Last Monday night after David Sullivan had become the new co-owner of West Ham, he took the people he had been negotiating with to the first floor bar of the Ritz.
As he toasted victory he asked his guests to look across the road at the Walpole, part of his property portfolio. This, he told them with pride, was once the residence of Robert Walpole, the first man in this country to have the title of Prime Minister.
Sitting at the bar of the Ritz and watching the world go by is one of the ways Sullivan relaxes. But that evening was special for the man ranked by the Sunday Times in 2009 as the 114th richest person in the country with an estimated wealth of £450million.
It was the moment the 60-year-old could have claimed to have come home, both in the footballing and wider social sense.
Many may still see him as the porn king, who made his fortune selling hardcore magazines and films featuring topless girls. In 1982, he was even convicted of living off immoral earnings, serving 71 days in jail. But, for Sullivan, his porn past is nothing to be ashamed of.
“I do not feel embarrassed,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of people happy. If I was an arms manufacturer or a cigarette manufacturer, and my products killed millions of my clients, I’d have a bit of doubt about the whole thing. I was a freedom fighter. I believe in the right of adults to make their own decisions.”
While Sullivan’s wealth is there for all to see, there is something very disarming about the way he lives.
His home, set in 12 acres in Theydon Bois, Essex, may be guarded by electronic gates but he, himself, opens the door to the house.
In the hall the two butlers holding out trays are, in fact, wax models and the small dining room table, next to his kitchen, is decorated more like the bar of a sports club with small wicker baskets containing packets of crisps, dates, biscuits and chocolates.
We meet as he is finishing his lunch of ham and bread and he is watching Sky Sports News. Birmingham have just opened the scoring in their 2-1 FA Cup victory over Everton and Sullivan is ecstatic.
“My man Christian Benitez has scored for Birmingham,” he tells me. “That is the last player I bought. That is my team.”
Sullivan made £20m from his sale of Birmingham last October, having owned the club for 16 years.
He claims he could have made that sort of money “buying a few office blocks 20 years ago or a street of houses in Chingford”. But wheeling and dealing in property would not have given him the pleasure that owning the football club did, nor the sense of achievement. “I left Birmingham in great shape and with a great team which is eighth in the Premier League.”
Not all Blues fans will appreciate his departure and many will be furious with Sullivan’s sentiment that he feels “Birmingham are a smaller club than West Ham”. He adds: “Not a single player is on more than £25,000 a week.At Upton Park, we have bigger ambitions.”
AND while he can claim to have followed the Hammers since he was 12 after moving to London from his home town of Cardiff, it was by no means certain he would end up as owner of Upton Park. Indeed, even as late as last week he might have ended up at another London club. Sullivan approached CB Holdings last October within a week of leaving Birmingham, intent on investing in the Hammers. “I wanted to buy a quarter of the club with an option to buy another quarter,” he reveals.
But while Andrew Bernhardt, the man who has been running the club on behalf of their Icelandic bank owners, liked the proposal the club could not be sold without a proper process.
This meant Sullivan and his partner David Gold found themselves in a race with three other bidders. With the outcome uncertain, Sullivan was approached by Richard Murray, chairman of Charlton.
“I will be honest with you,” he reveals. “Had we not succeeded in buying West Ham we would have bought Charlton. Richard Murray and his consortium have done a wonderful job and he wanted some help. We would have gone in and helped.”
But as Charlton, waited the West Ham deal was finally done, with Sullivan and Gold getting 50 per cent of the club with an option to buy the other half in four years’ time. I understand they paid an initial £20m, of which £5m has gone to reduce the bank loans, the rest to the club.
The last time West Ham changed hands in 2006, when Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson bought the club from Terry Brown, their debts were £20m. Sullivan has inherited debts of £110m: £48m owed to the banks; £40m to other clubs – including £22m to Sheffield United for the Carlos Tevez fiasco – and a further £12m loan West Ham took out in December. That was borrowed by pledging 70 per cent of next year’s season-ticket money and 60 per cent of the following season’s.
“They had to borrow this money to stay alive,” says Sullivan. “There is virtually nothing more to sell. The shirt sponsor paid 75 per cent of his fee not just for this season but for two seasons. The club have been robbing Peter to pay Paul – selling the future.”
In addition, West Ham may have to pay Alan Curbishley, who won his case for unfair dismissal, anything from £750,000 to £3.5m. There is also a huge wage bill. “The average wage of the staff, and this includes footballers, is higher than Goldman Sachs,” Sullivan says. “West Ham have more people on the administrative and support side earning between £100,000 and £300,000 a year. The place has been run as a charity.”
Some money may be recovered if West Ham sue the solicitors who advised them to plead guilty on the Tevez hearings; a decision which Sullivan feels was not only wrong but opened the door for action by United.
But Sullivan’s anger is really reserved for the Icelandics. “They virtually bust the club,” he says. And the wrecker in chief was Eggert Magnusson, who ran it on behalf of Gudmundsson.
During Magnusson’s big-spending days the fans were behind him but, as Sullivan says: “If you keep buying players fans will love you. Magnusson did not take logical decisions.”
Magnusson has since defended himself, saying he was not the only one involved in making decisions and that his purchases helped West Ham avoid relegation in 2006-07. But Sullivan feels it might have been cheaper to have been relegated.
West Ham have another relegation battle this season, which greatly worries Sullivan despite reassurances from Gianfranco Zola. “The manager is not worried at all,” he says. “Zola is the nicest man I have ever dealt with.”
High praise given that Sullivan’s previous managers include Terry Cooper, Barry Fry, Trevor Francis, Steve Bruce and Alex McLeish. But while he has no present plans to change the manager, he reserves judgement on Zola’s long-term future. Sullivan adds: “I said to Zola, ‘I don’t know if you are a good manager. All you’ve got so far is a year in the job.’ You can’t judge a manager on 12 months. Only time will tell whether Zola is a fantastic manager or an okay one.”
In the immediate future, what concerns Sullivan more is the club’s failure to score and he is desperate to bring in two forwards before the transfer window closes. The probable signings are Blackburn’s Benni McCarthy and Manchester City’s Benjani. Both are likely to come in on loan, with the moves made permanent once their work permits have been resolved.
Whoever comes in, the new owner is adamant that nobody is leaving Upton Park this month. “We will not sell any players,” he says.
So where does this leave Matthew Upson? “He will not be sold now. In the summer he will have 12 months to go on his contract. If he wanted to play Champions League or European football you couldn’t stand in his way. So unless Matthew wants to sign a new deal he will have to be sold next summer. Nobody else has to go. The squad is thin and in the summer we will be looking to discover the next Ronaldo.”
By then Sullivan should know whether West Ham can move to the Olympic Stadium. This is central to his ambition to get to the Champions League within seven years. “If we don’t we’ll struggle to get in the top four,” he admits.
For Sullivan to succeed the present plan to convert the 80,000-seat stadium into a 25,000 athletics one after 2012 will have to be scrapped and the running track will have to go.
Sullivan says: “It is obscene in the credit crunch to build a stadium and bring three-quarters of it down.” So what about Lord Coe’s dream of an athletic stadium? “The bigger dream is for West Ham fans to have a football stadium. He can have an athletics track elsewhere.”
Sullivan is already working on plans to fill a ground of 80,000. “We would offer tickets at £5 a go for some matches. We can bring Premier League football back to the people.”
However, Sullivan was eager to quash the idea that a move to Stratford would mean West Ham United becoming West Ham Olympic. Karren Brady, the vice-chairman, had suggested a name change but Sullivan said: “Karren is a good businesswoman but she doesn’t understand football. There is no possibility of West Ham being called anything other than West Ham United.”
Sullivan sees himself as building a dynasty with his boys David and Jack, aged 12 and 10, eventually taking over. The only problem is David jnr supports Arsenal.
Sullivan, himself, admires the Gunners. “Arsene Wenger is the best manager, better than Sir Alex Ferguson. I can see why my son supports Arsenal. But it’s time he came home.”
Sullivan may find that moving West Ham to the Olympic Stadium is easier than changing his son’s allegiance.