27 October 2008

How Hull did it financially,

from Political Economy of Football,


Hull City were tipped for an instant return to the Championship at the beginning of the season, but their victory against West Brom on Saturday made them joint first at the top of the Premiership before today's matches. So how does one explain the Hull phenomenon? I'm not talking about what has happened on the pitch. When I saw Hull in the Championship last season I did not think they were anything special, but clearly manager Phil Brown has weaved some magic. But what interests me here is the city of Kingston upon Hull and its economic geography. I recently visited it for the first time in many years for a conference held at The Deep aquarium. The nearby Marina was full of boats and there was some very attractive new housing along the waterfront. Driving through the city itself, however, it was clear that there was some problematic social housing whilst even the private housing stock was not all of the highest quality. Many of the more prosperous people connected with the city clearly live in nearby Beverley. The city is still recovering from some terrible floods. This was for many years the home of gloomy if penetrating poet Philip Larkin who had a love-hate relationship with Hull, as he did with most things in life, including his many girlfriends.

On the way into Hull you pass the club's sparkling new stadium. There is no doubt that the city council's decision to build this was pivotal. As befits such a relatively isolated city, Hull was the only place in Britain to have its own municipal telephone service - it still has distinctive white telephone boxes. When the telecommunications company was sold for £130m in 1999, the then council leader decided that £40m would be spent on building a new stadium. It would be offered, rent-free, to the city's football and two rugby league clubs. Hence, the club was not faced with the need to service debt on stadium loans that has brought Southampton to the brink of collapse. Adam Pearson, a former director at Leeds United, bought the club in 2001 and over the following six years, the team was improved and the club put on a sound financial footing. Having seen how debt crippled and then brought Leeds United to its knees, Pearson was determined that things would be different at Hull.

After just avoiding relegation in 2006-7, it became known that Pearson was ready to sell. Surrey-based entrepreneur Paul Duffen was looking for a football club to run. With his partner Russell Bartlett, Duffen explored the possibility of buying West Ham or Cardiff City. Then he travelled to Humberside to meet Pearson. He explained, 'There was a buzz about the place. The attraction of Hull was the potential. It was clear that this club could get much bigger. The city and surrounding area had a big population, the stadium is magnificent and it wsa a very well-run football club. We needed to buy the club and then have £5m or £6m; that figure would allow us to walk into the casino and play for the prize of a Premier League place.' Although the Championship is a very competitive league and has been the graveyard of many ambitions, the gamble has paid off. It is believed that Duffen and Bartlett paid £12m for the club and then invested another £6m in the team.

Success on the pitch can change a community's image of itself for the better. Hull as a city was known most for its failings, although that image was somewhat unfair: it is, for example, the headquarters of one of Britain's most successful specialist food processing companies, Cranswick. Nevertheless, the fact that Hull was the largest city in England never to have had a top flight club contributed to a negative image. With its cluster of museums which attract more visitors than those at York, Hull is developing a tourist trade which will be boosted by the profile that the success of Hull City provides. It allows the city council to spread a positive message about what Hull can offer investors. Philip Larkin's reflection, 'Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth' may become outdated. [The writer holds a substantial shareholding in Cranswick plc and is also a shareholder in Kingston Communications plc]."

Brad Evans