There were positives and negatives to come out of tonights meeting with Sulaiman Al Fahim. I have addressed this at some length in order to do justice to the meeting.
Firstly, let me address the positives.
Sulaiman is clearly a brave man, being, finally, prepared to face some very tough questions from an audience of sceptical Pompey fans. No easy thing to do in a second language and the eye of a storm, even if he bears the brunt of the responsibility for the storm.
He is also possessed of considerable charm and is a very affable man you really warm to and want to like, at least on this evidence. The determination to make a success of this venture shone through in everything he said, he is committed to being a winner. I am guessing he has staked a huge portion of his personal wealth on the football club and every last vestige of his international credibility.
He believes he has raised £50m from remortgaging his own properties and business and personally guaranteed this money. The club should be debt free by the end of November and the banks and the Gaydamaks should be finally off our backs and the club can start anew. Sulaiman made a point of praising the watching Peter Storrie and stated his determination to hang on to the “best CEO in football”.
After the debts are cleared, there will be some money left from the £50m to reinvest in either training ground or players, a figure of £12m being cited. The training ground was cited as the top priority, unless this money would need to be invested in players in January. He pointed out you don't pay up front for players so £12m can go a long way, which is something I definitely agree with, and it is worthwhile stressing that the £12m was a notional figure plucked from the air.
He also stated that the clubs future revenues were not in any way leveraged, which is really good news.
Now let us turn to the negatives.
Firstly, the finance. Although the words were clear enough, the debt was Sulaimans, he had underwritten it, the same form of words were used repeatedly to describe Sashas' funding of the club – and we know the banks didn't go after Sasha for it. There might be a distinction, the Lord knows I am no financial expert, but whatever anyone says this is debt. It struck me that he had mortgaged a vast percentage of his net worth to raise this money, and the money comes from financial institutions. So, if the money comes through we will be replacing one lot of debt for a similar amount of debt, with maybe a small distinction over whether we owe the bank direct or the bank via him. The question of punitive interest rates was avoided.
The rumours of possible administration were firmly rebuffed by reference to letters of credit.
He is open to new investors, and it was pretty clear that without them there will be no investment beyond this £50m in the near future.
The body language between the clubs existing management team, Storrie and the board was awful, with the two sides, (the only possible way to refer to them), arrayed at opposite ends of the room and a fridge-like atmosphere coming from the non-Al Fahim end. One sensed that there is no working together between these groups in the long term. I hope to be proved wrong. Storrie, intentionally or unintentionally, rebuffed any efforts at chumminess and looked a very unhappy man.
Sulaiman is clearly woefully under-researched in a number of key areas. On the stadium question, the most fundamental infrastructure issue, there was no grasp of the issues involved. There is no funding available from this tranche of money, and the funding was placed in the context of new investors. Turning to the planning issues, he described having seen the rotation plan and the Horsea plan and then deferred a decision between the two to some future board meeting, presumably when funding was available. When pressed on the planning issues by your faithful correspondent, he spoke hopefully of getting the Council to “help with the zoning” of the Horsea project. This was in answer to my suggestion of a minimum five year timescale to build – itself a hopeful estimate given the complexity of the project. These are legal questions and the Council can't help with the project being called in for a public enquiry. His response to this was along the lines of “but I've seen the plans”. A head in hands moment, which revealed a complete lack of understanding of the planning issues we have struggled with for the last three decades. Al Fahim had his first meeting with Peter Storrie in November last year in Dubai and so far, he appears to have looked at the drawings. He appeared to know nothing of the requirement for a £17.5m slip road off the M275 or a new station. Article continues here
The issue of academies was another area of concern. He referred to academies as revenue streams on more than one occasion. I checked this with a number of other attendees to ensure I heard it right and apparently I did. He seems to believe that you sign players on five year contracts, then bring players through the academy and put them in the first team. He was visibly stunned when the issue of Middlesbrough was raised by Pompey-Fans.Com columnist Andy Stilwell, £100m in debt, in the championship and with one of the best academies in the country. He is right to want to invest in this area, but his expectations are clearly that this would prove to be a money-spinner going forward. Everyone is playing the academy game, and those who play it most successfully tend to buy a lot of 16 year olds for £1m.
The issues of his media profile were raised quite brilliantly by Dave Bowers, former communications manager at the club, after Al Fahim said he was not changing the manager now or in the next few games. Bowers pointed out that any tabloid journalist would summarise this as “Hart has three games to save his job”. Several people raised further questions about his interviews abroad and the answers were unconvincing to say the least. When asked whether he was aware the club was a national laughing stock he again seemed utterly shocked.
The issue of football judgement was worrying. He told the audience he never expected to lose the first six games and asked “who honestly thought we would lose the first six games?” and was obviously amazed when the vast majority said “I did”. He talked at some length about Amir Zaki and what a great player he is.
Finally, he ended up with a little lecture on the need to support the team and the manager, which for those long in the tooth members of the audience, almost all of us, was a mistake. We have been doing that for a long time.
The conclusion is that Al Fahim is a well meaning man who has put a lot on the line for Pompey. However, he is poorly researched, poorly advised, has not carried the clubs management team with him and his investment will not alter the clubs fundamentals.
He is doing his best, but he urgently needs to surround himself with the right people, he needs to do his homework on the major issues affecting the club, (like training grounds provide no income but stadia do), he needs to try and forge a unified management team.
Most of all, he needs new investors, because what we have so far, if it comes to fruition is a refinancing of our debt – a bit like taking out a loan to repay your credit cards and having enough left over to go on holiday.
There will be a further meeting in November at which various points will be followed up.
Play Up Pompey.