It was a little poignant to watch my humble home town team Blackpool take on the mighty moneybags of Chelsea at the Bridge last Saturday. They strived noblely but came away a little embarrassed by the outcome. A bit like the match I watched between the sides at Bloomfield Rd when the Seasiders coasting 3-0 at half time somehow managed to concede 4 goals in the second half to the Blues. It also made me recall some of my own interesting moments I had at Chelsea in the very early days of the mobile phone business.
For some reason which I can’t now remember I’d picked Chelsea as the primary London football venue for entertaining guests. I think I might have met the Commercial Manager, J0hn, at some do and struck up a rapport with him. It must have been an irrational decision because the ground was still a bit of a shambles in the v late 80’s/early 90’s save for the huge and completely incongruous East stand, the construction of which had almost bankrupted the club. But it survived, just, with Ken Bates as new Chairman-cum-savior and the stand became the venue for all the club’s hospitality. If you can’t remember how bloody dominating that stand was, have a look at this image below:
Not the largest away crowd at that particular match!
The Shed was still there in those days although it rarely featured in our plans for entertaining corporate guests, surprisingly….
Ah that’s where the crowd were!
Typical me though I couldn’t just leave it to having a few guests to watch the match. I had to go and put on a bit of a show. Ken Bates invited me to lunch to chat about how our company Cellnet might do more things (ie spend more) at the club. Ken has many detractors but I have to tell you he is a fascinating and very amusing lunch host. I thought we were getting on famously as Ken ordered several quite expensive bottles of wine. I wasn’t protesting.It was only at the end of the meal that I learned about the now infamous Ken Bates trick of getting up and saying he had to get back to the office but thanking me for a lovely lunch. Ah that old Bates charm…
Anyway as well as a pretty hefty lunch bill (which took a lot of explaining as an expenses claim), I did come away with an agreement from him to allow us to create a bit of an impact moment with the crowd at the next home match. You’ll see from the pictures above that there used to be a really wide gravel track around the pitch in those days. The stunt I’d come up with was to get our sponsored race driver Damon Hill to drive his heavily-Cellnet branded Formula 3 car around the track at the half-time interval.
The idea was brilliant in my view because it would be noticed by absolutely the entire crowd and probably attract a lot of media attention. All I needed Damon to do was take it sedately round the track and Bob’s Sherunkle. Except of course Damon was a racing driver and after being introduced by the PA announcer he hammered that car full throttle into the stadium and proceeded to charge round the track at a frightening pace. I have to say it was a hugely impressive driving performance and he did not one but two circuits. But rather than applaud the stunt all I could focus on was the frenzied crowd desperately scrambling to get away from the pitchside as virtually all that gravel on the track ended up being terrifyingly whipped into the faces of the watching fans.
There were howls of protests into Mr Bates’ office over the next few days and I have to say he dealt with the many claims for personal injury in his usual customary concerned fashion. I think the words ‘no f****** chance’ were used more than once including in his next conversation with me about the likelihood of us repeating the exercise.
However we were allowed to do another bit of on-the-pitch marketing magic once the F3 furore had died down. This involved me being centre-stage this time with my career once more placed precariously in the hands of my old mate Blunter, Cellnet’s technical wizard. I’ve written about Bill before (check out earlier postings by inputting Blunter into the search box on the home page) and regular readers will know that nothing ever went quite to plan with Bill around. This was still the very early days of mobile comms when its use was still regarded as a something for rich business folk only. Increasingly our marketing effort was being directed towards convincing people that a mobile could be for use by everyone. So the idea was to demonstrate to the watching crowd how mobiles could be used for everyday conversations too, and what better example than two blokes having a half-time chat about the match? So at half-time I was sent out to the semi circle with a rather large Motorola whip phone in my hand whilst the PA announcer described how he and I were about to share the first very public chat about Chealsea’s performance via the wonder of mobile communications.
The technical bit should have been straight forward. The PA announcer would ask his questions via the public address system which I too could hear of course, whilst my responses would be sent via my mobile but simultaneously fed through the PA system so that the crowd could hear both sides of the conversation. I double-checked with Bill that all was OK before I went out. ‘Yep’ he responded ‘absolutely no problems – a piece of p***’. You could always rely on Bill for a poetic turn of phrase.
Well I don’t know what happened between stepping onto the grass and getting to the semi-circle but in those few yards the gremlins had attacked the connections resulting in the situation where the PA announcer’s questions were clearly audible through my mobile but somehow weren’t being fed through the public address system. Conversely my responses were audible to the crowd. So there I was in front of 40,000 baying fans giving answers to questions which nobody other than I could hear. As live public conversations went it was a pretty one-sided affair. What do you do? Walk off and it would have looked like the Cellnet network was totally crap. Stay on and it wasn’t much better. I figured that Bill would realise what was happening, sort the problem and save my face and the company’s reputation. So I ploughed on. I learned later that Bill wasn’t sweating over a hot screwdriver at that time but was to be found in the bar oblivious to my plight – or so he swore afterwards.
After 5 minutes or so I figured that the cavalry wasn’t about to arrive and so I just started repeating the announcer’s question as part of my audible response. I wouldn’t say it rescued the situation but at least I was making intelligible rather than seemingly random pronouncements apropos nothing.
It wasn’t my finest hour and never again did I put myself up for public ridicule, at least at Stamford Bridge. There’s only so much abuse and ridicule one man can take from 40,000 baying Chelsea fans. I think I know how Gary Neville must feel at times.
After a quiet start