There’s a very old joke that goes something like this: “Please don’t tell my mother I’m in advertising. She thinks I play piano in a brothel.”
Well, for the first time in the many years since that pleasantry was coined, it is now possible to do both: to be in advertising and at the centre of something wholly disreputable.
Last week, the FA Premier League advertised for a director of marketing. The successful applicant must be a “graduate, with an exemplary track record”, and will be “responsible for maximising the League’s extensive range of revenue-generating opportunities”.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the immediate appeal of this job to a young graduate setting out on life’s long journey of discovery. Most jobs, however enticingly they might be promoted, lack adventure. The City, the professions, retailing, even the media, are all worlds hedged in by rules and conventions that seem designed to confine the youthful spirit. Not so the Premiership. To land a job in professional football is to enter a world which magically combines the riches of Sumatra with the restraint of Dodge City.
Thanks to the sudden and enormous infusion of wealth from BSkyB, now measured in billions, the English Premiership has become the most vivid and powerful expression of popular culture in the world. It has evolved so fast and effectively that it no longer has anything to do with sport. Rather it is the focus of a ritualised tribal warfare that gives vent to the tastes and preferences of Blair’s new middle class.
Spectators’ painted faces, the endlessly repeated songs and chanted obscenities, the synchronised displays of aggression, the naked hatred – much of it racial – that fills the terraces, the shared thrill of submerging one’s quotidian identity in the 90-minute mindlessness of the mob are all forceful reminders of how thin and brittle is the surface crust of civilisation and what lies beneath.
Whoever takes on the job of director of marketing at the league ought to tread warily, not for fear of falling into an abyss of fetid corruption, but lest he or she should unwittingly damage the perfection of misrule and anarchy that the league has created for itself, and in which it flourishes.
No director of marketing, however gifted or imaginative, could have contrived a product so admirably suited to its following as football. Yet there are those who thoughtlessly wish to change it. When players aggrieved that a decision has gone against them descend on the referee like a pack of ravening dogs, when players trade punches on the pitch, when the police are summoned to deal with fights in the tunnel after a game, there are always voices raised bemoaning the barbaric behaviour and calling for savage penalties – both of which would ruin the modern game.
It is rightly said that football reflects society. This is its appeal. Society is sufficiently vain to relish the reflection of its own image. That is why we make heroes of Paul Gascoigne, Dennis Wise, Ian Wright MBE and Stan Collymore, and are content to see their kind paid more than the chief executive of ICI.
Last week, when Collymore set off a fire extinguisher and sprayed fellow guests at the Hyatt Regency hotel in La Manga, Spain, forcing the evacuation of 100 holidaymakers, he described it as “having a bit of a laugh with the lads”. It’s a sentiment that immediately evokes the empathetic brotherhood of all those other lads up and down the queendom who follow football. After all, what is life without a bit of a laugh? Similarly, what football follower would not nod a shaven head in almost telepathic fellow feeling upon hearing Collymore’s first words as he entered the hotel bar that night: “Where are the girls, then? Where do we find them? Where’s the shag?”
Whenever Gazza breaks some part of his body on another player’s head, when Roy Keane pushes his snarling face to within inches of the referee’s nose, when a few of the lads break up the furniture for a bit of a laugh, it is said that sponsors might withdraw their money. Why? They would be mad to do so. When John McEnroe was the most accomplished cockroach in the world of sport, Bic Razors paid him a small fortune to advertise its products. It knew he was not only extremely popular but also that his attraction derived from his exceptional gift for reflecting society. The Premiership’s marketing director must see it as the first of his or her duties to ensure the creation that has given us such shenanigans, on and off the pitch, remains intact.
Moreover, it is quite wrong to say football operates without rules. Sir Alex Ferguson explains the correct form that should characterise exchanges between players and referee. “If it had been Paul Durkin, they would have said ‘for ****’s sake, Paul, Christ almighty, what sort of ****ing decision is that? And Paul would have said: ‘Listen, Roy, **** off.'”
There is no substitute for etiquette. It has taken many millions of pounds and countless man hours to reach that consummate understanding between officials and players. A director of marketing tampers with it at his or her peril.