Anyone who, like me, lived in Leeds in the 1980s-90s will remember Mike (I never found out his surname). Mike, you see, owned a large carpet store, a unit on a trading estate like a warehouse; in fact, several of them across Yorkshire. His business was rather unimaginatively known as “Mike’s Carpets” and Mike used to appear in his own adverts on the local ITV channel. He would extol the virtues of his carpets in the local accent, in which Mike is pronounced, roughly, “Maak”, whilst sporting a grey mullett and, if I remember rightly, an earring. Some people found this quite funny. A girl I knew at school once claimed her Dad knew Mike and that he (Mike) drove an expensive car (I forget the marque).
“So what has this got to do with football?”, you say, probably right after saying, “Does this pillock think his tedious ramblings make for an interesting blog?” Well, my thesis is this – all football clubs, indeed all professional sports clubs generally, are run or end up being run by people like Mike. Mike is the exemplar of New Money (or was; I have no idea if he’s still running his carpet business). He was clearly a self-made man, not someone who’d inherited wealth, and he obviously had a strong connection to a particular place. Whether Mike ever contemplated buying Leeds United, the local football team, I don’t know; certainly it’s hard to see how he or anyone else could have made a worse mess of it than the actual owners did in the late 90s. However, look at the lower division football teams and local equivalents of Mike crop up everywhere, the levels of wealth decreasing the lower down you go, rather as the league sponsors get less and less impressive.
But what about the Premiership? Aren’t all those teams owned by exotic foreign billionaires who live in marble palaces with gold-plated lavatories, miles away from some local businessman like Mike? There are three answers to that. The first is that, no, because many of them are owned by exotic foreign rich guys whose billions, marble palaces and Premiership teams float heavily on a sea of easily borrowed money, which is exactly the problem in the current economic situation. The second is that, if you look under the skin of exotic foreign -ness and billionairehood, many of the foreign owners are just what Mike would be if he had been Russian or Arab or American and in the energy business or finance. There’s the self-made man status, the element of ego (well, he did appear in his own adverts) and sometimes, the same hint of disapproval of/mockery towards the nouveau riche from their compatriots.
Mike never suffered more than playground humour on the last point, but Roman Abramovich of Chelsea, for example, has been subject to the common perception by less-wealthy Russians that any Russian who became rich in the 1990s became so only through corrupt and nefarious means (as he has very good libel lawyers, I had better add hastily that I know of nothing that would justify the belief in his case). Thaksin Shinawatra, briefly owner of Manchester City, is a hugely controversial figure in Thailand, detested by part of the population as corrupt and tyrannical during his period as Prime Minister and equally popular with many other Thais who would reject these charges. The first sight most people in this country got of the new owners of Liverpool was of a photograph of one of them smoking a comically-large cigar. He was probably just celebrating the Boston RedSox, also owned by him, winning a World Series baseball title, but it did rather look as if he had been told at the last minute that it was a fancy dress party and was doing his best to look like a Capitalist Robber Baron without the top hat.
None of them are exactly long-established plutocrats from old money families. Indeed, this may be one of many reasons why self-made men like to buy football clubs; if the club succeeds, it’s a great way of buying social approval, even if it is abroad. The third answer – look at Mike Ashley, chairman of Newcastle United. Even down to the name, he’s Mike of Mike’s Carpet’s with More Millions – self-made man, local connection, business selling not particularly high end consumer goods (it is unlikely that the style magazines would ever give much of a hearing to either Mike’s carpets or Sports Direct’s football shirts). So the next time your team’s up for sale, remember – whatever they’re called and wherever they’re from, underneath the new owner(s) is/are Mike.