My friend in soccer’s high places
I soon discovered the secret of journalism: make friends at university, and then wait until they become prime ministers, professional footballers etc. Then they will tell you things.
For years none of my friends have amounted to anything. So I was relieved to hear that Stuart Ford, whom I met when he was a mere law student, had helped to assemble a bid involving the billionaire Kraft family to take over Liverpool Football Club. People who have recently considered buying Liverpool include the Gadaffis, the Thai government and the Merseyside businessman Steve Morgan, while I am also putting a bid together, but America's Krafts are now favourites to succeed. The family will probably be queuing outside some Boston pub early this morning to watch Everton v Liverpool on satellite TV.
I remember Ford from Oxford University as a centre-back who played for the Blues. For administrative reasons I myself never represented the university, but a friend who did told me: "Stuart was big and imposing but he could actually pass. In style - and he'll probably hate this if he's a Liverpool fan - he was rather like Rio Ferdinand, if 48,000 levels down." Ferdinand plays for Manchester United.
In 1997, when I was editing a literary football journal called Perfect Pitch, I asked Ford to write an article explaining why he had forsaken a possible footballing career to become a media lawyer. Ford was then already rich, and he said I needn't pay him for the article. I did anyway. I regret it now.
His article was surprisingly good. It described growing up on Merseyside as a middle-class kid who, because he could play football, ended up playing for a top working-class boys' team. "Of course, I was often goaded about my posh school or my gross misunderstanding of street fashion," he wrote. "That was just from the management."
In the late 1980s, Ford played for England schools at a junior World Cup. The English officials were ignorant and xenophobic, and the team played stupid football and was humiliated. Ford wrote: "At 17 I'd had enough of FA coaches and playing the ball 'into the channels'. I'd completely lost interest in playing at anything approaching a higher level."
The rest of his article recounts a match between Oxford University and Arsenal reserves during which Ford marked a teenage striker named Andy Cole. The boy ignored Ford's attempts at conversation, and played atrociously, until he suddenly scored two brilliant goals in a minute. Overall, though, Ford wasn't impressed: " 'Poor guy,' I thought. 'Sixteen years old and it's all downhill from here.' I silently congratulated myself on having avoided the same disappointment."
Incidentally, that same issue of Perfect Pitch contained an article by a little-known writer called Lynne Truss. Last year she published Eats Shoots and Leaves,a book about punctuation, which has sold almost 2.5m copies. I, therefore, estimate that 2/15ths of the contributors to that Perfect Pitch have become multi-millionaires, though if any of the others have too they should contact me immediately. I last saw Ford at a Perfect Pitch party, which he attended in a velvet outfit.
Later he became head of Miramax Film's global distribution business. In September I tracked him down again. Inevitably he was living in New York and married to a model who has appeared in Sex and the City;if only my other friends were as focused.
In his new mid-Atlantic accent, Ford told me he had spent years travelling the world for Miramax, often catching Liverpool matches on TV. At the Cannes film festival one year he had met Mike Jefferies, a film producer from Liverpool who had been lucky enough to sell two new-media businesses during the bubble. Within minutes they were talking about Liverpool FC. They were disappointed fans. The last Premiership club to launch its own website had not won the title or the European Cup since 1990.
Ford and Jefferies thought Liverpool were neglecting their brand. For instance, asked Ford, why didn't the club have local marketing staff in countries such as China and South Korea? "One thing I learned in Hollywood is that when you're marketing inter- nationally, there's no substitute for bloody hard work at grassroots level. Liverpool FC employ precisely nobody to do that. Why isn't the club's website available in Korean? It would cost about forty quid per week to have someone on the ground doing this." Liverpool's TV channel, Ford added, "looks like a pilot episode of Look North West circa 1976".
He and Jefferies made a list of a dozen investors who might be tempted by Liverpool. They visited the investors, paying for their own air tickets, and made their case. The Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots American football team, liked it. The plan is to buy Liverpool, put former player and manager Kenny Dalglish on the board, perhaps give Ford a job, and then win everything. My other friends should consider this an example.