Was there significance in Firoz Kassam serving a winding up order on Oxford United 20 years to the day after he bought it? I remember his first game, walking around the perimeter of The Manor followed by a phalanx of photographers half way through a 2-2 draw with Tranmere in 1999, an Oxford scarf held above his head. He was interviewed on the pitch and seemed shy and unassuming.
It’s hard to believe now, but when Firoz Kassam first bought the club he was considered a hero. The club had nose-dived due to the collapse of Robin Herd’s new stadium project, a fire sale of players was on, Dean Windass had been bought and then sold in a matter of months; a folly at a time of crisis.
FOUL – Fighting for Oxford United’s Life – the group set up to save the club, supported the purchase. There was no Plan B, a friend and FOUL activist reminds me regularly. Martin Brodetsky, writing in When Saturday Comes in 2000 said that most fans trusted Kassam’s integrity.
More than that, Firoz Kassam was eye wateringly rich. The Premier League was forging an unbreakable bond between the game, money and success. With one of the richest people in the country at the helm, there was a hope that he many not just save the club, but catapult it forward.
It wasn’t all positive. I fell out with someone on the This is United forum because they described Kassam as ‘Ayatollah’; an apparent reference to his skin colour. Plus, there was the source of his riches – some referred to him as a hotelier, others; a slum landlord.
Kassam’s money came from providing accommodation for asylum seekers and other vulnerable people. The authorities paid him tens of thousands of pounds a week to keep them in such poor conditions; they – some of the most needy people in the country – eventually rebelled.
Kassam’s first battle was with the clubs creditors. He forced a Company Voluntary Agreement on those who the club owed money to, reducing the club’s (more specifically Kassam’s) debts to a fraction of what they were. Then he fought a brutal war with everyone who stood in between him and the completion of the stadium build. He won, which softened the blow of the most abject season which saw us leave The Manor heading for the bottom division for the first time in 34 years.
While suspicions grew about Kassam’s intentions, there were signs that he was interested in the football. During our relegation season he bought Andy Scott, leading goalscorer for Brentford, in an attempt to stem our slide. When we got to the Kassam, he invested heavily in the team, including bringing back Paul Moody.
He was a presence at the stadium, his green Bentley parked prominently outside the South Stand, he even went to some away games. If his initial plans were about land deals and making money; he didn’t immediately show it.
But, there were worrying developments too; he sold The Manor to his own company, used the money to pay off the club’s creditors and then sold the ground for a massive personal profit. After 76 years sitting on prime Oxford real estate, the club didn’t make a penny from its sale. When challenged about the morality of it, Kassam simply stated that it was his right because of the risks he took in buying the club.
What Kassam struggled with, however, was the fact that despite putting money into the club, he wasn’t rewarded with success on the pitch. There were moments; a full house against Aston Villa, a derby win over Swindon, a trip to Arsenal. But there were more problems; Mark Wright racially abusing a referee, Ian Atkins resigning when the club were threatening promotion, players being bought, but not performing. Above all, there was a torrent of criticism from fans.
If Kassam wanted a successful club, and I think initially he did, he simply couldn’t make it happen. Inevitably, it caused a rift between fans and the owner. Despite pumping millions into the team, the fans wanted more.
The farce of Ramon Diaz’s brief reign at the club followed by the relegation from the Football League, mostly under Brian Talbot destroyed any remaining faith. Kassam sold up to Nick Merry and became the club’s landlord.
In the intervening years he’s fallen out with successive owners, his intentions towards the club are increasingly opaque – sometimes he talks about protecting it while simultaneously charging rent the club can barely afford. He’s sitting on a pile of money and has spent the last twenty years fighting an obscure little football club. What the hell is wrong with him?
The first thing is that being rich is hard work, there’s an idea that somehow rich people haven’t worked for what they have whereas poor people work hard and get nothing. When you work hard, you usually feel you deserve something for it; a beer, a million pounds, your bodyweight in chocolate. Firoz Kassam undoubtedly thinks he deserves reward for his financial success. But, hard work alone does not make you rich. Lots of people work hard and don’t get rich. There are lots of other factors, many out of your control, which help you get rich.
It is easy to believe that being rich makes you right. After all, rich people are seen to be ‘successful’, they have won at life. They could have drug and alcohol problems, broken marriages, children who hate them, but because they have money they are successful.
Somewhere along the line, Kassam’s wealth has welded him to the notion that he is ‘right’ and that he deserves things. It is easy to psychoanalyse why this is, his mother dying when he was a child, moving from Tanzania as a teenager, his home in Monaco; perhaps Kassam doesn’t have the roots others have and seeks to define himself by what he accumulates.
My feeling is that Kassam bought Oxford because he thought it would be something to define him beyond being a slum landlord. The stadium, in his name, was his legacy. But the club betrayed him, his money came to nothing. Now he’s turned on the club and takes a peverse pleasure in seeing it suffer. After a 20 year abusive relationship, and Kassam’s legacy almost universally negative, something has to give. If Kassam gifted the stadium to the club, or a trust, it would barely make a dent in his vast wealth or the club needs to move, because he’s not likely to change. If the two parties did go their separate ways, it would probably benefit Firoz Kassam as much as it would us.