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A treat to savour

Thrilling venues will capture an audience's attention, but sometimes irretrievably...

I'm not a football fan. Well, I am - sort of. I like the big matches; the internationals, the European Cup matches, that sort of thing. I can't be doing with the turgid grind of the terraces in January.

Anyway, I've moved around so much I don't feel partisan about any particular club. I now live in leafy Surrey and what passes for my local club is the rusting hulk of Aldershot Disunited. I just can't get excited about the vulgarity and Bovril that seems to be de rigeur

But I do like the big matches. I can see it. I like it. However, I can't see how grown men, with shaved heads, tattoos and beer bellies, are stupid enough to confuse a club with a business. The fierce loyalties, the devotion, the passion, the violence, the hostility - the madness of it all is beyond me.

How ordinary working families can find the money leaves me flummoxed. Tickets for a Premiership game sometimes come close to £40, maybe £50 each! A shirt, shorts and socks in the team colours comes to well over £100.

A family man with two football crazy sons could spend a life in penury. A family guy with a football crazy wife and soccer-struck daughters may just as well set fire to his Visa card. A family chap with any combination of the above may just as well give the football club his PIN number; and that is without any thought of the away strip!

Outside the circle
Football is a business that feasts itself on the fact that its customers think they are stakeholders in success and crusaders in failure. The clubs exploit the fact that the majority of its customers believe they are anything and everything above and beyond being just that - miserable, lonely, exploited punters.

Customers who have a voice on the terraces, and no say in the board room. Customers who shout, chant and serenade their team, but are muted when the real decisions are being talked about. I have come to the conclusion that most football fanatics suffer from a delusional illness that is beyond the medical profession to diagnose and the pharma industry to find a cure for. It is a form of madness.

Yet, I have to confess that I came close to being infected. I have been to a citadel of soccer. To some it would be Mecca. It is an epicentre of excellence. It oozes money.

I have been to Chelsea Football Club. More than that, I have been on the tour at Chelsea Football Club. I have been taken behind the scenes. Directed to the bowels of the Club and shown sights that most Chelsea fans would give their eyes to witness.

It is beyond belief. I can scarcely find the words to tell of it. As I journeyed through my VIP exploration, I came close to being suffocated by the overwhelming smell of fermenting money.

Where to begin? I don't have enough space to write of it all, so I'll focus on the changing rooms: the home team dressing room is bigger than the average fan's house and garden; air-conditioned of course.

Players' lockers are hand crafted from Ash and Cedar wood, with hanging space, folding space and space enough to house the homeless. The coat hangers are shaped and fitted. There are secure drawers for jewellery, electric sockets for hair dryers and to charge i-Pods and mobile phones.

There are mirrors to reflect on success. The showers, bigger than two car washes, are of granite and marble. The soap dispensers are by Molton Brown - as are the conditioner and hand cream.

For good measure, there are five physio benches, massage and exercise areas. For team talks, there is a 'wonder-wall' with electronic white boards, video playback kit and a game simulator.

There are beverage dispensers and a fridge full of energy drinks. It is scrumptiously, elegantly, sophisticatedly over-the-top, vulgar and wow!

Premiership footballers live in a pampered world of cotton wool beyond the imagination of the working men and women who pay to see them display their talents and tantrums once a week.

For the visiting team, and I kid you not, no word of a lie, no exaggeration, just stripped pine truth, there is a triple garage-sized, low airless room with coat hooks, benches, one physio couch and a table with an electric kettle - oh, and a white board behind the door! Apparently no marker pen is provided.

What else? Well, the accommodation in the Director's box shares something with the new Five Series BMW; the well-appointed seats are heated.

Fancy a souvenir of your visit? Well, the Chelsea shop is as big as my local supermarket. Two floors of just about everything you can think of that can be printed, branded and coloured blue and white.

This is a business. A huge business. I was dazzled, hypnotised and mesmerised. The staff, all the staff, from the guys in the car park, the waiting staff through to the tour guide, were unfailingly courteous, polite and genuinely interested to do their best to make the visit memorable.

This is a polished and well run outfit, professional to the last blade of beautiful green manicured grass. As polished as the silverware in the enthralling museum.

I can see why people get drawn to it, why they foolishly come to believe it is 'their' club, when it is neither actually theirs, nor even a club. It is a piece of class-act cynical exploitation - like every football Plc up and down the land, which is a  grasping wringer of emotion in the pursuit of profit. It is theatre. I had to pinch myself.

There are echoes of parts of pharma. Minted, ostentatious and playing to the patient spectators, knowing the real audience is the shareholder. So why was I there? Oh, I nearly forgot. A conference!

The lesson for everyone is this: the content of the conference better be better than the venue! You could be remembered for the location and not the information. The place, not the face. The spot, not the plot. This was a close-run thing, but ultimately an extra-time away win for the market information and research firm TNS, which had brought together suppliers of data and information about the NHS in a serious attempt to dice and slice the data in a new way to help pharma sales score more goals. It is very clever. Like Chelsea - in a league of its own!

The Author
Roy Lilley is a healthcare author and broadcaster

2nd September 2008

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