Welcome to the age of the sugar daddy

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The Independent Online
I USED to think that if you were especially good in this life, then once you ascended to the great stadium in the sky you would get your reward - reincarnation as a footballer. Think of it, the ultimate life - the lolly and the adulation, the call-up from Terry Venables, the knowledge of what it is like to hold Wembley in the palm of your hand (OK, we're not talking a return as the Halifax goalie). I realise that this is an outmoded concept in earthly arcadia, and the person to come back as now is a football club chairman.

Why settle for being just one more bit of headline fodder in the Sun when you can buy all the footballers you want and still have change for a yacht on which to conduct your signings? You will have a far longer shelf-life, too - no need to worry about declining years spent as a balding pundit on Match of the Day, or that sad postscript to your glory days when you're caught on camera at the dog track, unshaven and shirtless, a martyr to your gambling debts. By the time your footballers are sozzled mine hosts behind the bars bought on the proceeds of their testimonials, you are just coming into your own as a new member of the landed gentry with 25 acres of rolling chequebook at your disposal. These days it's football club chairmanship which is Europe's most achievable way of securing a high profile and immortality.

The humble TV repairs and secondhand video shop in the Essex new town from which you started out is behind you. You have made your pile, you are into social benefaction now. One day you look around your company offices with wall-to-wall lackeys and matching computer programmers and think, yes, yes, but what has it all been for? It's not enough to shuffle off this mortal coil with nothing to be remembered by but my brand name on a few hundred fax machines. I want to go down in history as the man who brought civic pride back to (fill in name of drab Midlands town or impoverished northern conurbation where you wheeled your first barrow).

Football icons have changed with the passing years. The Seventies was the decade to be a manager - a big hat, a catchphrase and you would be on the panel alongside Cloughie and Big Mal. Chairmen then were deeply unsexy figures; Bob Lord of Burnley and Louis Edwards of Manchester United were fine men, I'm sure, but were, well, your local butcher - not exactly romantic and heroic compared with making your fortune developing property in the Algarve then bringing jobs to the North-east by opening the Gateshead Metro Centre like Sir John Hall of Newcastle.

As the Eighties got under way, it was the time to be a footballer - receptions laid on for you at Number 10, eulogies written about you in the literary magazines, two-year contracts in France and Italy where you could marry the local magnate's daughter and set yourself up financially for life. The quintessential Eighties chairman was that corpulent old fraud Robert Maxwell. He rightly thought that owning a football club was one way to popular acceptance but blew it when a more overwhelming need (lucre) got the better of him and he attempted to swallow up Reading along with Oxford and create a new club with some contemptibly unresonant name like Thames Valley Rangers. He would never have got the point of the self-transcending generosity that is shown by Sir John Hall, not to mention Jack Walker at Blackburn and Jack Hayward at Wolves.

And look what the last three weeks have done for Alan Sugar. By the end of last season, his image could not have been worse - hard-bitten businessman, no more heart than a computer, man who got rid of Terry Venables (if he had chucked the Queen Mother off the balcony at Buck House he couldn't have been further down in the public estimation). Now he's a crusader for all that is most worthwhile and right on in the game - best interests of Spurs at heart, his exposure to the beautiful game warming him into life. Sitting in a yacht in Monte Carlo harbour signing a World Cup player for us - romantic or what? It's him we love.

Poor old Peter Swales, a chairman born 20 years too early. If he had come into Maine Road now he would never have had to put up with all those 'Swales Out' banners; he would have been canonised as soon as he opened his cheque-book. Instead, it's Franny Lee who has got the benefits of being one of the game's latest love objects. If Prince Charles's advisers had any sense, they would say: 'Leave out those Godawful profiles with Dimbleby, your Royal Highness. If you really want to be loved, buy into a football club.'

RETURNING to reporting on football matches after a hiatus of eight years has been an eye-opener. When I started my sabbatical in 1986, the game was supposed to be bankrupt. Now every ground I've been to so far leaves me gobsmacked. Take Nottingham Forest's City Ground, for instance. The Spion Kop, where even in the Seventies you could spoonfeed yourself mushy peas and look at the half-time scoreboard (Match F 0-1), has gone, and in its place is a four-million-quid stand. There's building of a major nature going on at the Trent End - something steely and sexy hanging out over the water where once Brian Clough walked.

I thought I was going to hate all these flash new stands, but I love them - all that football and a Ladies loo too (though as Cynthia Bateman murmured in the Guardian last week, the largesse at Ewood Park has not yet extended to locks on the doors). The new stand at Highbury is much better than what it replaced, that bleak bank with its backdrop of yellowish London smog. It's enclosed, warm, elegant but friendly. Meanwhile, fans everywhere seem to have washed out their mouths with soap. At Millwall's New Den, even the stewards seem to have taken charm courses.

It seems a bit mean to complain, but here goes. What has happened to Constable Alex Metcalfe, Arsenal's singing policeman, whose plangent renderings of 'You are my heart's delight' added such resonance to those long ago November Saturdays at Highbury? Last Saturday the pre- match entertainment was a bright green pantomime dinosaur called the Gunnersaurus. While he may be OK in his way, I suppose, I can't see him bringing the same wellie to 'Girls Were Made To Love and Kiss'. Secondly, Tottenham's Bagel Junction may cater perfectly well to the needs of the inner supporter, but is there a ground left anywhere in the country where I can still get a decent bowl of mushy peas?

Peter Corrigan is on holiday

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