Those who conducted investigations into his business life found Mohamed Al Fayed to be a less than admirable character. From his admission that he bribed MPs to his claim that the royal family and the secret service combined to murder his son Dodi and Princess Diana, the marks he left on the national life were not always benign. To the supporters of Fulham Football Club, however, the Egyptian represented a force for good. They miss his traditional pre-match stroll across the Craven Cottage pitch, when a cheerful twirl of his scarf would answer the warm applause with which they acknowledged the good feeling he had brought back to the club.
Fayed could be seen as the first of the present wave of foreign owners of major English football clubs, and he began his adventure in a relatively modest fashion. When he bought Fulham for £6.25m in 1997, they were in the fourth tier and barely hanging on. Ten years earlier the club had almost gone bust. There had been constant talk of selling the ground and moving elsewhere, perhaps even merging with Queens Park Rangers.
Soon their fortunes would be transformed. Fayed had lived in London since the 1960s, getting rich off all sorts of deals. Already the owner of Harrods, he bought the club as part of his strategy to obtain a British passport, something denied him by successive governments. There might have been another motive: Craven Cottage was surrounded by terraced houses, once solidly working class but rapidly becoming the chic homes of the new yuppie class, and the riverside site was clearly ripe for exploitation.
After swiftly firing the incumbent manager, Micky Adams, he installed Kevin Keegan and watched the team secure two promotions in three seasons. A third came under Jean Tigana, who took them into the top flight for the first time since 1968, a year ahead of the timetable envisaged in Fayed's original five-year plan, which had seemed ludicrously optimistic. And there they have stayed, through highs – under Chris Coleman, Roy Hodgson, who took them to a European final, and Mark Hughes – and lows, including a legal battle with Tigana.
Fayed's insistence on installing a statue of his late friend Michael Jackson outside the ground now seems a small price to pay for the stewardship of a man who was willing to make interest-free loans of £187m to the club, while abandoning any plans he might have had for flogging off the real estate to those interested in building luxury apartments with Thames views. When he did sell the club last summer, for something close to £200m, it seemed that he had recouped his outlay, with perhaps a relatively small profit that few would begrudge.
But there could be no guarantee that the next owner would maintain the record of success and stability, and so it has proved. Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-born American citizen who made his fortune in automobile parts and also owns the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, has dismissed two managers since the start of the season and is now on his third. Felix Magath, the 60-year-old former Germany international midfielder and an experienced but not uncontroversial manager, has 11 games left in which to lift the team off the bottom of the table and reach a place of safety, starting with Chelsea at home on Saturday. The odds do not look favourable.
Would they be in this demoralising position had Fayed stayed on? At least, unlike his successor, he was not one of those absentee owners who resemble the rich folk currently purchasing London mansions and penthouse flats as investments and leaving them empty. Khan attends the occasional match at the Cottage – which is more than can be said for Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, the owner of Manchester City – but his physical commitment, like his knowledge of football, is at best semi-detached.
His decision to remove the Jackson effigy was welcomed, and at least he has not emulated Vincent Tan's decision to change Cardiff City's colours and emblem. On Friday we heard the BBC's David Ornstein interviewing Tan, the Malaysian billionaire making his feelings plain about the "10%, or 5%, or maybe a few hundred" fans who objected to that switch and to his decision to replace Malky Mackay with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
"I came to your town," he said. "I saved your club. I put in a lot of money. I took it up after 51 years into the Premier League. Supporters, it is your club. Why do you have to do stupid things and be influenced by people who have done things that are not right for the club?"
At a guess, Tan is not a man used to criticism or disapproval. He prefers a show of the gratitude he believes to be his due. "Perhaps they can find an owner who likes blue," he said. "He can buy me out and change it back. Then I go somewhere else and do another red club." His smile barely camouflaged the hint of petulance.
All over England, historic clubs – Blackburn Rovers, Hull City, Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Birmingham City, Derby County, Leeds United, Leicester City, Watford, Coventry City – are following the trend laid down by Fayed at Fulham and continued by Milan Mandaric, Roman Abramovich, the Glazer family, Randy Lerner, Flavio Briatore, Thaksin Shinawatra and others. Last Saturday I went to the Valley, where Charlton Athletic changed hands in January. Roland Duchâtelet, who also owns Standard Liège as well as second-division clubs in Holland and Spain, has not used a position in the relegation zone as an excuse to dismiss Chris Powell. They moved off the bottom by beating QPR in injury time with the only goal of the match, and three days later they knocked out Sheffield Wednesday to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, so perhaps his patience is getting its reward.
Supporters never know what they are going to get from a new owner. They pray for a Mansour, with limitless resources and shrewd lieutenants. They fear a Glazer-style takeover, with vast sums disappearing to repay unnecessary debts. They dread a Briatore, sowing chaos. They are ambivalent about a Tan, who makes their patrimony the price of promotion. They are uneasy about the deeper motives of owners with clubs in several countries. What they want above all is success, but in bad times they want owners who love the game and feel connected to them. And whatever his defects, they could say that about Mohamed Al Fayed, the first of his kind and in some ways still the best.