I lost my innocence in the summer of ‘77, the year that Elvis died. It wasn’t Elvis’s fault and it wasn’t that sort of innocence either. For that I’d have to take you to a seedy back-street in Singapore a few years earlier, but the less remembered about that the better, and it isn’t that sort of a blog anyhow: I’m told there are better sites that cater for those sorts of tastes anyhow. It rained a lot in ‘77, and there was a big storm in London on the 16th August, the night the self-styled King of Rock and Roll passed away. I remember that because we were en-route from Chelmsford to West Drayton: we’d just played Essex, and were about to take on Middlesex. Oh the giddy heights of the County Second XI circuit, but we stopped to pay homage at the Hard Rock Café anyway, although as we were young we didn’t properly understand why grown men cried that night, the late summer storm mimicking their desperate tears as the last relic of teenage years washed away.
But it was some storm, and although the next day dawned fresh and clear, the ground we were playing at was almost underwater: no chance of play on the first day (and little chance for all three days, to be honest, but we persuaded the umpires that there might be) and so we turned to what we normally turned to, which that summer was Three-card Brag. We’d played for matchsticks and pennies most of the season, but that day one of our players Dad’s had turned up to watch, and rather than go straight home again he joined our card school. Brag’s a kind of boiled-down Poker, relying heavily on bluff and nerve: we’d had a lot of fun with it on rainy days, but it was never the same again after Barry joined in. He watched our small-stakes bravado for a few hands, and then suddenly went a Pound blind, dramatically raising the stakes and putting the game out of most of our reach. We couldn’t double our stakes to see him for long, and despite sitting on good hands, we knew it was time to fold. Self-made man that he was he couldn’t see the point of playing for fun or skill, even against us kids: winning was everything to him, and as with so much in his life, he bragged and bought his way to the prize. I remember thinking that there was another sort of game going on, not one that I understood or cared for, but somehow important to those that played it. It wasn’t cards, and it certainly wasn’t cricket, but it was money – and that playing the game of money seemed to trump everything for those that played it.
I saw the same thing happen with wine and horses too. Racing had always been a rich man’s pastime, but first Robert Sangster, then the Arabs and latterly the Coolmore gang soon saw that it didn’t need to be a game at all. Invest heavily enough in the right blood lines, and the glittering prizes would inevitably follow: what splutterings of righteous indignation there were as the former aristocrats of the Turf found themselves priced out of their own favourite game, reduced to mere bit-players and onlookers at Ascot, Epsom and Longchamp. They couldn’t even drown their sorrows properly either: heavy investment in Bordeaux and Burgundy had now left Fine Wine the preserve of the Far-Eastern super-rich, seduced by the glamour of the famous name labels. Only the best will do for them, apparently, which is why Chateau Petrus retails at over a Grand a bottle in the Hong Kong restaurants: that it is then openly diluted with Coca-Cola somehow only adding insult to injury, and causing my mate in the Wine Trade serious problems as he smiles through gritted teeth while all the time laughing on his way to the bank.
And it was only a matter of time before cricket and football went the same way down the money road. Kerry Packer and Tony Greig saw that a long time before the cricket establishment ever did, and their World Series altered the face of cricket and the way it was played once and for all. All changed, changed utterly, the terrible beauty of the T20 game and its offshoot leagues born the moment Channel 9 saw that stay at home Aussie punters would pay to watch great sport from the comfort of their sprawling suburban homes. Sky and the bookies followed hot on their heels, just as they did when they saw that football was ripe for a rebrand, and it is essentially the TV money that explains why a few gifted lads, barely out of their teens, boast Hampstead homes and toothsome cars. But something else and more exciting happened with football as it moved away from its working-class origins and lost its automatic association with violent thuggery. The clubs themselves became the latest must have fashion accessory for the uber-rich and what better way to parade your success than to own one. The likes of Jack Walker showed what could happen when you suddenly take over and throw money at an under-achieving club: the Leeds and Portsmouths of the world showing the dangers of such an approach.
Because that is the danger for the high-rollers: you might raise the stakes, but you can never be quite sure if someone with more money might one day join the game and trump you by going “an oil-well blind”. Abramovich saw the possibilities, and for a while his spending made all the difference: indeed, he turned the game on its head for a while, partly to posture, but also perhaps to launder a reputation. But what a transformation in no time at all for that club: the greatest players in the world flocked to his side, and it seemed as if his dominance would be absolute. Except for three reasons, and they are worth looking at for a moment. Sport is unpredictable, and although friendly officials might influence a game, results can never be guaranteed: luck will play its part, and that capricious madam can never be wholly owned. Players, though dearly bought, still need to play, to be organised, to be motivated – and sometimes if they have already had great success elsewhere, their new huge salaries can take the edge of their hunger. It is not every manager that can cope with the combination of ego and slight lethargy, nor perhaps with the potential for interference from the wealthy owner. How irritating it would be if you felt obliged to play an out of form striker in a vital tie, for instance. And thirdly, and Arsene Wenger noted this many months ago now, there is an increasing pool of high quality players due partly to the success of new European coaching initiatives and partly to the shrinking of the world, leading to African and South American players more readily available. However many players you might buy to send out on loan, you can’t own them all, and the properly competitive nature of this year’s Premiership is proof of that.
There will be few who didn’t enjoy the delicious irony of Chelsea moaning about PSG’s expenditure earlier this week, and even fewer true Arsenal supporters who didn’t see the home draw against the City oil-slickers (achieved by our virtual second team) as a cause for due rejoicing. Make no mistake, the events of the last week show the footballing landscape shifting yet again. For a while, it did seem that the game was indeed all about the money, and that like those poor cricketers back in the 70s, there would be little point in trying to compete against brash new cash. But Barry had a heart attack not long after, and I suspect Jose is already uncomfortably aware of his owner’s displeasure. Barca are in trouble, and it’s a china orange to the whole of Lombard Street that a legion irregularities will be exposed elsewhere. More bankruptcies will follow as owners withdraw their support (you’d worry about Cardiff, Fulham and QPR right now), and as night follows day well run clubs like The Arsenal will continue to thrive as the post-cash injection football world becomes all shook-up. They say that cynics know the price of everything but the value of nothing – but Arsene knows that without holding on to proper values everyone will have to pay a terrible price. We were lucky to have him at the helm for the first few years of his managership – but truly blessed to have had him steer the ship for the last few when it got really difficult. And as Elvis might have said to him, our success, our stadium and our future prospects are all down to the wonder of you
Today’s post came from The Gnabster @foreverheady, give him a follow, you wont regret it.