When the King of Pop met Exeter City

When it comes to discussing Michael Jackson’s legacy, it’s fair to say the King of Pop had much more influence on music than he did on football, unless you count Bas Savage’s moonwalking goal celebrations for Tranmere Rovers. And if you were going to pick one club for Jackson to leave some form of legacy on, you certainly wouldn’t have banked on him dropping by Exeter City’s St. James Park.

Yet in 2002 fans at the Devon capital were treated to just that as MJ made a somewhat bizarre appearance, along with David Blaine, in a specially organised charity event. Like many aspects of Jackson’s life, his brief association with Exeter was part curiosity, part showbiz and part circus, with the emphasis firmly on the latter.

For one season, Jackson was an honorary director of the Grecians, along with Darth Vader (or rather David Prowse, who wore the famous black suit), but while this seemed like a weird marriage of celebrity and football that was widely ridiculed in the national press, the truth is a lot stranger and sadder than just a pop star who fancied getting involved in a football club.

Damaged cutlery meets damaged goods

During those days Michael Jackson probably had about as much clue about the boardroom workings of Exeter City and the footballing delights of League Two as the fans did about why the singer agreed to get involved at St James Park, but they definitely knew who was responsible: Uri Geller.

The celebrity psychic and spoon bender had got involved in the club due to his then 21-year-old son Daniel, who Geller claimed had lived in Exeter in a past life, which explained his passion for the club. Geller was previously a Reading supporter (who once encouraged Royals fans to look into his eyes on the front page of the local paper to get the point they needed for promotion) but soon threw himself into his new favourite club with gusto.

The cutlery reshaper started off by talking up Exeter’s potential and even tried to use psychic energy to help the Grecians win a vital game against Chester City by placing crystals by the goalpost. Exeter lost 5-1. Undeterred, when it became clear that elderly chairman Ivor Doble was looking for a buyer, Geller joined forces with ex-Scarborough chairman John Russell and ex-Swansea chair Mike Lewis to take control of the club, beating off a rival consortium headed by Joe Gadston and Spurs legend Steve Perryman.

Geller was installed as co-chairman with Russell and Daniel became co-vice chairman with Lewis, although the father and son duo had little to do with the day to day running of the club and instead set about raising the profile of the Grecians – not hard when you have a publicity-hungry celebrity and journalists eager for an easy story.

City fans, for the most part, treated their new owners with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment. There was mild optimism that after stagnating under Doble, Geller would inject much-needed cash into the club and enable them to compete at the top as opposed to their perennial relegation battle. That optimism proved short lived.

Hello Exeter. I’m here to save the world from Aids. And Malaria.

Of course there’s only so many column inches a professional cutlery bender can generate by himself, and Geller quickly put his contact book to use as he aimed to truly put Exeter on the map, and in that book was a close friend with a truly global reach: the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.

It would have been more impressive had Jackson actually be singing at St James Park, but even so the announcement that the superstar was heading for a one-off event in Exeter certainly attracted attention, and a fair amount of ridicule in the national press. For many City fans, it was the point at which their beloved club had become the laughing stock of football, and many doubted that Jackson would actually turn up.

But on 14 June 2002, a group that would have been bizarre by any showbiz standards, but was completely weird in the context of a Westcountry city, arrived at St James Park. First soul diva Patti Boulaye belted out a number. Then David Blaine, sans box, shuffled a few cards. Then the King of Pop falteringly took to the stage.

“Hello to you wonderful people of Exeter,” he said to much screaming, before going onto talk (in the loosest sense of the world) about helping children with Aids, eradicating malaria and then urging the crowd to hold hands and tell their neighbour how much they loved each other. This hasn’t yet caught on at home games. You can watch the whole strange speech below:

For good measure, Geller invited Jackson onto the board of directors, an offer the King of Pop accepted, although he never made it to any meetings. It would have been nice to think, though, that the singer was sat in his Neverland ranch pouring over reports of sausage roll sales from the Big Bank catering shack.

Geller and Russell didn’t stop there. Further announcements were made about a series of concerts at St James Park featuring some of the biggest names in pop. John Russell is reported to have told one fan he would “get his arse out in the window of Burton’s” if Madonna didn’t end up playing the Park. Madge may not have joined Jacko in visiting Exeter, but the high street window of the men’s clothes shop has, thankfully, remained a nudity-free zone to this day.

By the time the bodybuilder David Prowse, best known as Darth Vader and the Green Cross Code man, arrived on the board, Exeter City had long since gone beyond a circus and had moved into a full blown soap opera with fans despairing at what their club had become.

After the event

Part of the deal with the Jackson appearance was that half the money raised would go to children’s charities, with the rest going towards much-needed funds for the struggling League Two club. That part of the money made its way to City rather quickly. The money destined for the charity took somewhat longer, much to the concern of fans. It was only after a persistent questioning from fans on the Exeweb forums, including a couple of local journalists, that the cash arrived at its intended destination.

Looking back, it’s not a surprise Russell and Lewis were rather slow in coughing up the money (there’s absolutely no suggestion of any wrongdoing on Geller’s part). In Swansea, feelings towards Lewis ran so high, after his part in selling the club to controversial businessman Tony Petty, that for a while he was advised not return to the city without police protection.

Russell, meanwhile, had been chairman of the now-defunct Scarborough when they tumbled out of the league, during which time he picked up a conviction for obtaining property by deception. Had the FA’s fit and proper person test for directors been in place when the consortium moved in, Russell would have undoubtedly been banned from taking up his post as chairman.

The season lurched from bad to worse. After a bright start, manager John Cornforth was sacked after results took a turn for the worst as City then proceeded to get through four managers in one season, including the hapless Neil McNab. At one point Gazza was genuinely considered as a manager. Russell and Lewis changed their mind halfway to Newcastle after an early morning conversation with Gazza’s middleman, Jimmy Five Bellies.

As the season lurched on, further questions were asked about Russell and Lewis, not least the somewhat odd discrepancies in crowd sizes and official figures. Even Geller ran out of patience with the pair, nicknamed Pinky and Perky by City fans. During a comical appearance on Adrian Durham’s Talksport show, where Russell and Lewis didn’t as much dig themselves a hole as start a full-blown excavation, Geller contacted the studios to say he was resigning and wanted nothing further to do with the pair.

Exeter were, unsurprisingly, relegated to the Conference with debts mounting. Soon after Russell and Lewis were arrested on fraud charges. Two years ago they plead guilty, and City fans could finally draw a line under one of the darkest, most surreal chapters in their history.

A superstar free-zone

Geller, also, is no longer seen at St James Park. The Supporters Trust, who took over the club and, through a superhuman effort, managed to keep the Grecians alive, did approach the spoonbender to see if he would be able to help. Geller had previously promised £5k to anybody who could save the club, but without a role for him and a strict one member one vote policy of the Trust, negotiations broke down and Uri walked away.

He did surface the season after, appearing at Woking away when, coincidentally, TV cameras were present for a documentary on Exeter. After this point, sightings of Geller around Exeter were as common as a Jackson performance on stage.

The celebrity psychic still divides opinion at City. During his time in charge, he was always approachable even if he rarely offered much insight into the club and some fans would be happy to see him return, albeit paying his own way. Even his strongest critics say that, at worst, he was naive and had good intentions, even if Exeter City FC did become something of a joke. All would welcome back his son Daniel to the terraces, who came across as a likeable young man with a genuine passion and interest for the Grecians.

Nowadays, the celebrity circus is long gone from Exeter. The only famous face you’re likely to find is actor Adrian Edmondson, who has held a City season ticket for several years and is a regular home and away. Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who grew up nearby, sends the occasional well-wishing message although is, mercifully, unlikely to turn up and implore the crowd to hold hands and embrace each other.

Michael Jackson’s association was short and as bizarre as the rest of his life. For a time, Exeter had one of the most showbiz yet ridiculed boardrooms, yet it was somewhat fitting that the King of Pop’s time at the club was no less surreal than the rest of his life. At least he didn’t ask Bubbles to play for the team, although judging by the relegation performances, the chimp could have done a better job than some of the players.

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