Wedding balls

The marriages of four England players on one weekend took football’s relationship with celebrity culture to new heights – or, as Barney Ronay sees it, new depths

Footballers, even quite famous ones, used to get married in a registry office in front of three people. They took honeymoons in Whitby before setting up home with Sue/Meg/Jakki in a modern semi, where they might stand out as the only people in the street with a double-glazed conservatory or a new patio. Best of all, you wouldn’t know anything about it, beyond the odd appearance in the “at home with…” feature in Shoot!. All things considered, this seemed to be enough.

As in every other area of life related to football, times have changed. With no major tournament this summer, the hottest ticket in the football-celebrity nexus looks like being the weddings of John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville and Michael Carrick on a single weekend in June. Like it or not, this kind of thing is now unavoidably a big deal. Certainly as far as the print media is concerned, with glossy magazines not only offering blanket coverage, but also financing and setting the style barometer for the whole show.

It’s almost 20 years since OK! and Hello!, followed recently by fringe second-raters such as Now and Closer, first started acting as a new source of gravity on our footballers, not so much turning their heads as pulling them in directions that have seemed, at various times, funny, boring and ridiculous. Appetites in the celebrity mainstream have been further whetted by events at the England team’s Baden-Baden hotel last summer, when the emergence of the terrible acronym “Wag” seemed to create its own insidious momentum. This month the wedding of John Terry – not David ­Beckham, Prince William or Napoleon Bonaparte – occupied 50 pages of OK!. What are we supposed to make of this? And does it still have anything to do with football?

The figures alone are worth documenting. OK! paid £1 million for exclusive rights to Terry’s do at Blenheim Palace. This seems an astronomical sum. OK! sells for £2. Can they really be expecting to sell at least half a million extra copies on the strength of a few shots of JT having it large and Jody ­Morris standing around in weirdly inappropriate Liz Hurley-style white jeans?

There is clearly a hunger out there for this kind of stuff. Exactly what form this hunger takes is another matter. There were three distinct tracks to how the weddings were reported in the press: the inside one, a breathless warts-and-all in the player’s favoured glossy mag; the view from the fringes, prowled by the tabloid dailies; and finally the semi-detached broadsheet, with its arch musings on the plebs in their hats and gaudy dresses. In practice, all three struck pretty much the same note: a mixture, in varying proportions, of fascination, distaste and mockery.

Even in OK!’s soft-lens job, the comic details – the good stuff, the bits we really salivate over – were never far away. After all, their clients are not really John Terry and Toni Poole, but the extra half a million readers who fancy a gawp at the soccer yobs and their wives. So we got guests being presented with “a flute of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rose champagne – complete with ­novelty cheese straws”. We caught a glimpse of JT walking down the aisle to Robbie Williams’s version of Mr Bojangles – a song about an alcoholic tap-dancing drifter, which at least hints at an unexpectedly vivid inner life. Before long it was dinner time: “classic prawn cocktail” followed by pie and mash or fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, plus something described as “baked bean cake”. And yes, we’re all giggling back here, too.

After the aquatic fountain show and fireworks display (“set to the theme from Gladiator”) it was time for the nightclub marquee, kicking off with a personal appearance by Lionel Richie, who “appeared from behind a concealed curtain… to gasps from guests”. Oddly, the former Commodore is something of a yardstick of football’s ascent into the celebrity firmament. Coverage of the England camp at the 1986 World Cup tended to feature shots of Terry Butcher or Steve Hodge lounging around the pool listening (always, it seemed) to Lionel Richie on their walkmen. Twenty years on, JT can afford to make him appear in person. Victory!

In the tabloid press the tone was similar, but the barbs were right there on the surface. A week before Terry’s big day the silver lobster knives were already out. ­Naffily Married sneered the News of the World, above a slew of non sequitur captions such as CASHING IN, CHEAP and GREEDY, and an article that was no more than an excuse to sneer at “football tightwad” Terry’s salary and expensive tastes. This is the familiar tone of a tabloid scorned, the uninvited wedding guest taking cheap shots and filling a cheap spread. There was more of this immediately after the event: “Stately homes up and down the country locked away expensive antiques yesterday and replaced them with glitter balls,” crowed the Sunday Mirror, while the NOTW quoted a “guest” remarking cattily of Steven Gerrard’s bride Alex Curran: “She looked absolutely breathtaking. She reminded me of Paris Hilton.”

There wasn’t much to choose between this and coverage in the broadsheets, with their knowing talk of “mock-croc invitations, seven-tiered cakes, lucrative magazine deals, Dior clad toddlers” and the inclusion, of course, of plenty of pictures of the couples themselves. Take away the raised eyebrow and you might as well have been reading the Sun, with the same dismal undertones of snobbery and envy, the pornographic fascination with consumption and inversions of social class and the constant, the universal, snickering at the women.

It’s hard to know what the effect of all this will be. It certainly doesn’t feel very healthy – or beneficial to the central relationship between players and supporters – to have this fascination with things unrelated to the experience of watching football (such as income, lifestyle or the England captain’s taste in canapés) repeatedly lain before us. Football can survive most things. It can survive players being paid £130,000 a week. But it can’t survive the moment when supporters stop caring about their club or the players who represent it. Terry and Gerrard, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, are undoubtedly aware of this, while OK! and celebrity reporters at the News of the World probably don’t care. It’s worth bearing that in mind if you’re ever tempted to wonder which side you’re supposed to be on.

And what about all these weddings? Terry’s, according to OK!, “will go down in history as one of the most stunningly beautiful ever”. This probably isn’t true. Premiership footballers don’t have a monopoly on beauty, but they are unique in other ways. The telegrams at Terry’s wedding included personal messages from Prince William and Gordon Brown. This is probably the most absurd detail of the whole day. Football is currently struggling beneath the weight of importance attached to it. Its image in the public imagination – a fond accumulation of aspirational longing, snobbery and wild financial excess – is without precedent. With luck, someone other than glossy celebrity magazines will get to have the last word on what it all actually means.

From WSC 246 August 2007