Elton John: 'So many love this game, yet it is being taken from them'

The Watford president talks to James Lawton about a passion for football that remains undimmed despite deep worries about its direction

Wednesday 01 December 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Sir Elton John is still in love with football but in the way of so many affairs this one has become a little complicated. Well maybe not so little.

Not when, for example, he considers the machinations of the people behind Wayne Rooney – "a player I always thought was ready to die out there out on the field." Or the treatment handed down to the great coach Carlo Ancelotti by Roman Abramovich. Or the way Fabio Capello addresses the national team in English so fractured it would scarcely do if it came from lips of the newest waiter at the local trattoria.

Some of this, he says, makes him so angry, well, he just wants to spit.

If he was in charge of football for a day the first casualty would be Fifa, the world's governing body, and its all-powerful, all-manipulative president Sepp Blatter and his cohorts and army of minions in their Swiss bastion and counting house.

"What drives me so mad," he declares, "is that that so many people love this game, at all its levels from the World Cup and the Champions League to the Blue Square and yet all the time it is being taken further away from them.

"Just take an issue like technology and how it could prevent so many fiascos like the Frank Lampard 'goal' in South Africa or Thierry Henry so obviously handling the ball in a World Cup qualifying match and everyone knowing it the moment it happened except the referee. What do Fifa do? They come up with two extra officials supervising the goal area, two more potential Herberts."

The Ancelotti business – when one of football's most distinguished managers, who delivered the English Double in his first season, was powerless when the word came down from the executive suite that his friend and assistant Ray Wilkins had been fired and would be replaced by a man he allegedly didn't want – was so inflaming partly because it took Elton John back nearly 40 years.

Back to the time when he became the "hands on" chairman of his beloved Watford and the mover of an ultimate fantasy for a passionate football fan. Watford climbed through all the divisions of the old Football League, finished second in the land and made it to Wembley. It was an extraordinary, romantic adventure but it was founded on one unswerving principle.

Elton John had the money, millions of it, and was ready to put a considerable amount in place when a new signing was required but he swore he would never lose sight of one crucial fact. It was that if he adored football, if he was thrilled, like the old steelman Jack Walker who bankrolled Blackburn Rovers' Premier League title triumph, to return to something that had so lifted and coloured his boyhood, then loving football and knowing it, all its traps and its truths, were two different matters.

It is why he trusted and empowered men such as his friend Graham Taylor, Bertie Mee, the schoolmasterly figure who presided over Arsenal's 1971 Double-winning team, and Eddie Plumley, one of the game's most experienced administrators.

"It was the most wonderful, exciting time," says the man who is still president of Watford, "and even though the world and football has changed so much since then it had something which was so precious that if it is lost, finally, well, the game is dead.

"I'm talking about that love of the game. Back then some of the old chairmen got a lot of things wrong, and I knew that even when they gave me presents of fresh fish and pork pies from their shops when we had a drink in the boardroom after a game.

"But you know there was always a sense that they understood the power of football and what it meant to people in the community around them. That was something that came across overwhelmingly in the company of the chairman of Ipswich, John Cobbold – an amazing character who wanted to do everything he could for Bobby Robson – just as I tried to do for Graham [Taylor], by way of thanks for what football had given down the years."

Now, certain attitudes are rather less beguiling. He worries that if it isn't a hard-driven profit motive that spurs so many of today's football leaders it is maybe the sense that great, and small, clubs of the people have become personal playthings. In such cases, he says with the possible inference that he has a certain oligarch in mind, "why don't they just buy pieces of art that appeal to them and go in a quiet room to look at them?"

Why, he also wants to know, are young footballers who are given the world, so coddled, why is there so much talk of the physical pressure on them, why do so many of them "saunter" around the field and spend so much time in the treatment room.

"You see a great player like [Cesc] Fabregas always injured and you wonder what is happening? Why did so few players, including John Barnes and Luther Blissett, do so much when Watford were fighting their way to the top and Bill Shankly won the title for Liverpool while using 12 players. These are the things that disturb you. You don't begrudge the rewards but you do sometimes question the effort."

The president of Watford, at the age of 63, does more than 150 shows a year around the world and when you tell him that a super-fit multi-millionaire professional football in his early 20s has to be rotated and nursed to his maximum performance there is a short pause, an intake of breath and the request to give him a break.

None of this, he is quick to point out, discourages him from sitting in Los Angles or Sydney mesmerised by the football scores flicking along the running tape at the bottom of the television screen – or tuning into some great match involving Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or, ideally, his absolute favourite, Manchester United's Paul Scholes.

He is also much taken with the recent work of Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur and imagines that he might make an interesting stab at the England job. "Of course anyone who knows anything about football has to respect a coach of Fabio Capello's standing," he says. "He has so many achievements, but he has no background in English football, doesn't even speak the language and how do you really communicate with a player if you don't do that? When you see this situation, you have to ask what are those people at the FA doing and thinking and what world they inhabit?

"You have to be impressed with what Redknapp is doing at Spurs, what he is saying to someone like Gareth Bale, who couldn't get in the team a year ago and is now one of the world's most exciting players."

He is rather less impressed by the style of Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. "When you see City you have to ask why is [Carlos] Tevez playing up on his own and Adam Johnson is sitting on the bench? Surely Johnson is one of the most exciting young English players to come along in recent years. He believes in himself and his talent, and yet he cannot get in on the act. If I was a City fan I would feel like killing someone."

There are other, deep concerns, however, the greatest of which is that the heartland of Elton John's football is in danger of sliding into history – that a club like Crewe Alexander, run for so long with brilliant acumen by his friend Dario Gradi, might submit to the pressures that have come with the selfish rush of today's big-time game, with its hoarding of the television money and its corporate values.

"Some people in football might think that the Crewe Alexandras don't matter but they couldn't be more wrong. You find the heartbeat of football in places like that. You see what the game is really about. You see the love...."

Then you also see Wayne Rooney holding Manchester United up for ransom. You see Adam Johnson dying on the vine. You see Carlo Ancelotti publicly humiliated. And when you see such things it is as though John Cobbold, popping another cork and the fish and the pork pies in the back of the car, must have been a thousand years ago.

What can you do? Merely reflect, maybe, as you switch on for the results, that in the end love is love and sooner or later it tends to hurt.

How football is helping the fight against HIV/Aids

Grace Lungu is 23-years-old and lives in Lusaka in Zambia. Like many people her age, she is passionate about football and loved watching the World Cup in the summer. She is also worried about HIV in her country, where half of all new infections come from people in her age group or younger. An organisation called Grassroot Soccer (GRS), offered her the chance to use her love of sport to do something about HIV prevention and gender equality.

GRS uses the power of football to provide young people, especially girls, with the knowledge, skills, and support to live HIV free. By using the dynamics of football – team spirit, relying on one another, trusting and following a coach – GRS builds trust and understanding that enables kids and their families to know their HIV status.

"I became a coach with Grassroot Soccer and this year I've started a girl's soccer team in Lusaka, called Goal Girl Goal, with young women from the Chikumbuso Women and Orphans project, women who are especially vulnerable to HIV," said Grace. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to make a unique contribution to the fight against HIV/Aids in Zambia."

Grassroot Soccer uses the power of the game to educate, inspire, and mobilise communities to stop the spread of HIV. Over 350,000 young people in Africa have graduated from their HIV prevention programmes. In 2010 alone, GRS has enabled 10,000 young people to know their HIV status. Its goal is to educate a million on HIV between the 2010 and 2014 World Cup tournaments. The Elton John AIDS Foundation is helping it reach that goal.

The Grassroot Soccer programme also uses a video featuring Thierry Henry and Emmanual Adebayor that encourages kids to get tested for HIV.

"When I was asked by the Elton John AIDS Foundation to appear in a short film to encourage kids to get tested for HIV, I was only too delighted to help,' says Henry. The Foundation and their partners, including GRS have helped to test thousands of young people in South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia and I am proud to support such a worthwhile cause."

Elton's Heroes: #5 Paul Scholes

It can hardly be said that Paul Scholes, who was 36 last month, had to wait too long for recognition. You do not wait for something about which you are pretty much oblivious.

He was amused more than anything when his more celebrated Manchester United team-mate David Beckham pursued attention with an exuberant, shameless relish – leaping, for example, on the back of team-mates who had scored in the knowledge that he would also decorate the morning back pages – but for Scholes all that would always be the least of it.

It is one reason why many fine judges of the game increasingly see him as the perfect footballer – the player of players, the carrot-topped Catholic roundhead in an age of cavalier self-indulgence, a master player still relishing his game and retaining his values.

Well, maybe not the perfect footballer because you cannot lay claim to that distinction if your tackling displays not sleek and cynically sophisticated technique but more the operating style of a combine harvester. Scholes is a horrible tackler. It is when he has the ball, legally, at his feet that you see his beauty, yes beauty.

He is not beautiful in the way of his great predecessor for United and England, Sir Bobby Charlton. His football does not flow seamlessly across the field. It crackles, relentlessly, with a creative force, an ability to dissect any defence.

It is a shock when he misplaces a single pass. It is the beauty of the most functional art. There are no showy adornments, no flourishes, just the thrilling sensation that whenever he moves into space, which he does with an unerring instinct for a dangerous place, to receive the ball there is a clear and dangerous purpose.

In 2004, after a frustrating time at the European Championships, Scholes told England's then manager Sven Goran Eriksson that in future he would concentrate on his club career.

He had wearied of being moved around the team as Eriksson strived to accommodate headliners like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Beckham. At the time, reaction was of mild regret. It was only in the following years that the extent of the loss was grasped – and confirmed when Fabio Capello pleaded unsuccessfully with him to return to the squad for the World Cup in South Africa earlier this year. Scholes later regretted his decision, saying he had felt rushed and unsure about the consequences.

One certainty was that Scholes's reputation would not have been imperilled. It will, for one place, always be enshrined in the assessment of Bobby Charlton, who says of him: "He is a player whose love of the game glows in every stride he makes out on the field. There is purity about his game [except when he is tackling] an understanding of it and a talent for it, which you just wish everyone could share. He makes me feel young again – and aching to play once more."

No, Paul Scholes didn't wait for recognition. It simply tracked him down.

James Lawton

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