It is the afternoon of August 29, the day after a record-low crowd of 4,666 witnessed Hull crash to a 4-0 home defeat to Derby in the Carabao Cup. That number, Hull’s lowest attendance at the KCom Stadium – their home since Boxing Day 2002 – paints part of the grim picture of dislocation that has formed between supporters and the father and son pairing that assumed ownership of the club in 2010.
They are hardly playing happy families, and talking during this rare interview in his office following a meeting with the manager, Nigel Adkins, the vice-chairman, Ehab Allam, suggests Hull could be sold before Christmas. Allam is in discussions with potential buyers over a sale that would be music to the ears of many fans.
He accepts that an unprecedented period of success under him and his father, Assem, has “reached its maximum”. The atmosphere has turned toxic, the disdain and infighting more reminiscent of a civil war than a football team. It speaks volumes that Allam, who was born and schooled in Hull and grew up within spitting distance of the stadium, has not attended a match since the final day of the 2014-15 season – a goalless draw with Manchester United that led to Hull being relegated after two years in the Premier League.
“I watch the games from home,” says Allam, who lives a 10-minute drive from the KCom. “It would be hypocritical to be emotionally involved with the club and attending games when we are looking to sell. That sends mixed messages and there are no mixed messages here.
“Occasionally I go to away games – I want to show support to the manager and the team, and I don’t think here’s the place to do that. If I am going to attend a handful of games, I would rather they were away. We are looking to sell the club, so we have become emotionally detached because of the situation with the fans.”
The Allams are determined to recoup what they have outlaid (roughly £50m) and have cut their investment as they look to sell for what they consider to be a fair price. For Allam, the buzzword is sustainability, but swathes of empty seats suggest their strategy is lost on many fans.
“I don’t think they understand it at all,” he says. “It’s frustrating sometimes, because we think we are doing a good job about what’s going to make a club attractive to a buyer but their measure of success is only what they see on the pitch: the league position. But that isn’t my measure of success. Are Aston Villa getting stronger? Are Derby getting stronger?
“We must be one of the most attractive clubs in the Championship, because we have been so well managed. If anybody wants to invest in a club to get promoted, I don’t see any club that is better placed than Hull. We have the biggest amount of head room, in terms of financial fair play – more than any other club in the division.”
In 2016, the Allams agreed a sale with the Dai family, who have since bought Reading, but the deal collapsed, while they also held negotiations with a consortium led by Chien Lee, who have since bought Barnsley. Following relegation from the Premier League last year, they are due to receive a final parachute payment in January, while they could handsomely profit if their former defender, Harry Maguire, was to move on in the same month, owing to a sell-on clause of around 15 percent.
Asked where they are at in terms of trying to offload the club, Allam grins like a Cheshire cat as the tiger on his tie bares its teeth. “I would like think there is hope for us to move the club on this year,” he says. “We have a little bit of interest at the moment from several parties. We are in discussions. They [the supporters] want us out and we are trying to manage that process the best we can.”
It is put to Allam that such an alarming attendance of barely 4,000 home supporters provides damning evidence of the state of the club – the local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, recently compared the club to a fish rotting from the head down. He disagrees, referencing the fallout from relegation in 2017 and adding it was a cup match.
“We are not too far off where we were historically – just the mood is different,” Allam says. “I don’t think the numbers suggest the club is rotting at all. Those sorts of comments are cheap. They are very easy to make but how do you substantiate them? How is this club decaying?
“We are disadvantaged because they have had the glory days under us and I think a lot of fans are missing that, and that’s reflected in the mood. You can’t expect to not support the owners, you can’t expect to show your displeasure and want them out, and expect continued investment, which would then restrict a potential exit.”
The Allams, who saved the club in 2010 with liquidation looming and have overseen the most successful period in Hull’s history, recognize they are depicted as villains by some fans and despised by others but Ehab Allam is unmoved. “I am more bothered about the job I’m doing,” says the 47-year-old. “Looking at the history of the club, sustainability is key. It’s gone through a cycle of boom and bust on far too many occasions.
“The key for me is sustainability whether that’s in the Championship or League One. If things are managed well, there will be opportunity for a promotion as well, if we can rebuild the relationship with fans. It’s the fans that will make the difference.”
Since Assem, in good health once more following an operation, put the club up for sale following the Football Association’s decision to block their attempt to rename them Hull Tigers, Ehab has assumed control for day-to-day activities. “I started off at the age of 12, just doing filing in the office, from 16 onwards all of my summer holidays were in the factory assembling generating sets, then I moved into the test area,” he recollects. “I used to work in the shipyard. We often have similar vision and similar goals but we go about our business differently.”
It is an understatement to say not all of the Allams’ decisions have been popular, such as the rebrand of the club crest that adorns the office facades, or the direct-debit membership scheme which has removed concessions. Allam describes anger around the zonally-priced ticketing as a “red herring”, scribbling down comparisons with rivals Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday on a notepad to show they are cheaper, insisting the scheme actually “makes less money”.
“I accept there are permutations where it becomes more expensive,” he says. “If you can afford it now, you can always afford it, and that for me is key to having the retention of fans. I accept I will lose fans short term, but I have a better platform building for the future.
“I accept we are doing things differently but we are trying to address the problem. We are affordable; not for every family, not for every permutation but for the majority of fans, we have a cheaper solution than what we had before, as long as they are willing to move.”
The owners have dropped “Tigers” from most places, including the club’s academy, but acquiring the web domain hullcity.com – which redirects to the Hull City Supporters Trust website – from a fan has proved a sticking point. In terms of the club crest, a fan-led redesign will be unveiled in January. “My preferred choice was a round badge because once it’s printed on to different assets you see more of it,” Allam says. “I like it but it’s not round.”
As for this season, Allam believes having a “top-10” wage bill (a year after claiming to have the fourth-highest in the division) should translate on to the pitch, despite Adkins’ side having won only one of their first six league matches. They are outside the relegation zone on goal difference.
“You would hope to be in the top six and stay in the league,” Allam says. “If you take a longer-term view, then we need to be punching above our weight. There’s a lot of overspend in the Championship. Overspending does not guarantee success.”
The Guardian Sport
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