It’s 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 31 March. Instead of writing this I could/should be watching England’s World Cup game with Turkey live on my public service BBC TV. As it is, I will have to wait until 10.10 tonight to get the highlights. Between now and 10.10 tonight I will also have to not buy the Evening Standard, not watch the Nine O’Clock News and not pay my usual early-evening visit to the pub. All information outlets must be shunned. Some public service.
On the other hand, if the World Cup means so much to me, why don’t I do what several thousand other armchair fans have had to do this season – sign up with Sky TV? On Sky, I would get not only the World Cup but also the pick of the Premier League action, plus Eurosoccer by the yard, plus The Boot Room, The Big League, Andy Gray and all manner of other soccer-goodies. With Sky, I need never walk again.
Why don’t I then – sign up? A few months ago, when it was announced that a deal had been struck between the BBC, BSkyB and the Premier League, my answer would have been: ‘Why should I?’ I might even have adopted a principled position. As I understood it, the new arrangement – by which the BBC yielded to Sky nearly all the most interesting fixtures – was something of a stitch-up: the three parties had conspired to cut out ITV. For the BBC this had presumably been in the interests of revenge; a few years earlier ITV had stitched them up. But why should we be made to suffer, made to pay? Turkey v. England should surely be a licence-holder’s inalienable right – like the Budget or the Boat Race.
Thus spake the average fan, one to another, and at the beginning of the season there did seem to be a feeling that the whole deal might collapse under the weight of public indignation. Then was even talk of ITV’s Greg Dyke taking the issue to court. Perhaps he did; perhaps he still intends to. No one any longer seems to know or care. In soccer, indignations are short-lived; they have to be. Within a matter of weeks, Sky’s obnoxious ‘whole new ball game’ has become as familiar as Man United’s new away strip. And meanwhile, the Norway game has come and gone, not to mention the home tie against Turkey and the great San Marino massacre. And Holland will be happening quite soon. With two-thirds of the season gone, a dozen other major contests have been lost to view. It’s getting serious. I’m weakening. I think I’ll sign.
If I do, it will no doubt feel like a defeat – albeit a narrow one, in extra time. And my cave-in will remind me yet again that there are few scruples strong enough to do battle with my soccer-lust. It has been wisely said that viewers of football can be divided by the Heysel test, by their responses to that night eight years ago when, having tuned in to watch the soccer, they found themselves watching people die. Some viewers switched off in horror and disgust. Some claimed that they would never again watch a football match. Others stayed on to get what they had come for – Liverpool against Juventus. The game kicked off as soon as all the corpses had been cleared away and, as I remember it, not one of the group I was watching with showed the slightest inclination to switch off. One or two looked uncomfortable, but another one or two (including me) carried on wanting Liverpool to – well, not exactly crush the Eyeties, but ... It was indeed a night of shame.
‘For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,’ wrote Nick Hornby in his excellent Fever Pitch last year. The people who run football, run TV, know that most fans are moronic, that they will put up with just about anything that’s thrown at them provided that they are allowed to keep their fantasies intact, provided that they get to see the game. Hornby is an Arsenal supporter so maybe the worst he has to put up with is that he does get to see the game; for others, though, fan-loyalty is more variously tested and disdained.
At Spurs, for instance, ‘my own team’, the last few years have brought an almost unbroken series of humiliations and embarrassments, most of them to do with low-level money-grabbing schemes that have gone wrong: the executive box mania, the flotation, the diversification into ‘leisure industry’ pursuits, the Saatchi ad campaign, the computerised ticketing, the Spurs credit card, the 0898 Hotline, the Hummel shirt fiasco and numerous other flashy brainwaves – most of them issuing from Irving Scholar in his Monaco tax haven. When Spurs sold Chris Waddle to Marseilles for four and a half million pounds, fans large and small whinged in the streets, or on the East Stand scaffolding, and they whinged some more when it was revealed that the Waddle loot was needed to offset the losses of a Spurs-owned ladies’ fashion-wear concern, but even at this, the darkest hour, these same whingers managed to cling onto their belief that Tottenham Hotspur was the team to follow if you wanted style, flair, art for art’s sake, and so on. For believers such as these, the business flops could soon be regarded as endearingly Spurs-like – good up front and leaky in defence. If Irving Scholar had been chairman of Arsenal, no doubt his Crappy brainwaves would have worked.
And it is this tenacity, if that’s the word, that also makes it easy for Spurs fans to forget that when Alan Sugar saved the club from bankruptcy, he surely had other scenarios in mind. Sugar’s Amstrad company manufactures the satellite dishes used by Sky subscribers and, as it turned out, Spurs’ pro-Sky vote was crucial in the Premier League deal. But we fans have forgotten this and we’ve forgotten too, that it was Terry Venables, Sugar’s partner-in-salvation, who helped to draw up the Spurs takeover package that sent Paul Gascoigne off to Lazio. EL Tel genuinely wanted to keep Gascoigne but he knew that the Midland Bank would never allow a near-insolvent Company to hang onto its prime asset. However, he also knows the fan-mentality, and he has somehow managed to persuade us that Irving Scholar was to blame for letting Gazza go. In fact, poor Scholar was busy with Gazza-saving schemes right to the end. Unluckily, his only source of finance was Robert Maxwell: another good reason for Sugar, Rupert Murdoch’s friend, to have moved in when he did.
Irving Scholar is now seen as a typical loadsamoney illusionist of the Eighties, and is taken to be the architect of all Spurs’ financial cock-ups in that decade. His book, Behind Closed Doors, is a lengthy, often turgid plea for the defence. In it, he denounces his directors, his legal advisers, his managers – and in particular El Tel. At first Scholar was in awe of Terry’s ‘silver tongue’, his charisma, his fame, his entrepreneurial restlessness. He liked to think they were two of a kind: chirpy guys from nowhere who knew how to make today-things happen. All is sourness now, though, and Scholar – ousted by Venables and Sugar – is anxious to hit Terry where it hurts. The trouble is, he is not sure how to do it. Thus, he tells of Venables blubbing in the lav after a Cup defeat at Bradford, yet on another page he asserts that Tel cares more for money than he does for what happens on the field. According to Scholar, Venables habitually refers to his playing staff as ‘stock’ – ‘as if he was a stallholder selling ladies’ underwear in Petticoat Lane’: an unfortunate jibe when we remember where the Waddle money went. And yet else-where Venables is said to be habitually reluctant to turn stock into ready cash, even when the stock has had its day: ‘Like all managers, he liked to have lots of players around him – it seems that the presence of physical bodies gives him a sense of security.’
From the fans’ point of view, Scholar’s most provocative charge is that Venables had some responsibility for wrecking Gascoigne’s knee in the 1991 Cup Final. Scholar, who spent most of that Final, by his own account, making a big impression on the Royals, says now that ‘even before the foul I had that feeling that Gascoigne had been wound up specially for the match ... Later I was to learn that Venables had turned the key on the young player to get him psyched up for the occasion.’ Scholar hates it when players are called ‘stock’ but is happy enough, it seems, to think of them as clockwork toys. How Venables ‘turned the key’ we do not learn.
Venables was of course originally hired by Scholar, who jetted to Florida to snap him up, while others dithered. And it was lucky that Spurs had a vacancy when they did – a vacancy created by the resignation of Tel’s predecessor, David Pleat. Pleat had been fingered by the Sun as a kerb-crawler and there was much bar-room speculation at the time about tip-offs, fit-ups, Sun stringers on the Met. The first Sun revelations came in July 1987, and Pleat survived these. The second round came in October; this time Spurs sorrowingly sent him on his way. Scholar, who primly never says what the Pleat scandal was about, can now recall:
Curiously, when David’s problem first surfaced in the summer I had received a telephone call from a very keen Spurs supporter, who I knew was very friendly with Terry Venables ... He chit-chatted for a couple of minutes, and then he suddenly said: ‘I’ve got Terry’s number on holiday, and he would be very interested in hearing from you.’ I politely declined the offer.
What is the point of this anecdote? Are we meant to connect it with Scholar’s repeated sneers about Venables’s cosy relations with the press? Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail is said to have ‘got’ Venables his earlier big job at Barcelona and is named here as one of Terry’s ‘sycophants’ – the others are Kevin Moseley of the Express and Martin Samuel of the Sun. Scholar suggests that – on the matter of Pleat – he knows more than he is saving, and no doubt he does: after all, it was he who chose to accept Pleat’s resignation. ‘I was particularly upset, as I had believed he was going to be Spurs manager for many years to come.’
Scholar’s own methods with the media are simple: he gets on with them, but not too well. ‘I have never cultivated the press,’ he says, even though ‘when you want to be a mover and a shaker in the industry you’ve also got to establish an identity.’ His own faults, if they can be called faults, have tended to be the opposite of El Tel’s. Whatever mistakes Scholar made, he made them ‘for the glory game’ – something that he felt ‘meant nothing’ to Venables. Scholar loves Tottenham and hints that Venables does not (he remembers how El Veg was barracked for not trying when he played for Spurs in the late Sixties). At one point, Scholar compares himself to Gatsby: ‘his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’ And he is forever boasting of his polished Euro-know-how, his multilingual communication skills. Peter Shreeve, who preceded David Pleat, was probably the sort of manager he would have wished Terry Venables to be, or to become:
It was this reference to the French that was to produce a curious postscript. Peter Shreeve had just taken over as manager. That afternoon he came to see me and said: ‘Sorry to bother you. I just wanted to know what you said about the French in your speech.’ As I looked a little bemused he continued: ‘You know, er, about how they play.’ ‘You mean joie de vivre, Peter?’ ‘That’s the word, What does it mean?’ I explained that it was a Gallic expression that stood for gay abandon, and Peter nodded his head, obviously taking it in.
It has to be confessed, though, that underneath all the bogusness, the boasting and the spite, Scholar is what he says he is: a Spurs fan through and through. His ‘greatest fault’, his co-writer Mihir Bose attests, has been ‘to love Tottenham and football to excess’. According to Chris Horrie’s Sick as a Parrot – a witty account of Spurs’ tragicomic decade – Scholar is ‘a bottomless repository of soccer trivia – “Ere, I’ve got one for you,” he would say and out would come a question about who was the first Tottenham player to score more than one hat-trick in the FA Cup or something equally arcane’:
Social events in his house in Chester Square in posh Regent’s Park, where the perfectly proportioned Georgian rooms were cluttered up with mountains of tacky Spurs memorabilia, were a nightmare for anyone not interested in football. Conversation would quickly be pulled around to Spurs and out would come treasured Souvenirs such as old match programmes, signed photos or the new invention of videoed collections of great goals.
Biographical data of this sort makes Scholar seem less on top of things than he, in his book, pretends. He wants us to admire him as a lethal wheeler-dealer but he is also pitiably keen to prove his fanhood. And he doesn’t want us to laugh when he recounts how, on becoming chairman of Spurs, one of his first acts was to pull on a first team shirt and get stuck into a kickaround with Ossie, Archie, Garth and all the lads: within minutes Scholar snapped an Achilles tendon and thus spent the early weeks of his chairmanship with his leg in plaster – a symbolic crippling that would have been made much of by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All in all, Scholar has good reason to feel undervalued by the terrace diehards. Fan of fans, he brought to Spurs great players like Waddle, Gascoigne and Lineker. None of them is still there of course but even so. Perhaps a club chairman cannot be a fan. In the case of Waddle, and to some extent of Gascoigne, the terraces ended tip feeling they’d been conned. They learned to love these players only to find that they were not really theirs to love. With Lineker it was different. The fans liked him well enough and they were grateful for his goals, but he never quite seemed to belong at White Hart Lane. The revelation that Scholar had secretly borrowed the transfer-money from Maxwell contributed to the notion that this hero was just passing through.
But then Lineker always seems a little detached from the teams he represents. With his good-boy looks, his modest demeanour, his unflagging courtesy etc, he seems to have been packaged for some other role in life, beyond the field of play. To love Gascoigne, you have to love football. Lineker’s appeal is, in Scholarspeak, more broadly-based. It would be wrong to mock his niceness because he almost certainly is nice, but after reading this new biography, one can see why he sometimes gets up the noses of his colleagues.
Lineker dislikes training, we are told, and so while others sweat and groan, he is to be found lying in the bath, getting ready for his next TV-call. And on the field, what does he do? He drifts into good positions, he attacks space, he gets on the blind side of defenders, he thinks quickly, and so on. No mention of the ball. And then he scores. It isn’t fair. And Lineker half-feels this too – he now and then looks sheepish when he scores. And he also has the knack of scores when it matters most: the hattrick in Mexico, the face-saver against Poland, the equaliser against West Germany in the World Cup.
When you think about it, we owe him quite a lot, and the blood boils when we remember how he was humbled by Graham Taylor in his final game for England: taken off with half an hour to go and a Lineker-style goal desperately needed. The liveliest section of this otherwise pretty tame account of his career comes at the end when Colin Malam gets Taylor and Lineker at each other’s throats. Lineker is characteristically oblique and Taylor characteristically confused but the animosity is clear. Taylor comes out of it the worse, seeming envious, pelts and two-faced. But this is Lineker’s book, not his. Colin Malam’s chief informant throughout was Jonathan Holmes, Lineker’s smooth-talking agent, and Taylor’s chief gripe seems to have been that Lineker listened to Holmes when he should have been listening to Taylor. Although he is not always sure of what he wants to say, Graham Taylor does like to be listened to. So, Saint David Platt, beware.