Won over by the sugar daddy of them all

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The Independent Online
SPORTING sugar daddies have had a week of unprecedented attention. Normally content to stay in the background, paying the bills and pulling the strings, they have been propelled en masse into the daily drama in a variety of high-profile ways; one is in a state of ecstasy, one was sent to prison, one has accused another of being vulgar, another has precipitated a serious controversy over the way England Test cricket is run and several are bleeding heavily from the wallet.

That so many have invaded the scene at once has come as a shock to anyone who didn't realise how much our sporting outcomes depend on the whims of multi- millionaires. It wouldn't happen if sport was as independent and self- sufficient as it ought to be. As might have been written in the Bible, it should be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of sporting glory than for a camel to pass through the Wimbledon defence without being kicked.

Alas, the shirts have long been sold. Most of them have gone to good homes, fortunately, but there is a wealth of difference between those queueing up to pour money into sport. It has been issuing from Rupert Murdoch at a such a rate that he would easily win the gold medal at money- shovelling if it was ever recognised as an Olympic sport - which it may well be one day.

But Murdoch's best friend wouldn't call him a sporting benefactor; the genuine version of that breed has neither global ambitions nor profit motive. He can't help himself being drawn towards the roar of the crowd and the smell of the linament by irresistible forces planted deep in his breast at a young age. Those forces come to the surface when he realises that wallowing in millions can be a lonely and unfulfilling life.

Jack Walker is the epitome of such men and to see him emerge from the shadows of Ewood Park last week to share in the acclaim for Blackburn's championship was to see living proof that investing in dreams can pay a dividend. He will not see much back of the pounds 60m of his personal fortune he has spent on his home-town club over the past seven years but he has bought himself a central role in a fairy tale that is likely to run for years yet. There are many of us who would consider that to be a bargain.

Just to prove that not all benefactors are built of the same stuff, a rich man who next week hopes to see his club Reading win at Wembley and step into the Premiership considers that there is "something vulgar" about the way Walker has spent his millions to win the title.

Reading's chairman, John Madejski, is reputed to be worth pounds 145m but says that his style is not based on throwing money away. He has spent enough to stabilise previously wonky finances but runs a tight balance sheet. You can gauge his attitude by the fact that Madejski will today fulfil a promise to walk to Wembley in aid of Children in Need. My type of millionaire would sponsor someone else to do it for him but we must acknowledge an individual's rights and Reading's chairman falls into a category seen many times in football before.

They make their money in a business like coin-operated washeterias and come into football busting to employ the same methods, convinced that their brains are far more valuable than their wallets. Success may well lie in this direction but there has not been a high rate of success for this approach. Robert Maxwell adopted a similar technique, with a touch of bullying thrown in, when he tried to run a couple of clubs. It is just as well Maxwell didn't put any money in, otherwise former employees of the Mirror Group might be enjoying the singular experience of watching their pensions play in the Second Division.

The number of football magnates who are feeling the lightness of their wallets weighing heavily on their back pockets include Sir Jack Hayward, who has spent pounds 30m aiming Wolverhampton Wanderers for the Premiership but on Tuesday watched his team fall to Bolton and miss their chance of promotion. But he is not deterred: "I will throw money at this until it succeeds. I will carry on dreaming."

He will not be alone. Sir John Hall has put a comparatively modest pounds 14m into Newcastle United and is ready to stake his manager Kevin Keegan's search for new players who will get them closer to the top next time. Similarly obsessed are the mega-rich David Thompson of Queen's Park Rangers, Peter Johnson of Everton, Alan Sugar of Spurs and Matthew Harding, who has just joined forces with Ken Bates at Chelsea.

Still breathing heavily after their narrow escape from relegation are Doug Ellis, of Aston Villa, and Eric Grove, of Coventry City. That particularly nasty relegation battle was the reason so many managers lost their jobs and why, no doubt, there will soon be a rash of manager-poaching from rival clubs.

Over the past 100 years or so, it has been no novelty for football clubs to be run by rich men but they were usually rich in local terms; aldermanic figures who took on the team as part of their civic duty. A few clubs have become dynastic such as the Hill-Woods at Arsenal, the Cobbolds at Ipswich, the Mooreses at Liverpool and the Edwardses at Manchester United.

But never before have there been as many single-minded and heavily bank- rolled moguls aiming their clubs to the stars. If you couple them with those in charge of large sponsorship budgets then this applies to sport as a whole. One of cricket's biggest sponsors, the City analyst Patrick Whittingdale, is pulling out of the game because he disagrees with the way Ray Illingworth is managing the England team.

Illingworth retorted that sponsors should put up and shut up but that is not the way of things these days. He who pays the piper is inclined to take a vice-like grip of the pipe. We trust, however, that the lesson of the Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie, who tried to help his dreams along by trying to fix a game, will be heeded. He was sentenced to a year's jail by a French court last week.

Jack Walker has no challengers as the happiest mogul of the week - and is an example to them all.

CONGRATULATIONS to rugby union's five nations for putting into place a European club competition for next season. Initially, 12 clubs from Wales, France, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Romania will play, with English clubs joining in the following season. They have emphasised that no outside agency will have anything to do with running it. They will sell the TV rights but stay in charge.

What a shame that rugby league didn't go about their switch to summer in the same way. Guess which set of clubs will have more control over their future.

THE American TV commentator Ben Wright is in trouble for his reference to lesbians in women's golf. It would be unfair if the ensuing row dissuaded anyone from making their way to Kent today to watch the Ford Classic. They will see golf played by women who deserve to be regarded as golfers pure and simple. But last week's announcement of a new sponsor doesn't help the cause. A women's tournament backed by Wilkinson Sword isn't going to help shake off the butch image.