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Lions owned by reptiles

Ponder the deeds of Gianfranco Zola. The gravity-defying spin and finish against Wimbledon in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final, the blistering drive which won Chelsea the Cup-Winners Cup decider against Stuttgart the following year and the amazing backheeled goal against Norwich City in 2002 are on the personal highlight reel of any soccer fan who admires the combination of audacious conception and precise execution.

Yet Zola's attractiveness doesn't just derive from his extraordinary talent. Modest about his achievements, magnanimous in victory and philosophical in defeat, he always came across as a most decent character. That's why it was a pity to see his obvious discomfort last year as he was first undermined and then fired by David Sullivan.

Ponder the deeds of the aforementioned David Sullivan. He began his business career by selling photocopied sheets of pornographic pictures and swiftly moved on to the publication of hardcore porn magazines and the production of sex films, some of which starred his then girlfriend, Mary Millington, who committed suicide at the age of 33. Sullivan has served jail time for living off immoral earnings and at one stage was responsible for over half the sales in the English adult magazine market.

I don't think it's fair to describe anyone as a loathsome person. But it's fair to say that Sullivan made his money in a loathsome manner. And anyone deluded enough to claim that the porn business is a decent, harmless industry should ask themselves the following question: would you like your mother or daughter to work in it? Because if you wouldn't, you're not entitled to think that it's OK for other people's mothers and daughters to do so.

Yet such is the topsy-turvy logic of professional football that a man like David Sullivan, and his associate David Gold whose money was made in a similar manner, can humiliate a man like Gianfranco Zola. And now they're behaving in the same manner with Avram Grant, another decent football man being traduced by this fine upstanding pair. Left playing gooseberry as The Two Daves cast lustful glances at Martin O'Neill, Grant is a dead man walking.

One of the more lamentable contemporary notions is that a pig with money is a pig who must be respected. This isn't unique to the world of professional football. If Sullivan was in this country, he'd probably be playing golf with the Taoiseach and columnists would be pointing out his critics had no right to complain given that they hadn't actually created any jobs in the sex trade themselves. But there is something immensely sad about seeing a club which was once a by-word for skill, sportsmanship and sophistication being run by the kind of character most of us wouldn't let into the house.

Then again, The Wanker's Friend is not the only questionable character who owns a Premier League club. In fact, he might be entitled to claim that he's in the ha'penny place as regards moral turpitude compared to Thaksin Shinawatra, who as Prime Minister of Thailand began a 'war on drugs' which led to over 2,000 deaths. An investigation later suggested that over half of those killed had nothing to do with the drug trade at all. Shinawatra was welcomed with open arms when he took over Manchester City in 2007 before selling it to the Abu Dhabi Group. Portsmouth were owned for a spell by Arcadi Gaydamak, a convicted gun runner recently indicted on charges of money-laundering in his native Israel.

And then there's Roman Abramovich, sued for billions by a Russian company which claims it was cheated out of its assets, once investigated in connection with the theft of millions of roubles worth of government property and sued over an allegedly unpaid loan by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. And, it must be pointed out, never found guilty of any charge.

Perhaps we shouldn't worry about all this and just get on with enjoying the football. (Though I will say that the day Sligo Rovers announce the club's purchase by the FitzPatrick, Drumm and Fingleton consortium is the day I'll hang up my red and white scarf.)

And maybe the porn trade is actually a perfect training ground for the aspirant football club supremo, given that both of them involve the employment of youngsters with negligible educational qualifications to provide entertainment for a mass audience. Though anyone who's seen The Two Escobars, a recent movie about the connections between Colombian football and the drug trade in that country during the 1980s and '90s which is probably the finest sports documentary ever made, will have seen how giving sleaze a free pass can eventually lead to the game being destroyed.

The fact that Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of fraud and false accounting at Birmingham City, before being cleared, does make you think. And so does his behaviour not only towards Zola and Avram Grant but towards Steve Bruce who he blamed for Birmingham's problems on the pitch long after the current Sunderland boss had departed St Andrew's. A certain style of behaviour seems to have persisted even after Sullivan swapped one field of endeavour for another.

Bruce is another credit to the game, a warrior on the field who has been patient and brave during some difficult times as a manager and is now reaping the benefits as boss of the much improved Mackems.

In fact, for all the tabloid coverage of their personal peccadilloes, most top professional footballers deserve our respect for the talent which sees them thrive in this peculiarly demanding profession. Yet seeing the calibre of people who oversee their destiny, I'm reminded of the old phrase about British soldiers in the First World War being 'Lions led by donkeys.' Footballers, by contrast, are 'Lions owned by reptiles.'

It could be that the plight of the modern Premier League fan, made to pay through the nose for tickets, replica jerseys, food and drink also has something to do with the kind of people who run football these days.

Because, back in the days when he was photocopying his first skin pics, young David Sullivan would never have suspected that he'd end up in a line of work which differs from pornography in one crucially important respect.

In professional football, you get to screw the audience.


Sunday Indo Sport