Charlie Whelan: Rarely has a footballer been in such need

Given New Labour’s supposed love of football it is strange that the only big transfer from political PR to sport involved rugby – and that ended in disaster for both Alastair Campbell and the British Lions.

I confess to once being very tempted to head down the football PR road. This was when I was approached by a headhunter looking for a spin doctor for Tottenham Hotspur, the team I support. But having to tell porkies to football hacks about the latest injury scare didn't really appeal to me.

Had I taken the job I would have had to handle the departure of another Campbell – Tottenham's then captain Sol – to deadly rivals Arsenal, the media repercussions of which are still being felt.

To non-football fans it's difficult to describe just how treacherous an act this was. Imagine if a Labour MP left his heavily pregnant wife for a young Tory woman and crossed the floor of the Commons at the same time. Well, what Sol did was, in the eyes of Spurs fans, about ten times worse. This is why in 30 years of watching football, I have never seen a player receive such a hostile reception as when Sol returned to play against Tottenham.

Sol's agent ensured he became the highest-paid footballer in the world at £100,000 a week – or £5m a year. Unfortunately the hate campaign against him soon started and rumours began to be spread about his sexuality. Even the TV cameras couldn't avoid the banner hung out at an Arsenal v Tottenham game which said: 'You have the Queen but we've got the King.' – Ledley King being Sol's replacement in Spurs' defence. 

While homophobia may be frowned upon in society generally, in the macho world of football it is alive and kicking. Only one player, Justin Fashanu, has ever come out, and he tragically took his own life. Sol's brother even ended up in prison for assaulting a Tottenham fan who questioned the Arsenal star's sexuality.

Sol does of course have an agent to advise him, but rarely has a footballer been in such need of good PR advice. Mud sticks – and that accounts for the fact that Sol's 'disappearing act' made the front pages over the weekend, even in the broadsheets. One headline even read: 'Campbell besotted by 18-year-old Essex girl.' The truth was that he had gone to Belgium for a short break with his 'millionairess lover' Kelly Hoppen.

A good PR man could have told the media the truth a few days earlier, and avoided yet more hurtful and damaging allegations about the footballer's private life.

So get some PR support Sol. But sorry – I'm not your man. 

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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