Normal rules don’t apply in football’s parallel universe
21 December 2007
All the shop girls in Manchester were there. Reading this line in reports of the great Manchester United Christmas party, a man would have to be a very cold fish indeed not to experience a stab of envy, a twitch of forlorn desire. There were also models, and extras from Coronation Street, even former stars of Hollyoaks.
So this was not the kind of end-of-year office party most of us experience, with prim words of warning from the management, scurfy old has-beens from Accounts leering at secretaries and the post-room locked to avoid incidents of inappropriateness. The guest-list was impeccable, thanks to a team of event managers who had combed the city for the best-looking girls. The entire hotel, including its bedrooms, was booked. Wives and girlfriends of the footballer hosts, that is were not invited.
All in all, it sounds like the makings of a good party. Ryan Giggs did an Elvis impression. Wayne Rooney tried a karaoke version of the soul classic “Mustang Sally”. Then, like so many good parties, it all began to get out of hand, ending in the sequence of events that have become part of the modern game. On the pitch, you get the step-over, the late tackle, the dive; off the pitch, you get the night-club, the hotel, the rape allegation.
It is all rather different from the way things work in the dull, real world. Down here, a group of people supplying attractive girls to a party of moneyed men would be seen as rather more than events organisers. Hosts who book all the bedrooms of a hotel and then inform their wives and girlfriends that they are not invited might be regarded (not least by the wives and girlfriends) as rather more than boisterous. The sexual overtures said to have been made by the footballers to their multiple blind dates, nearer outright harassment than crude pick-up lines, would have seen lesser men ejected into the night or into a police cell.
But when fame, extreme wealth (the bar bill for last year’s party was 43,000), anonymity and desire meet, those involved hosts and guests, men and women enter a sort of fantasy world in which the only rule of attraction is that there are no rules. The shop girls, models and TV extras entered a parallel universe, normally only seen in fiction, glossy magazines or on TV, where everything is more exciting and dangerous, and there is none of the clutter, the dreary checks and constraints, of everyday life.
Whereas other celebrities inhabit a distant planet which the rest of us watch from afar, the footballing famous are still half-here, still moving among us. Today’s Wayne Rooney is yesterday’s goofy, football-mad teenager from down the road. The local heroes, unlike actors and models, stay in one place for months, years, at a time, often becoming part of the local club scene. They are celebrated, yet flesh and blood.
This confusion of the ordinary with the famous is exciting and dangerous for both sides. It is difficult to imagine other male celebrities Hugh Grant or Damon Albarn or Andy Murray throwing a Christmas party and employing events organisers to hand out invitations to local talent. For their part, most girls invited by a stranger to attend a party at a pre-booked hotel might have been more wary.
But when the real world is brought into immediate, unmediated contact with the parallel universe of the famous, there is almost always trouble. The ugliest version of this collision can be found at football grounds of premiership clubs every Saturday. There the angry and the disappointed are within metres of the famous and the blessed and have their moment of power. To judge by the sort of thing which is screamed at managers and players during that 90 minutes, the hatred of the civilian for the famous knows no bounds.
“It’s a bridge too far,” the footballer Sol Campbell has said recently, describing the sort of foul abuse which players have to suffer. Anyone who has attended a major football game will know he is right. Fathers and grandfathers will bellow and swear in front of their offspring in a manner that, anywhere else, they would find unthinkable. When their lisping little ones learn to scream appropriate insults in their piping voices, the adults smile indulgently.
There is no limit to the nastiness. The Norwich manager, Glenn Roeder, recalled this week that when he returned to work having recovered from an operation to remove a benign brain tumour, he was given the treatment by West Ham fans. “Why are you still alive?” they shrieked. “Tumour boy” was the chant.
But it is not the football culture, whatever that is, which is to blame. Nor is it true, as Roeder claims, that football attracts “sick-minded people”. It is just that, more directly than anything else, football brings the heart-stopping excitement of celebrity close to the real world while still remaining aloof. It is when fantasy and reality collide that the trouble starts.