Shad Khan is the embodiment of the American dream.
Arriving in Chicago from Lahore as a 16-year-old with $50 in his pocket, he cleaned dishes for $1.20 an hour while studying engineering at the University of Illinois. Now 17,000 people work for his car parts company, his fortune is around £2.4billion and the Premier League’s newest club owner has just arrived from Jacksonville in his private jet.
“I had to overcome a lot of barriers. Until 1947, it was illegal for people from the subcontinent to migrate to the US. The subcontinentals were the last ethnic minority to gain citizenship.” The adjustment for the 63-year-old even meant he stopped using his real name, Shahid. “You assimilate,” he says. “My name was too hard. They said Shad is what we are calling you. You go with the flow.”
For Fulham fans, the greater worry after a stuttering start to the season is whether Khan can adjust to the flow of English football. Despite buying the club in July for an estimated £150million, last night’s match against Crystal Palace was only the second time Khan had seen his side play this season. And he is only in London because his NFL team, Jacksonville Jaguars, are playing at Wembley on Sunday when they face San Francisco 49ers. This makes me wonder if he is aware of the English tradition for owners to sack managers.
Khan laughs, saying: “Who am I to question traditions?” But then almost instantly he becomes very serious about the prospects of Martin Jol.
“You do not want to go out of the frying pan into the fire. Martin is our manager. I have faith in Martin. He has got the team he wanted. [In the summer] Martin said we need to sign six guys and amazingly we signed every one of them. He has got to have the time and energy to put them together to play their best. We have a great team, great players, they have to coalesce. But the potential is there.”
Making a point: Pajtim Kasami celebrates scoring a cracker for Fulham at Crystal PalaceLast night, Jol’s team went some way to justifying this potential at Selhurst Park, coming from behind to win 4-1.
For Khan, “thrilled” by the result, this reinforces his desire to help his manager as much as possible. Despite Rene Meulensteen, the former Manchester United coach, turning down the offer to be Jol’s deputy — preferring Qatar to Craven Cottage — Khan says: “Martin would like to have some additional staff. We want to support Martin and empower him to do the best.”
However, when I ask if this means Jol, whose contract ends next summer, will still be in charge next season, Khan’s response is more guarded. “Right now we have something much more important which is we’ve got a lot of games to play.” It soon becomes clear that Jol’s future may well depend on where Fulham finish. The club were 12th last season and Khan says: “We want to do better. That is the aspiration and I don’t think that is ambitious. Last night’s victory has taken us to 14th.”
But for fans who think the 122nd richest man in America will open his cheque book every time the club are in trouble, Khan’s message is very clear. “Throwing money on the fire,” he says with a laugh, “is normally not the solution to every problem. You put the fire out by listening to the people who are smarter than you are.”
Whatever advice Khan receives, one thing is clear. He will not make Mohamed Fayed-style grandiose promises that Fulham will become the Manchester United of the south.
“My ambition is that Fulham should be firmly established in the Premier League, to be sustained [financially] so they are not depending upon the generosity of a Mr Fayed. He put in a lot of money. We will do some development of the hospitality, premier seating, to get more money to invest in the club.”
This has already meant major changes in the way the club are run. “We have people from NFL and Jacksonville in London working together with Fulham on [commercial] opportunities. It is not the American takeover of Fulham. It is really how to make it better.”
NFL: Khan hopes his Jacksonville Jaguars shine on Sunday at Wembley, too
The model has strong echoes of what the Glazers have done with the commercial business of Manchester United and Khan reveals that, before buying Fulham, he consulted his fellow American Premier League club owners: Randy Lerner of Aston Villa, Stan Kroenke of Arsenal and particularly the Glazers. “I spoke to the Glazers. They have done very well. They are very bullish about the Premier League.” When I say not all United fans like the Glazers, Khan says: “They are popular with me.”
It has been a year-long period of consultation which began when Khan was in London for last season’s NFL matches. “I really came here to announce that the Jacksonville Jaguars would play a regular season game in London for the next four years. Then I thought about [buying a Premiership club]. I talked to people. What it came down to was that the only club that would make sense for us was Fulham. It is a club who have similar values to what I am used to. I can help as chairperson and Fulham can help our NFL effort. Collectively these synergies will help everybody.”
And while he did not see any football while growing up in Pakistan he denies that buying Fulham was just a business deal. “It was a love of the game that brought me to Fulham. I lived next to a football stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois. So I got into it.”
He admits sport is a business but says: “It is also an emotion. You balance sport and business by having a sustainable model for a club and by winning. Because winning makes people feel better.
“I have been surprised by the intensity of football in this country. You only have to go through the papers.”
Despite this, unlike other American owners who rarely talk to the media, Khan intends to be accessible, saying: “The British press isn’t going to bite.”
Then he laughs again, as if to suggest he does not quite believe that, and wonders what might happen if, instead of migrating to the US, he had come to this country. “Would I have been a Fulham supporter? Who knows?”