.
“I’d been here a number of years ago. About a year ago after acquiring the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team we came here to start a series of London games. This was to expand the support of the Jaguars. I looked at the Premier League and thought it would make sense to have some kind of relationship and there was really only one club that fitted the bill. We’re talking about civility, openness to people coming in, the history and a place in the Premier League . It turned out it was available, one thing led to another, and I ended up buying the club.”
After the initial 250 million dollars to secure the club Khan will now look to show patience. He is prepared to acknowledge the dreadful R word – relegation – is possible, but says everything will be done to avoid that. And despite Fulham’s worrying start, eased by the 4-1 win at Crystal Palace with Khan watching from the stands, he says he will stick by manager Martin Jol.
“Martin is a very experienced manager and a good guy. I’ve gotten to know him and he wants to win as bad as any fan. My goal is to support him and would ask all Fulham fans to support Martin. We’ve got great players, some acquired in the summer and he’s trying to get them to gel as a team. He’s worked hard.”
That said you don’t get to this position by being Fulhamesque (friendly and patient) indefinitely. So if he eventually needs to change managers I’ve no doubt he’ll do it. This is a trailblazer. A man who is bringing an NFL team, the Jaguars, to London for an annual fixture until 2016. And won’t rule out a permanent move to London.
“I don’t think you can rule anything out or in. This is an exploratory experimental phase to see what fans want and what league can provide.”
“Right now it’s about what can we share. Best practices, partners, corporate synergy, ideas that can serve both platforms. Perhaps friendlies for Fulham in the US to help them develop more supporters. I’m looking for the whole thing to be greater than sum of parts.”
London has become a second home to American sport. Hockey, basketball and Gridiron now play regular season fixtures here. And Khan doesn’t rule out that his Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, who play San Francisco 49ers at Wembley on Sunday, could one day permanently shift from Florida to the English Capital.
In the Premier League the Glazers at Manchester United were joined by Lerner (Villa), Short (Sunderland) Kroenke (Arsenal) and Henry (Liverpool) before Khan made his purchase. What is making the Premier League appeal to successful American businessman with their own franchises in the U.S.
After all, football doesn’t actually make people money. Does it?
Khan points out that around 60 countries took footage of the Monday night football game at Crystal Palace and that it is of course, not just Americans who are buying clubs. He accepts my point that clubs don’t make money but says ‘nor should they lose money’. He stresses the need to be prudent where necessary.
Conceivably the hardest decision he’s had to make so far is also the most bizarre. Namely the removal of THAT statue. Yes Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, which I recently described on Twitter as about as appropriate as a Fulham FC scarf on a zombie in the video for thriller.
But he really didn’t want to cause offence to the man who sold him the club, Mohammad Al Fayed, and proceeded with care.
“Yes I’ve spoken to him and will probably go and see him while here in London. I’ve a lot of respect for him. He is an old fashioned guy, heart of gold, strong passions, opinions. This is not something I’d have wanted to do carelessly or callously but something we thought about long and hard.”
Al Fayed famously declared he wanted Fulham to be the Manchester United of the south. I asked Khan if he had a similar ambition, and the answer he gave captured why I like what he’s bringing to sport.
“I want Fulham to be Fulham.”