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Chairman Al Fayed holds court

last updated Tuesday 17th October 2000, 10:33 AM
Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods, master of Fulham FC, requires only one course today ... Chairman's Pudding. But there's enough time to tell you why he's still so sweet on the man who walked out on England 10 days ago.

'I felt so sad for Kevin when he quit, but in my book the players let him down ... and so did the FA,' says Fayed. 'I was always worried about interference.

'I thought they wouldn't be helping him the way he needs help. I have always pursued a policy of non-interference. A manager is in charge and you don't get involved.

'Keegan has everything. He's an artist but a guy with great moods. If anyone annoys him, he gets very upset, especially if the people to whom he's giving his time and effort are not delivering.

Mohamed Al Fayed
Chairman Al Fayed of Fulham

'And I speak not only about the players but the people in charge. He hates bureaucracy and I think they made management very difficult for him. He didn't like interference and I think they were interfering. He couldn't do what he wanted to do.'

Now when it comes to the distribution of candy, Fayed is in a premier league of his own.

His footballers, rewarded handsomely by any First Division standards, often receive the additional bonus of a Harrods gold bar - a more than acceptable chocolate substitute for Toblerone.

On Sunday, there was further evidence of his largesse; Fayed sat in the Craven Cottage directors' box supplying Jean Tigana's little daughter with lollipops to counteract her impatience at Fulham's inability to bury Blackburn Rovers comprehensively.

But as far as real candy is concerned - the kind dispensed to any football manager fortunate enough to come his way - this is where the mega-rich Egyptian goes into overdrive.

The innovative Tigana, negotiating a somewhat spectacular course to make this club a template for others, has a three-year deal (with two-year option) that would turn most of his contemporaries Lou Ferrigno green. His bottom line, they say, is £7.5million.

Then, of course, we arrive at the small matter of Keegan. Apart from an estimated £3m salary package, he had a red carpet laid under him that could only have been woven by the Wiltons.

A Knightsbridge town house was put at the disposal of the chappie who, under the initial title of chief operating officer, turned things into a major operation, employing more backroom staff than could ever have made Uncle Tom Cobley's acquaintance.

Keegan, who, it is claimed, was also promised a massive financial dividend if the club was floated on the stock market, not unnaturally fell deeply in love with his new amour and made loud public proclamations to that end.

Yet, in February of last year he proved that love conquers all - all but rampant ambition; pressed by the mandarins of the FA to take on England, he performed an impressively acrobatic volte face to run, arms open wide, into the salivating jaws of Lancaster Gate.

You might expect, then, given the course of events which have seen Keegan forfeit hero status these last few days and tumble into the gutter of public opinion, that it would be an appropriate time for Fayed to exact retribution.

Any such notion is quickly despatched, however, when they serve the pudding course. 'Listen, I will never forget Kevin Keegan,' he adds. 'Everyone was screaming about what I gave him, but it was no problem for me. I gave him my support, I didn't make him feel guilty because he walked away. I made it completely easy for him to do so.

'Without him, Fulham would not be the same today. He started all this. He became my good friend and he gave me a lot of his time. And if we get promotion this season, he is going to be invited to the party. That's for sure.'

That party is no mirage. Fulham, mainlining on efficiency while minimising fuss, are 10 games into the new season and have yet to drop a point. There is an abundance of young talent, like Louis Saha and Fabrice Fernandes, and Tigana is proving as adept at management as his daughter is at demolishing lollies.

Sure, Fayed's admiration for Keegan remains undiminished, but you suspect even he might confess privately that he has the better man now under Craven Cottage contract.

'I'm the same with all of them,' says the chairman, remembering the brief but desultory reign of Keegan's replacement, Paul Bracewell. 'I give them the kitchen. If they can't cook, then I say: "Thank you very much".

'Me? I just take it easy. It is very rare for me to get angry when things go wrong. Why get nervous? Why get my blood pressure up? Hey, my blood pressure's good ... I'm still 25 years old!'

Like Keegan, Fayed accords his French import maestro status. 'I only appear when he needs me. He is a great manager already, with what he did at Marseille and Monaco. And he will prove himself again here. Yes, with my good relations with him and my respect for his ability, he'll do it.

'You know, when we were talking about this job, he was far more interested in what he could build than anything else. The last thing we talked about was money. Absolutely. But I gave him the ship and he sailed away with it.

'I have spent £70m on this club. There will be another £80m for a new stadium (provided planning permission is given), but there'll be a shopping arcade, restaurants and cafes by the riverside. You can raise money for the development.

'But this is nothing when you are achieving something great. And I want Fulham to become the greatest football club there is. When looking at Manchester United and Chelsea, I don't feel jealous.

'No, I appreciate anyone who is successful. You want the best so that everyone can see it and enjoy it. I'm confident I can do this. Sometimes it can take time, but that's OK. We have a goal and our eye is firmly on it.'

The somewhat eccentric chairman of Harrods has finished his Chairman's Pudding and he's off his mark as quickly as one of his strikers.

Curiously, talking football does not sit easily with a man who poured so many millions into football. On this day you suspect he would rather discuss the recent claim that Tutankhamun's sister may have started a civilisation in Britain.

Max Clifford, master publicist and the man who has brought public relations into the heart of Craven Cottage, follows the hasty departure and smiles wryly. 'Mohamed is no angel, no innocent abroad, he's someone who got to the top in a very fiercely competitive business. And, of course, he can be ruthless.

'But there are a whole lot worse guys out there. Hey, I've worked for a lot of rich and powerful people, some of the most famous in the world. I've created enough false images over the last 40 years, so the reality of the person is all the more important to me.

'I like a lot about the man. Very few in his position have got anything like his capacity for taking an interest in anyone else. He'll help people. That's the person I know. When we have a big get-together, for instance, all the old players are there ... and the fans.

'When the fans go to an away match, they get £10 to go on the coach. He pays them out of his own pocket. How many people in the game are there who can afford to do it, or would do it? Can you imagine Douglas Hall at Newcastle doing it?'

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