So I said to the boy Thierry: "Thierry mon fils," I said, "stop gilding the bleeding lily and stickez le ball dans le sac d'oignon tout en suite." Since our Renault Clio shoot together, Thierry Henry, Arsenal and France, and me, Arsenal Lower West Stand, have been nigh on inseparable.
Of course, the preternaturally gifted Frenchman is totally unaware of our symbiotic relationship and my role as his life coach and mentor. But that's the thing about sports stardom, everyone wants to be your best mate. And that's the thing about being a fan - rational behaviour is replaced by a heady mix of childlike fantasy, obsession and delusional devotion.
This makes us vulnerable, and that makes the sports sponsorship market worth £420 million in the UK alone. A fan and his money are soon parted.
Actually my decision to use Henry as the "face" of Clio had little to do with his position as one of the most exciting strikers on the planet and more to do with him being the embodiment of a modern multicultural Frenchness miles away from the Peter Mayle Provencal theme park cliche. The fact that he's good-looking, intelligent, articulate, charming and cool-as-fuck all helps of course. But this Clio campaign is emphatically not about football and resonates beyond the 23,217,500 of us who ticked the box marked "soccer fan" on a recent Millward Brown survey. Interestingly enough, very few sports personality campaigns think beyond the jockstrap and yet it's not just the Henrys and Beckhams of this world whose appeal stretches way beyond the beautiful game.
Sport, especially football, is the hostage taken by big business and held in the boot of the stolen car until we fans pay the ransom. If you ever want to see your team live again you will have to eat/sleep/drink/drive Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Ford, Sony, Amstel, etc, etc. It's a quid pro quo that's been in operation since Bovril first sponsored Nottingham Forest in 1898. Now, it has its own established pecking order. First at the watering hole are the equipment manufacturers Nike, Umbro, Adidas, Titleist, Slazenger, etc. They have the greatest legitimacy, the clearest right to have your money by the shirt, the shoes or the balls. Of these, Nike pretty much writes its own agenda and makes its own rules. The reverse-sell, the black brand makeover, the track-to-street pass, the no-logo slam dunk, all these moves were invented by Nike. It advertises like most athletes yearn to play. Next come the sponsors. They may pay for the shirt on your players' backs or the entire league or tournament but their cash is no guarantee of fan approval or loyalty. I'm sure the brewers of Worthington Bitter can point to all sorts of positive associations stemming from their sponsorship of the old League Cup but if my brand name had been commuted to "Worthless", I wonder if I'd be renewing my contract.
Ten years ago you'd have given Coca-Cola even less chance of becoming synonymous with the English game. And yet its consistency, clever creative and unique fan perspective has won it a sizeable place in the minds and maybe even one or two hearts of the UK football audience. It's interesting to note that Coke's soccer creative has always been head and shoulders better than anything they turn out for the Coke brand. It is an example of the two important rules of sports' sponsorship. One, be prepared to be in it for the long run. Two, be prepared to spend as much on promoting your sponsorship as you did on the sponsorship.
The third category are the liggers, wannabes and bushwhackers. Nike's hi-jacking of the Los Angeles Olympics has gone down in the case history books as the way to heist someone else's sponsorship. On a smaller scale, I commend to you Tango's "Officially a Drink during Euro 2000".
The most enduringly welcome liggers are probably Walkers Crisps. I'm surely not alone in enjoying the irony that much of the success of the couch potato's favourite fried potato is built on sport. The long- running Lineker saga understands its audience and the nature of sporting celebrity brilliantly well although even this campaign is not without the occasional lapse; there's a collector's item featuring Roy Keane in a leprechaun suit that creates more of a stink than their recent Red Nose Day farting special. In fact, Keane is a good example of the pitfalls of player endorsement as witnessed by the extraordinary back flips performed by the Irish press trying to accommodate his sudden withdrawal from the World Cup. Uncompromising hard man or selfish nutter? Not all publicity is good publicity. And of course not all stars of sports stadia are born to be stars in the media. Who can forget Andre and Steffi's thespian efforts on behalf of T-Mobile? Boxers, the ultimate showmen, are somehow diminished on the small screen, despite Trevor Beattie's best efforts. Schumacher gives a more expressive performance with his helmet on. And even the world's most famous footballer can't raise so much as a smile in his international spot for Viagra. Although in an ad about "getting wood" Pele at least has the sense to turn in a performance hewn from the same material.
But the point is we don't care, we're fans. Objectivity is for the critics.
A recent survey asked Americans which black individual they most admired, Tiger Woods or Nelson Mandela. Now, the remarkable Mr Woods has achieved many things although I don't recall the bloodless transition from apartheid to democratic Rainbow Nation being among them. Guess who got the vote?