Mike Rowbottom: You can buy the club, but money can't buy you love in football
Saturday 13 September 2003
The scorn which greeted the recent sale of one of Rolf Harris's paintings to an art collector in the United States for £95,000 said a lot about our popular prejudice.
The story was all the more perfect for allowing us to mock not just one, but two of our favourite targets - crackpot Australian beardies and know-nothing Americans with more money than sense.
Never mind that the Australian in question started out as an artist. Never mind that the picture was - judging by the reproductions carried in the papers - rather good.
Harris stands accused of Animal Hospital. He has been a serial children's TV entertainer. He has charted with a wacky version of "Stairway to Heaven". Above all, he has committed "Two Little Boys".
Given this evidence, Harris could be better than Monet and Manet put together and it wouldn't matter. He can never be a proper artist because he's the hyperactive weirdo with the toothy grin who plays with that wobbly-board thing.
We have a strong resistance to those who wish to change course in life or announce themselves as someone quite different from who we thought they were.
Madonna can try all she likes to become a literary lioness. She can write a novel to match Madame Bovary, but it will not be regarded as anything other than the latest diversion of a wealthy pop singer.
John McEnroe's singing voice is no great thing, but he can play the guitar pretty well. He can play a lot better than a lot of people who have made it big in the wonderful world of MTV, and - as he has said himself - breaking into rock and roll was his highest ambition. (Even as he contemplated marrying Patty Smyth, he had it in mind that she would make the ideal singer for his touring although as-yet unsigned band ...)
The thing is, he can't. McEnroe can obviously move on from playing tennis to becoming an acute and amusing observer of the sport for the benefit of television viewers. That's within the popular ambit. The odd cameo part in films such as Mr Deeds, where he plays himself - that's OK too. He could even embrace politics - after all, Clint Eastwood became a conscientious mayor, Sonny Bono as well, and if memory serves, one famous former film star made it all the way to the White House.
But what you can't do if you are an ex-sportsman is become a genuine rock star, notwithstanding the fact that Yannick Noah has apparently sold a fair few records in France. That's just the French for you.
And what you can't do if you are a wealthy, or even immensely wealthy, businessman is become loved in the world of football.
There has already been widespread speculation about Roman Abramovich's motives for investing googles of roubles in Chelsea FC. Some have likened the west London club to a staging post on the edge of a new continent, portraying the Russian oil billionaire as a man laden with furs and firewater. What is he really after?
If it is a financial foothold in a world of new opportunities, it seems Abramovich has secured his ambition. If he wants to become accepted as one of the game's insiders, as a genuine football man, he is wasting his time and his money.
Businessmen who re-invent themselves as the chairmen of football clubs are tolerated for as long as they put the money in. Their cash doesn't buy affection, or loyalty, or respect. All the money in the world will not grant them the status supporters accord to a favoured full-back.
The Portsmouth chairman, Milan Mandaric, made a cute move recently when he announced that no player would wear the No 12 shirt for the club, dedicating it to supporters whom he said were worth an extra man to the team every time they turned out.
But if Teddy Sheringham's goals dry up, and the seaside team drift down to the Premiership's south coast, Mandaric will be as vulnerable to abuse as any other rich investor.
Once a businessman steps outside his normal parameters and establishes himself at the head of one of our great sporting institutions, he might as well be placing his head upon a block. No fat cat at an angry shareholders' meeting will ever lay himself open to such virulent anger and contempt.
Who mourned the passing of Martin Edwards at Manchester United? Daddy's boy who tried to sell out to Sky. Who will weep for Doug Ellis when he is finally persuaded his time is up at Villa Park? Mrs Ellis?
But that's just the English for you.
Coming back to the Rolf Harris thing - I think there could be a way forward, but it would mean him cutting off one of his ears ...
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