I was at a dinner recently organised by an acquaintance who's a very big noise in the oil industry. He runs a company with revenues of around £200bn and he is a substantial donor to the Conservative party.
In the normal course of events, it's safe to say, we wouldn't have very much in common. But by an accident of birth, or other happenstance, we have a shared support for Manchester City football club, and he took time off from running the world's largest oil trader to invite a number of people with a similar football affliction to come together and share their stories. I was struck by a contribution from one of our fellow diners, also a big wheel in business, who explained how he had come to follow City up and down the country, not to mention up and down the divisions, for more than 30 years.
“When I was young,” he said, “I asked my father why we supported City. All my schoolfriends were United fans, and so were all my relatives. Yet I was dragooned by my dad to support City. Why was that, I asked him? And his answer? He said it was easier to park at City's ground! And because of that, I've had 30 years of heartbreak. ”And,“ he added, ”the very occasional triumph.“
I tell this story because, in a week when some of the worst aspects of our national game have been exposed – the reckless greed for success, the shameful abrogation of loyalty, the callous disavowal of sentiment – it goes to show that football relies on an emotional connection, and tradition, and culture, in a way that other billion-pound industries in Britain just do not. To update Bill Shankly's phrase: football isn't a business, it's more important than that.
This point seems to have escaped Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, pictured, whose brutal sacking of manager Roberto di Matteo just 21 games after he had delivered the European Cup has outraged Chelsea supporters, and indeed anyone with a feeling for fair play. Abramovich may say that the club belongs to him, and not to the supporters, and in a narrow sense he is right. Football fans put up with quite a lot as it is – the casting aside of their favourite player, the purchase of one they once loathed – but they understand more than most that loyalty is a two-way street. Their patronage can be relied upon, but not taken for granted.
Everyone appreciates this is a game of buying and selling, but when it becomes nothing but that, when distinguished service, loyalty, and a connection with that indefinable quality – the spirit of a club – are wilfully disregarded, then even an all-powerful owner who can bend minions to his will is asking for trouble. Or at least that would be the proper ending for this particular morality tale. As it happens, I shall be at Chelsea on Sunday afternoon. I will sympathise with their disenfranchised supporters before the game, and hope to be in a position to be magnanimous towards them afterwards. Have a good weekend.