The year is 2020 and Bernie Ecclestone is in charge of everything in sport. Well, not quite everything – when persuading the Culture Secretary to give him the green light to take over English football, he offered to hive off the Ryman League.
But everywhere else – apart from Lowestoft, Billericay and Canvey Island – there is only one true gaffer. If it moves and someone is applauding, you can be sure of one thing: it's Bernie's baby.
How did sport reach this tyrannical state? Some traced it back to Bernie turning up at school selling cupcakes; some to the day he negotiated his first Formula One TV contract; some to the publication of a long-awaited biography. If the genius sleuth that is Tom Bower couldn't make him look that bad, he couldn't be that bad. Could he?
But the majority believed the revolution began with an apparently throwaway statement back in 2011. When Ecclestone declared he was considering using fake rain to make Formula One just a little more interesting – as if such a thing was possible – they all laughed, shook their heads and said "Bernie, Bernie, Bernie." Initially, they wrote it off as one of his ridiculous remarks – like "Hitler could get things done" – and failed to grasp that not only was Bernie serious but had finally worked out how sport needed to go forward.
Eureka! Bernie had realised the Sporting Gods could not be relied upon any more. Sport's great unpredictability had become just too damn predictable.
That dawned on Bernie while watching one of those old, quaint Celtic-Rangers derbies. Yes, there would be loads of horror tackles leading to off-the-ball skirmishes, leading to red cards, leading to off-the-field skirmishes. This 90 minutes of mayhem would then end with the Sky Sports producer panicking over which camera to go to. The one showing the pantomime villain whipping up the away end by throwing his shirt their way? Or the one showing the two managers squaring up in front of the tunnel? And so would come the outrage and then would follow the recrimination. "Yawn," muttered Bernie, turning off the remote. "Seen it all before."
Yet something else struck him as he clambered up to the top bunk. The media and public, while mortally offended, were feasting on these grotesque spectacles. True, there were times when they were still enthralled by the beauty of pure sport – FC Barcelona sprang ever so easily to mind – but in the humdrum main they yearned for things to go wrong and then turn ugly. Except there was only so much mileage in wanton insults to referees, in irrational hatred of the opposition, in the incitement of violence. The authorities couldn't let it spiral for too long because full-blown anarchy broke out. No, some subtle wit was required. Enter Bernie. Fire those sprinklers!
Formula One took off like no one could imagine. The Australian Grand Prix was just another boring race – going around and around, around and around – until Bernie flicked the switch. Mark Webber spun off, taking Sebastian Vettel in his very slippery stream, while through the floods weaved Lewis Hamilton with manoeuvres that were part Ayrton Senna, part Donald Campbell. By the time the Briton floated over the line – arms aloft, helmet just above water – all the world had been captivated.
The anticipation for his next trick was unprecedented and Bernie revelled in the hype, keeping them waiting before unveiling a new fog machine to cause havoc on the last chicane. Then came the man-made black ice, hail, lightning; he even shipped in some sun for Silverstone. Soon, Bernie involved the public, too, teaming up with Simon Cowell to encourage viewers to vote for what they would like to see happen. The final race of the season in Brazil was watched by 30 million in the UK alone. And 92 per cent of them rang in to say they would like to see Michael Schumacher lead until the final turn, where his car would be upended by a Force 12. Oh, the joy.
The other sports recognised the potential and begged Bernie for help. He dutifully obliged – with options, naturally – and before long you had Woods watching in despair as his ball blew over the R&A clubhouse at St Andrews and a sea fret enveloping the Centre Court on each and every Federer match point against Murray. Some of Bernie's innovations were ingenious, a personal favourite being the instant thawing machine which suddenly made ice hockey interesting. They coined it the "Turn-Off-The-Power Play".
Football eventually had to cave in, Bernie wresting control at Fifa. He was short of brainwaves initially but then found a dusty old book of ideas written by a much-loved former president called Sepp Blatter. Some of the plans were so wacky that even Bernie rolled his eyes – wider goals, four quarters, a World Cup in the desert in summer – but he gave them a go regardless. The purists were furious, routinely accusing him of ruining sport. Bernie wasn't worried. From where he'd been sitting, sport looked to have been ruining itself quite nicely on its own. All he'd done was give the press and fans what they increasingly seemed to crave. Chaos, disorder.
But as he sat there on his pedestal, he wondered what became of those sprinklers which first triggered this shower of gold. Ah, now he remembered. Bernie gave them to the FA; not to put above pitches, but above interview areas, to be employed just as a manager embarked on a ref rant. How Bernie giggled at the memory of Sir Alex's first cold shower. Fergie had a new use for that hairdryer.Reuse content