If you don't start off the football season with a laugh, what chance do you have later on when it all gets really dreary? My gratitude, then, to The Guardian, who are always game for a guffaw and didn't disappoint when they carried an interview last Monday with the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sir Jack Hayward.
As his Wolves were preparing to enter the Premiership for the first time in 19 years, Sir Jack was quoted as uttering the following sensational outburst of chairmanly frankness: "Our team was the worst in the First Division and I'm sure it'll be the worst in the Premier League." Next day, The Guardian rushed out a correction with profuse apologies, explaining that the grand old gent had just received a cuppa from a member of the Wolves staff, and that what he actually said was: "Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I'm sure it will be the worst in the Premier League." On such homespun charms do we depend for a sense of perspective as the machinery of our great game whirrs back into action after an absence more fleeting than it ought to be.
They tell me a samovar makes good tea, but let's not involve Russia quite yet and ponder instead the dwindling influence that men like Sir Jack are having and how perilous to the game their disappearance would be.
It is a measure of the bewildering pace at which the summer transfer market has come to resemble the New York Stock Exchange, only more frenetic, that previous tycoon activity suddenly seems very low-key.
One day, we may even look at Sir Jack and regard him as one of the last of the small spenders. After all, the estimated £70m he has put into Wolves over the past 13 years amounts to much less than half of what Roman Abramovich has poured into Chelsea in the last month.
There was also a slight difference in the manner of their arrival. Hayward was a local man and a Wolves fanatic when he acquired the keys of Molyneux in 1990, with the bailiffs not far behind. Abramovich came from a faraway country of which we knew little and Chelsea were a going concern, even if we weren't quite sure where they were going.
Wolves were in the then Second Div-ision, which became the First Division, and remained locked there for a dozen years while Hayward forked out for players and a new stadium with a generosity matched only by a saint's patience. Part of Chelsea's irresistibility to Abramovich was their presence in this season's Champions' League. His patience is an untested quality.
The transition of ownership of our bigger clubs from the likes of Hayward to the likes of Abramovich might have been subject to an unexpected acceleration, but it had already been taking place at a much slower pace. Largely motivated by the more stealthy advance of the plcs, more and more clubs have been taken under the wing of the City and, apart from one or two exceptions, have yet to meet resounding success.
Perhaps the change was unavoidable as the game's entertainment potential grew, but you don't have to be ancient to yearn for the days when football had a more ordered existence, one in which a club's success depended very much on local resources of players and supporters, with a bit of astute and courageous leadership coming from the top.
Even then, Hayward would have been exceptional. Most clubs were owned by local businessmen, some of whom had to learn the hard way that football required an approach different to that for running a chain of coin-operated launderettes. Not many of them left the game with a profit in their pocket and not many would have had that ambition - League rules made it difficult even if they did. Certainly, Hayward wasn't in it for a return.
He became a multi-millionaire running a business empire from the Bahamas but never lost touch with his roots and now, at the age of 80, he is anxious to see his roots enjoy the best standard football can provide. When Hayward wasn't being misheard last week he was explaining what it's like to be driven by a passion. He referred to two other home-grown philanthropists, the late Jack Walker at Blackburn and Lionel Pickering at Derby County. "I used to tell them that one day the men in white coats are going to take us away," he said. It's the men in the fur coats he should have been watching for.
Wolves enter the season having spent just under £5m strengthening the squad for their manager Dave Jones to work with. Hayward will be ready to plunge into the market again if he believes their survival is at risk. He admits he is running out of time to fulfil his remaining ambitions for the club. A neutral wouldn't have to be old-fashioned to greet the new season with the wish that they at least finish above Chelsea.
Kieran's ride to integrity
Those who follow National Hunt racing closely are well aware how dangerous a sport it is for horse and rider alike, but we had a sad and savage reminder last week with the death of the Irish jockey Kieran Kelly.
Kieran died in a Dublin hospital on Tuesday night from the severe head injuries he took after falling from his horse at Kilbeggan races the previous Friday. Thousands attended his funeral in County Kildare, and the entire industry has reacted with horror at this, the first death of a jockey in Ireland for 20 years. Tributes from fellow jockeys, from the champion Tony McCoy down, have testified warmly to the 25-year-old's quiet and pleasant personality and his eagerness to do his job well.
I can endorse those sentiments, because Kieran happens to have been the only jockey I've ever had dealings with. When he was a young apprentice in Micky Flynn's yard at the Curragh, I was a fledgling part-owner - Micky was one of the other two owners - of a bay gelding called Turn To Stone. Kieran, who was one of eight children, had no racing background but started helping out Micky in the stables, and soon wanted to be nothing else but a jockey.
If the horse had a tenth of Kieran's integrity we'd have had a winner. As it was, we had an animal to whom losing was second nature despite plenty of ability. When the mood took him on the training gallops he could outpace most of the other horses in the stable. But he invariably disappointed, despite all the patient work put into his development.
Kieran rode him the last time he raced, ironically at Kilbeggan. Turn To Stone performed in his usual pattern: galloping merrily along, jumping like a stag and, when the pace started to get hot, calling it a day.
We waited in the unsaddling paddock for Kieran's verdict. He jumped off the horse and said, with feeling: "He's a thief, sir." He pronounced it "teef", as they do in Kildare, and the horse was retired immediately. He is now enjoying a comfortable life showjumping in Donegal.
Happily, Kieran went on to much better things, and his exciting victory on Hardy Eustace at this year's Cheltenham Festival was an encouraging sign of a burgeoning career. Tragic is an overused word in sport. Not on this occasion.Reuse content