I am not sure what sponsoring a footballer means. Do you have to give him £1 a mile every time he runs round the training ground, or £1 each time he eats all the pies, scores the most goals or the most babes?
I was reading the programme at Carlisle United’s first game of the season, against Leyton Orient. Of the 26 players in the first-team squad that day, plus the manager, 11 were still listed as “available to sponsor”. Poor petals, they must feel so unwanted, or that someone was trying to tell them something.
The sponsor of Greg Abbott, the manager, was clearly sending some sort of message. Abbott was sponsored by Cumbria Waste Management.
Mr Abbott had been manager of Carlisle since November 2008, so had served almost five years, which, weirdly, worryingly, made him the third-longest-serving manager in English football. Arsène is tops since Fergie went, with 16 years, followed by Paul Tisdale of Exeter with seven years. Managers are like dogs – you have to multiply their years by three to get their true lifespan.
I was in the directors’ box, thanks to one of the directors, my friend David Clark (once in Tony Blair’s cabinet), and next to me was a chap very casually dressed in a sweatshirt with a heavy rucksack. I had been told to wear a jacket, collar and tie if I wanted any scoff in the boardroom at half-time. This bloke looked like a hitchhiker who’d got lost on his way to Scotland.
I pointed to the programme, showed him the list of players still available to sponsor, and asked if he fancied any. He said it was his first game of football, ever. He didn’t quite know the rules, let alone the names of Carlisle’s stars.
Well, I said, where do I begin? Those are called goals, the sticks at either end, the round thing is a ball and it’s 11 players on each side. Hold on, correction: Carlisle just got a player sent off.
After half an hour or so, he asked me who was getting on top. I said it was fairly even, hard to predict, which shows you how much I know. Carlisle got stuffed that day 5-1.
He then introduced himself as Dr Shah, Carlisle’s new doctor: not the team doctor, but the crowd doctor. All league games have to have them these days in case anyone in the crowd falls ill. For the past five years he has been team doctor for Workington Town Rugby League team, but this was his first time as a crowd doctor.
Awful that I’d taken him for a hitchhiker. Even more embarrassing, it turned out he was an orthopaedic surgeon at West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, where I had an op on my big toe ten years ago, and where, by the look of it, I’ll be needing another op soon.
So at half-time it was your highness, your majesty, let me get you some tea, do excuse my condescending comments about your football knowledge.
When I got home I showed my wife the list of players for sponsor. “I like that one,” she said, pointing to Lewis Guy. “He’s got a nice beard. Or Josh Todd. His surname is very Cumbrian. But why are you doing it?”
Hmm, showing off, I suppose. It costs £400 plus VAT, but you do get your name in the programme and on the big screen – which actually was not working that day. It belongs to Eddie Stobart, and had broken down.
Since that first game, Carlisle have won just once. They’ve been stuck near the bottom of the league. And the manager’s just been sacked, so I wonder how Cumbria Waste Management feels now. Oh help.
Which is what I am doing. CUFC are a community club, part of the glue that sticks us all together in this remote region, the only League club left in the county. They lost £500,000 last season, so they need a good run in one of the cups or one of their young players suddenly to become valuable, such as Mark Beck. He’s come through the youth team and has played under-19 for Scotland.
If he ever makes it as a first-team regular, and is still with Carlisle, and they still exist, at the end of the season, as his sponsor, I get to keep his shirt, home and away. See, all worthwhile . . .