You’ve probably heard this one, and a long time ago, but this bloke’s in a pub telling his mate about his new job. "It’s cleaning the public toilets," he says. "Yeah, disgusting most of the time. There’s junkies, people going into the cubicles in pairs — and you wouldn’t believe the filthy things that get written on the walls. When someone comes in and just has a great big crap, it’s like a breath of fresh air." Do you not feel somehow refreshed by the arrival of David Sullivan, with David Gold, his long-time football partner, at West Ham United? asks Patrick Barclay in this morning's Times.
If you have had your fill of debt-loading Americans, absentee Arabs, hopelessly naive Icelanders and off-putting Englishmen — they come in many forms, these fat and improper persons — when along comes a porn-mag baron with a duke of dildos at his side, it is seems like the dawn of a bright new day. Sullivan and Gold are, to Barclay, the very models of modern club ownership. For a start, they are where they should be. Sullivan was born in Cardiff, and started out earning £30 a week at Gerald Ronson's petrol stations while peddling match-day football programmes. He took his economics degree in London (graduating from Queen Mary College) as well as at the university of life, where he learnt from Penthouse’s Bob Guccione that men would pay enough to receive pornographic photographs, discreetly sent through the post, to net him an income guaranteed to make a footballer gasp (and those muddied Seventies idols were not as badly paid as they now pretend, believe me). It certainly paid more than his first proper job as an advertising executive, where his accounts included pet foods, budgie seed and hand-rolled tobacco. At some stage, he fell for the Hammers.
Having slipped into the porn market at 21 by the mid-1970s Sullivan was in control of half of the adult magazine market. At the fag end of that decade he produced several low-budget British sex movies including the phenomenally successful Come Play with Me starring his then-girlfriend Mary Millington. Cornering the market in 'adult' entertainment was a smart move by Sullivan, although, of course, he had other interests, including racehorses. His horse David Junior, named after his son, participates in many Group 1 races around the world and is trained by Irish trainer Brian Meehan. At some point he and the Gold brothers joined forces and by the mid-80's had launched Sunday Sport. Yet it is in property that the serious money was made.
It all helped Sullivan's fortune to grow to an estimated £500 million in 2004, but by then he was beginning to tire of Birmingham City, the club he had run since 1993 with Gold and Karren Brady. Fatigue set in partly because of the repetitive drive from his Essex pile, but more because rising expectations had made many fans, he felt, a little ungrateful and unrealistic. "I think deep down the public have had enough of us," Sullivan remarked at the time. "They think we should have mortgaged our houses to buy more players to compete with Chelsea and Arsenal. The honeymoon is long over and we're at the divorce stage now, unfortunately. And I also feel we've had no support from Birmingham council."
All through their stewardship of Birmingham, notes Barclay, Sullivan and Gold yearned for West Ham. And now they have them. Gold, too, is where his heart is. He was born in East London and had a feel for the club long before he built a fortune the equivalent of Sullivan’s; the people who measure such things reckon it is down to about £300 million now. He started out helping his mother sell buttons from a stall outside their house. Moving indoors they then converted their front room into a card and sweet shop. From there, he went on to run a bookstore in Charing Cross, and before long branched out into publishing, printing and distribution. Gold, of course, inhabits the softer and more feminine side of sex, owning the Ann Summers chain, which his daughter Jacqueline supervises. With his other daughter Vanessa as Deputy Managing Director it has become one of the biggest success stories in British retailing, comprising 135 stores with an annual turnover of £150 million.
With his great acumen, and punishing work schedule, there was nothing that David Gold wouldn't do to ensure success. Keen for others not to benefit from flying him around the world to meetings, Gold Air International was set up, chartering jet travel to the rich and famous. In 2007 he placed a $70 million order for two new Global 5000's. Yet the greatest passion in David Gold's life has always been football. It dates back to having played for West Ham as a schoolboy and being offered an apprenticeship. On this occasion, his father who ordered him to finish his apprenticeship as a bricklayer cruelly denied him the opportunity.
So is this, ponders Barclay, the advent of the new butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, the noblesse oblige of a new self-made aristocracy, football being reacquainted with its roots? In one sense, he thinks, yes. In another, the arrival at Upton Park of Sullivan and Gold shows how society’s mores have shifted. When, in the latter half of the 19th century, the game in England was fostered by advocates of something called "muscular Christianity", one notion was that the time taken and energy expended in playing it would encourage young men to keep their hands above the waist.
Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t says Barclay. But the rise of Sullivan’s magazines does tend to suggest that the latter 20th century found the English male taking a more holistic attitude to pleasure. I suppose you could argue that we have lived and learnt. Except for the routine use of that colloquial noun by sections of crowds, pejoratively aimed at referees and opposing players; how can something that is clearly a widespread hobby be used as the warhead of a verbal missile? But that is a debate for another day.
The main thing is that West Ham have fallen into appropriate ownership. A friend of mine, Gary Newbon, the broadcaster, greatly admires Sullivan, calling him a "real straight-shooter", and the new joint chairman’s opening salvo was indeed just what Upton Park would have wished to hear: a searing denunciation of the Icelanders, with Eggert Magnússon rightly singled out (if the former chairman didn’t want to be identified with the regime, why did he pose on the pitch on Day 1?) and chapter and verse on the debt and the silly wages that contributed to it.
West Ham now have a chance to reinhabit the place they used to occupy in times of stability and Ron Greenwood.
Where did it all go wrong for them? Not when they encountered Iceland’s supposed economic miracle, in case you mistake this for a moan about foreign ownership. For all the dreadful things that are being done to Manchester United and Liverpool by foreigners, it is worth remembering that the rot set in at West Ham under the chairmanship of a local boy made good, one Terence Brown.
But Sullivan has come for a purpose and what I like, apart from his affiliation, is the readiness to communicate. I have a feeling that he and West Ham are going to get along just fine. Let them seize the future in both hands.
As inevitable as the glimpse of her jiggling breasts under a business suit giving me an unwanted dirty little chubby, Karren Brady's first Sun column as West Ham vice-chairman was always going to be a similarly inflaming and degrading experience. Is there an Irons fan who would not feel a warm stirring by the pledge: "We will hang in the Tower of London before your club again goes through the financial turmoil which so nearly brought it down". Who would not be moved to read there are "staff who love the club and their jobs and are willing to listen, learn and go into action," or that "in the league, there isn't a safer job than Gianfranco Zola's. There'll be a brush and broom at Upton Park but no bulldozer".
Read the following account of the moment David Sullivan realised he'd won the keys to the Boleyn and bask in the glow...
Twice before David Sullivan was on the threshold of the West Ham boardroom and within minutes of grasping the club's deeds he woke me up at midnight to say "We've done it".
I have never, in over 20 years of knowing him, heard such emotion, passion and absolute dedication to do the right thing for West Ham and lead it back to stability and beyond.
Hammers fans, you have a soul mate, an absolute world-class business brain, and English gentlemen running your club in David Sullivan and David Gold.
Then read the following and feel it all melt away...
I see West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium as a way of settling its future for decades, invigorating the whole site and providing a wonderful new activities centre for East Londoners and the county of Essex. There are obstacles but it seems to me if architects can't take account of a running track and find ways to build under the stands, then they shouldn't be in business. It is madness to tear down an 80,000-seater to make it a third the size and then use the place for two or three athletics meetings a year.
The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) would not only be chucking out seats but also the potential for hundreds of jobs and a regular income - that one day will pay for the building of the stadium itself. Maybe our way is a short-cut to a new West Ham headquarters but to disqualify the stadium's only viable future that I know of is to make a bonfire of the dreams of thousands and thousands of people in our under-privileged area. I love the idea of calling the club West Ham Olympic.
As I said, inflaming and degrading all at once. The football supporting equivalent of receiving one of David Sullivan's discreet brown paper parcels through your letterbox. Same time next week then, Karren.