Evening Standard

Alan Sugar still carries the scars of his battles with Terry Venables. The former England manager was the subject of Sugar’s first “You’re fired” bark long before The Apprentice made it a television catchphrase.

The line was delivered in the Tottenham boardroom in May 1993 when Sugar, the Tottenham chairman, sacked Venables as the club’s chief executive. The war that ensued saw bitter court battles, with Sugar emerging victorious and Venables, who had libelled Sugar, forced to pulp his own life story.

So when I begin by commenting that he is beginning to look a little like Venables his voice is pained: “Don’t please insult me.”

Yet, ask him about England’s chances in the World Cup and Sugar happily quotes his old adversary. “I have to agree with Terry Venables,” he says.

“There is a lot of luck in football. Following England is like following Wycombe Wanders or Leyton Orient. You hope for the best and hope you are lucky.”

Sugar does believe that he could help England acquire that elusive luck if he ran the Football Association. Nearly a decade after he sold Tottenham to ENIC, Sugar would love to shake up the national game. Two weeks ago, following Lord Triesman’s resignation, Sugar threw his hat into the ring when he was woken up one morning in his Florida home by a reporter who told him people were calling for him to take over.

“The election of the new Government meant I was no longer a government adviser,” he explains. “One door closes, another one opens and I thought, yeah, that sounds great. I would love the challenge.”

Sugar makes no secret that, should he ever become chairman, his first task would be to tell the FA councillors: “You’re fired!”

“It needs someone to shake the whole bloody place up,” he says. “The FA is made up of so many factions, layers of bureaucracy and infighting. The decision making process within the FA has to be shrunk. Every one of those 92 FA councillors has his own little silo. Power should be entrusted to a strong chairman with a nucleus of 10 people. Then we can put forward a team that is a world beater in football.”

A Sugar chairmanship would also attempt to curb the powers of the Premier League. “Who controls the game?” he asks. “Is it the FA or the Premier League? Who is the organ grinder and who is the monkey?”

Sugar readily agrees that the “Premier League has grown because of the hunger of television companies”. But while he praises Sky for “a fantastic job in the last 15 years” he accepts that, by throwing billions at the clubs in order to get viewers, it has created a massive problem.

But isn’t Sugar being disingenuous? At that historic first Premier League meeting back in May 1992, it was Sugar who made the Sky deal possible. As ITV increased its bid he rushed out of the Premier League meeting, rang Sam Chisholm, then head of Sky, and bellowed: “Blow them out of the water.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says when I remind him of the meeting.

“There wouldn’t have been a Sky deal without that phone call. What I am saying now to the Premier League and to the FA is: Drag as much money as you can out of the television people because they are commercial animals.’ The fatal error has been distributing all that money to the clubs.”

Sugar claims that as far back as the 1993-94 season, he proposed that only half the television money should be paid to the clubs.

“I said to the League chairman: Do not give all of it to us. Please give us half.’ All it has meant is that the money has gone to Carlos Kickball and slippery Giovanni, his agent.”

The first Sky deal in 1992 was £191million over five years.

“Clubs got £40m a year and they spent every single penny on Carlos Kickball Mark one. When that got increased to £150m a year, what did we do? We spent every single penny on Carlos Kickball Mark two. Did any one of those clubs keep any of that money? No. Did they put themselves deeper into debt? Yes. We set the market pace here. We attracted the Carloses of the world to this country because we pay players £100,000 per week.

“Other countries don’t do it, with the exception of a couple of anomalies in Barcelona and Real Madrid. So if you only released half of the money to the clubs, then we would have had to set the limits at maybe £40,000 a week.”

But surely the players attracted to England have made the Premier League the world stage for football?

Sugar replies: “Would we not have seen Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo or Michael Ballack here? I still say even releasing half the money, they would still be here.”

The Sugar plan was for half the television money to go to a Fighting Fund managed by a Premier League Trust.

“Let us say one season the clubs were being offered £150m a year, £75m goes into the Premier League Trust. The 20 clubs all get a point for that year. £75m divided by 20, each club’s point is worth £3.7m. Every year you build up points like you build up air miles.

“Even if a club are relegated, the points belong to them and can be used. But not for bloody players’ wages. They would be used for new pitches, new roofs, new stands, or to hire new physiotherapists.”

And this money would not have been paid directly to the club.

“You want to build a new roof,” he adds. “The Premier League Trust say just tell the builders to send us the bill. We are not letting you get your dirty mitts on the money, because we’re worried that you are going to spend it on players.” But, as Sugar sadly confesses, his plans were met with derision. “It got laughed at,” he reveals.

“Terry Brown, of West Ham, said: Oh don’t be stupid, Alan, it’s our bloody money.’ Ken Bates, of Chelsea, said to me: Don’t be daft, don’t tell me what to do with my bloody money.’ I said to him: Ken, it’s not your bloody money don’t you understand? Ken, if, at the end of the season, you was able to say to me my share of the Fighting Fund is £7m, I would say you’re a clever man and shake your hand. But, you’re arguing with me at Tottenham Hotspur because you want to sign Carlos Kickaball, so do I. So I’m in an auction with you and in the end I have pissed all my money up the wall and so have you.’”

Even with Sugar as FA chairman, the Premier League accepting a Fighting Fund seems remote, but he would certainly try to do something about foreign ownership.

“We are now talking about breaching international trade deals and European rules,” he says. “In hindsight, the Football Association should have seen this coming and said no foreign ownership of football clubs. These people are buying a football club not because of their passion for football in England or its development. The sole purpose is to sell on to someone else. It’s just a commodity for them. We’ve seen Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Manchester City bought by foreigners for the wrong reason. Roman Abramovich is about the only genuine one I would welcome to this country. You know why? Because it’s his money.”

It is the Glazers who Sugar would love to fire.

“When you consider the Glazers, I don’t think they parted with a penny personally,” he adds. “In the boom days when you could go and borrow anything, they borrowed £600-£700m to mount a takeover bid for Manchester United. Merchant bankers, financial advisers, lawyers all got their fees.

“These Glazer’s don’t care because it’s OPM, Other People’s Money. This is just a transaction for them. If some other nutter had come along and convinced another bank to give them a billion pounds, the same advisers, accountants and lawyers would still cop their fees and the Glazers would walk away with a net £100-£200m profit. That’s the Glazers for you. And to a certain extent the people who bought Liverpool had the same thing in mind.”

But is Sugar all that different? “Yes, I did sell Tottenham for a profit,” he admits. “Some commentator might argue I’m no different from the Glazers. I can hear critics saying: What’s he banging on about, that Sugar? He put £8m of his own money into Tottenham and walked away with £50m.’”

In Sugar’s defence, he had to sell. “I got beaten up, I got completely sick and ill over it and my wife and family said to me, Get out, get out.’ Life was not good for me in football.

“I did not come into football to make money. I had already made millions. I did not come into football because I wanted the glamour, I already had it as the so-called City blue-eyed boy from Amstrad. I came into football very naively, not understanding all the aggravation it was going to bring.”

Sugar began to realise how naive he was when Spurs were buying Teddy Sheringham from Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1992. Venables told him Brian Clough, the Forest manager, liked a bung, preferably in a brown paper bag at a motorway cafe. After Sugar revealed this during his court battle with Venables, Clough laughed it off and Venables denied it. But it brought bungs into the open and led to a long Premier League inquiry.

“Bungs have got more sophisticated,” Sugar adds. “It’s no longer a brown paper bag, it’s telegraphic transfers to places like Monaco or Switzerland. The middle men make it happen. The agents are paid outrageous amounts that bear no resemblance to what an agent should normally charge for a transaction, and, embedded in some of those fees, most probably, is the proverbial bung.”

Sugar’s solution would be to eliminate the middle men in a transfer between two English clubs.

“When we sold Teddy Sheringham to United, it was very simple. Alex Ferguson knew he was available because Sheringham had handed in a transfer request. Ferguson told Martin Edwards to call me, chairman to chairman, and we did the deal. There was no agent involved, that’s how it should be. Now, if there is someone who is a specialist in the Bulgarian market or Romanian market, and is paid for spotting talent, that’s fair value for money. Why do you need them in the transfer market?”

But for all the reforms a Sugar chairmanship might bring, he knows he will not get the call. “Much as I would love the challenge there is no way I would be asked. It would be just like a red rag to a bull. The current construction of the FA wouldn’t allow it.

“The FA will now completely ignore the Burns Report which led to the independent chairman, a bloody good idea. They’ll say the Burns Report didn’t work, did it? So we need someone from the hard core of football. They will draw upon the David Sheepshanks [a FA vice-chairman] or a Roger Burden [acting chairman], the same old bureaucrats that talk to the 92 councillors. The whole bloody game will be played again and we will get nowhere.”

Instead, Baron Sugar of Clapton is looking forward to life on the opposition benches in the Lords and as he does so he will reflect that being an adviser to the government is: “Very similar to what you would find in the FA, an individual can’t go in and get things done.”


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