James Lawton: 8 October 2009: The sad day sport belonged on the financial pages
Saturday 10 October 2009
One night back in the 20th century the famous American boxing referee Mills Lane formed such a dismal view of the future of sport he reached for a microphone and made an impassioned speech.
He asked if anyone had scanned the sports pages that morning and read much about anything except money. "I very much doubt it," said the former US marine and practising Nevada circuit judge, "and because of this we should not be too surprised by what happened here tonight."
What happened was that Mike Tyson had part-cannibalised Evander Holyfield's ear, spat some of it on the canvas, and might well have completed the job but for the intervention of Lane and a detachment of Las Vegas's finest.
You may say that Tyson's act was so atavistic it smacked rather more of the street than the stock exchange but then it was also true that his dawning belief that Holyfield was the better man was also accompanied by the understanding that years of vast income were about to draw to a close.
At the end of what sounded pretty much a funeral oration for the whole concept of sport as something intrinsically separate from the making of huge amounts of money, Lane made a bleak prophecy. "One of these days," he said, "they're going to move sport on to the financial pages – or vice versa."
This week it happened. Thursday, 8 October 2009. Almost everywhere you looked, it was all about money, who had it (stunningly, the football rich list told us that Roy Keane, currently bottom of the Championship with Ipswich had £12m more of it than Arsène Wenger) and who didn't, which sadly for Portsmouth most conspicuously appeared to be the man who was handed the club in exchange for nothing more convertible than some good intentions.
Queen's Park Rangers investor and steel-maker Lakshmi Mittal is potentially the biggest soccer sugar daddy of them all with a stash of £18.4bn, nearly £11bn more than Roman Abramovich, but would you have extended your stake in anything run by Flavio Briatore by more than a plugged hospital parking token?
The QPR situation did, though, provide a little passing relief from pure financial calculation on a day when Lord Mawhinney, the Football League chairman, told us that the question of whether the disgraced Briatore was a fit and proper person to run a member club having been banned, effectively, for life by motor racing, "was complex and complicated".
There's nothing complicated about money, though, is there? Just, that is, as long as you talk to a Manchester City supporter rather than one backing United. City's Sheikh Mansour, we were told on the day that United's former long-time chairman Martin Edwards expressed his fears about the £700m debt load imposed on the club by American owner Malcolm Glazer, has given manager Mark Hughes the all-clear for another massive splurge in the January transfer window, which may well carry spending on the current season above the £200m mark – a mere desert flea bite on the Sheikh's fortune, which makes him second to Mittal at £17bn.
All in all, not a day especially crying out for a major contribution from Mr Jack Warner, the Fifa councillor from Trinidad & Tobago who so blithely survived his family's profiteering from ticket sales for the 2006 World Cup. Yet there he was, lordly and profound, lecturing England's 2018 World Cup host contenders on how best they might exploit the aura of the Premier League and David Beckham.
Warner is also deeply exercised by cheating on the field, and talked glowingly of sin-bins for divers in next summer's World Cup finals. What happens to the duckers was something he was not inclined, surprisingly enough, to illuminate.
Goldenballs, inevitably, topped the players' rich list with a haul of £125m, £101m more than his former team-mate Ryan Giggs. Michael Owen, despite his uneasy hold on the front rank of football celebrity these days and heavy investment in racing stables, remains an extremely viable runner in football's great money stakes, the effect of his drop in wages at Old Trafford nicely cushioned by ambassadorships with watchmaker Tissot and Jaguar plus, and, we are told, a £2m deal with Umbro.
We can trawl for quite some time through such wonders of well-heeled existence but sooner or later of course we collide with the reality that for every Owen, who still seems to care passionately about his place in the game which has brought him his fortune, there must be so many others whose ambitions are dulled if not destroyed by the knowledge that with a modicum of good management they will never again have to blanch at the idea of another day's work.
For Owen we can also read such as Wenger, for whom the average night is spent ingesting football videos, and Sir Alex Ferguson (rated third among managers at a personal fortune of £22m) – men for whom, you have to guess, all the money in the world would never compensate for the dying of the football battles which have consumed their lives.
Those less committed may have confirmed at least some of the fears of someone like World Cup hero George Cohen, who never earned so much from football that he could ever put aside the need to make, and in his case, lose fortunes prised from the world beyond the touchline. He remembers his desperate need to succeed when he signed on at Fulham for a few pounds a week and he says, not in envy but a little bewilderment, "Today when I hear of some brilliant young player being besieged by the scouts and the agents and his family hearing all the sweet talk I have to wonder what is happening in the kid's head, when he knows that his life, at least in material terms, is guaranteed."
No doubt he draws some encouragement from the evidence that a Wayne Rooney, whose deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, Mercedes and EA Sports bring in an estimated £6m a year and help carry him to third place in the players' list and a fortune reckoned to be £37m, has yet to disturb the impression that football remains at the centre of his life.
There will, of course, always be such characters for whom money will always have a certain irrelevance to the deepest thrust of their natures. However, it would be idle to believe that they, like all of sport, are not besieged on some days more than others. One day this week, certainly, fulfilled most of the fears of the old marine who stood up to yell his protest.
Beyond the Sea, tale of another racing demon
Admiration for the performance of Sea The Stars at the Arc last weekend endures as vibrantly as the strides which took him clear of the field and into his place in history.
So too, it has to be admitted in this quarter, does the reaction to the style of one of his most ardent supporters.
It came when Sir Peter O'Sullevan casually reported that while the great horse's handlers were beginning their race preparations he was doing a little racing of his own while negotiating the Paris péripherique.
Less than 24 hours later he was back in Chelsea doing the weekly supermarket shop for his wife Pat, not totally in his best form, he confesses, because such was his post-race exhilaration he perhaps had a small drop of claret too many.
Still, the return journey – a round trip of 571 miles – was accomplished at a brisk pace, hindered only by the tiresome need to leave his right-handed cockpit in order to pay his French road toll fees. After a life-time of piloting Jaguars and Mercedes, he now favours a 3.2 litre V6 Volkswagen Golf, a small concession to the march of the years.
Sir Peter, you have to remind yourself, is in his 92nd year.
Capello alive to the promise of Carrick
Those of us who have regretted faltering signs in the career of Manchester United's 28-year-old Michael Carrick can only be delighted that England coach Fabio Capello has not already cast him among the World Cup also-rans.
Carrick, like the rest of the United midfield, had a catastrophic Champions League final in Rome in the spring – the fearfully anti-climactic nadir of a season which at one point had brimmed with creative brilliance and an increasingly sure touch in reading points of danger from his central vantage point.
Capello, who is apparently considering starting with Carrick against Ukraine tonight or Belarus next week, presumably was similarly impressed. Some say that Carrick's playing character is too passive to make him an absolute top-liner but then England are not so blessed with superior passing technique that they can afford to easily discard such talent. Predictably, Capello seems alive to the danger.
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