James Lawton: Owners should be happy for the football men to run their clubs
Saturday 25 April 2009
If you were an Ipswich Town supporter would you be agog to know much more about the stealthy owner Marcus Evans? Wouldn't the reassuring crinkle of his money do?
It would for me. I wouldn't want to see him on the Portman Road terraces in a souvenir shirt, a frothing pint in his hand and a dopey Mike Ashley expression on his face.
Equally discouraging would be an entrance like Roman Abramovich's at Stamford Bridge, when they played the "Kalinka" and poor old Claudio Ranieri knew that he would be sleeping with the fishes before too long.
I certainly wouldn't want to christen him Mr Ipswich, as even longer suffering fans called Sir John Hall Mr Newcastle and then watched him walk off with more than £50 million in his back pocket and with scarcely a backward glance at the club – so vital to his happiness, we were told – plunging into the football equivalent of the Dark Ages.
What I'd do, basically, is be grateful that Evans prised sufficient money out of his world-wide convention business to give my club another chance to compete with the big legions, as they did so brilliantly in the days of Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson – and hope that at the second time of asking Roy Keane can find the touch of humility, and a modicum of loyalty, that might have rescued him from disaster in Sunderland.
It is not the oddest coincidence that Keane should jump from one owner who likes to operate in the shadows to another, but the Irishman will not be as smart as he thinks he is if he doesn't recognise that Evans unquestionably shares with Sunderland's American chief shareholder Ellis Short a concern that can be expressed just as forcibly in private as on the back pages.
Self-made businessmen have an understandable anxiety that their money is in good and dedicated hands and it is maybe not too difficult to see beyond speculation about Evans's style and motivation that so far at least the portents in East Anglia are good.
Whether the choice of Keane is the wisest Evans could have made when he axed the incumbent manager Jim Magilton at precisely the moment Ipswich's season became dead remains to be seen, but the deed was done quickly enough to indicate that Evans knows what he wants and can get it with a minimum of fuss.
There is no doubt the Ipswich owner is all businessman. If he seeks the shadows for himself – he was not be seen at Keane's latest coronation – the name of his firm is emblazoned on the team shirts, something that would no doubt have brought a frown to the legendary Old Etonian chairman John Cobbold, who gave Robson a largely free hand and was much more interested in publicising the product of the champagne country than his own family brewery.
Unlike Cobbold, Evans is a cipher in the local personality race but, in his early forties, he is not likely to get into too many public debates with his manager – who is one of his more than 3,000 employees across the world.
Money talks in the world of Evans and Keane, you have to fancy, better be sure he speaks as eloquently in his own language of winning football. What isn't in doubt, the evidence suggests, is that he will be allowed to get on with the job just as long he is making some kind of sense of it – something that could not be readily attributed to his contribution in his third season at the Stadium of Light.
It as much as any manager – or any supporter – could really want and it creates the suspicion here that if indeed Keane, despite the seamless arrogance of his public manner, has learnt from some of the worst of his mistakes, Ipswich have pretty much the perfect command structure.
They have a chairman willing to put in the money and make only one demand: a share in the spoils, not the limelight.
Because today's football is what it is, we cannot ever again expect to see quite anyone like the late Sir Jack Walker. Blackburn's old steelman made it clear that he was doing no more than repaying a debt when he gave Kenny Dalglish the means to win a Premier League title. He was derided by Sir Alan Sugar, who made his name – and a nice little profit indeed from the sport which gave him the celebrity on which he now trades as a TV entertainer – for splashing out his own money. At the same time, Sugar advised one of his managers, Gerry Francis, that the way to go was the one travelled by the Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam: "Buy low, sell high."
Who wants a high-profile chairman? Fulham's players certainly didn't back in the fifties and sixties when the comedian Tommy Trinder made them the butts of his knockabout comedy – "We won a corner the other day and had a lap of honour" – but steadfastly showed the likes of Tottenham the door when they came calling for Johnny Haynes.
The good chairman and owners are like the good referees. They tend to escape notice.
At Manchester United Sir Matt Busby hand-picked Louis Edwards because he knew he would be happy to rubber-stamp his policies, and propose his own at the right moment. This one was almost completely embraced in the ringing phrase, "Bring on the champagne."
Evans, plainly, is not such a man, but then Edwards belonged firmly to that age which also featured a conversation between the Ipswich owner's predecessor Cobbold and a rather officious tour guide in the Vatican. Cobbold said his priority was a drink but the guide snapped, "Mr Cobbold you must see the Sistine Chapel. It has been standing for centuries."
"In that case," said Cobbold, "we probably have time for a drink."
Marcus Evans would no doubt have passed on the drinks – and probably much of the fun. The good news though is that he seems to understand, as John Cobbold did, that football success is best left to the talent of a football man.
Camus can teach us about value of football's drama
After the resurrection of Brian Clough in The Damned United we now the have reappearance of the late George Best in the TV drama His Mother's Son.
It seems that the old game is seen as a rich vein indeed. However, not as something intrinsically fascinating in itself, you understand, but as a rich source of celebrity to be freshly interpreted – and dramatised.
The producer and director of BBC 2's Sunday night offering explains why the thrust of the work concerns the alcoholism of Best's mother. Says Colin Barr, "Football is only interesting as football; it is difficult to get it to speak to anything else."
Reassuringly, though, we can always turn back to Albert Camus who told students of his alma mater University of Algiers, for whom he performed as goalkeeper, "After many years what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to football."
Barr is an Emmy-winning director so of course his opinion carries considerable weight, certainly in drama circles. Mere football fans can console themselves that at least one goalkeeper, all of whom are supposed to be as mad as a box of frogs, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Cricket's greed is Flintoff's loss
Four years ago Freddie Flintoff was not only the glory of an Ashes-winning summer. He was also a magnificent example of English sport at its best; he was superbly in charge of his talent and his power and he also gave us the image of that brilliant series when he bent, in the moment of triumph, to console the beaten Brett Lee.
Sport didn't get any better and you can only weep that Flintoff is now, effectively, a physical wreck.
His injury record over recent years has ravaged his status as a supreme operator with the ball, and as a batsman on his day good enough to evoke memories of Ian Botham.
Why is it that Flintoff is in such a mess? And why did Brian Lara, at a time when he should have been deepening his reputation as a batsman of genius, seem to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders?
It is because cricket had given itself to greed. Too much cricket is played in all its forms. It has cheapened itself down the years, and the best of its talent, inevitably, pay the price.
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