Described by Reuters as “bedlam”, a special train was leaving Paddington Station in London, on June 14th, 2002. The destination was Exeter and the scenes at the station were said to be one of “pure chaos, recalling Beatlemania back in the 60s.” Two hundred fans clamoured on board the train, some paying up to £100 for the privilege of being on the same train as the man. Others managed to sneak on for free amidst the pandemonium. One enthused fan said: “I paid £100 and it was worth every penny. No, he didn’t come through to see us, but just being on the same train was enough.”
The train, the same used by the Queen weeks before no less, pulled into Exeter station later than expected; first the man went to his hotel before jumping into a white limousine that made its way to St. James’ Park, home of Exeter City, where a 7,000-strong crowed had gathered for a special event to raise money for the struggling club and for children’s charities.
There was a great dose of skepticism from those inside the stadium about whether he would really appear; the mere idea was so outlandish yet perfectly befitting of the man they had all paid money to see. Many expected a look-a-like, maybe Navi, who had made a career out of being hired as an impersonator.
A few of supporting acts that included two bands, a modern dance troop and a tribal African dance group were well received by the crowd. A vintage car was slowly driven into the stadium and on to the St. James’ Park pitch; there was now a heightened sense of anticipation.
The car was supposed to traverse down one side of the pitch so the man sitting inside could wave to the crowd, but such was the hysteria from some of the crowd – who raced to gather around the car and thus blocking the car from going anywhere – he was forced to flee the vehicle and make it to the safety of a specially constructed stage.
And there he stood – not Navi – but Michael Jackson, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and arguably the most famous human being on the planet, was gracing the St. James’ Park turf, almost beyond the comprehension of anyone who was fortunate enough to be inside the stadium.
It wasn’t quite the breathtaking entrance seen during his Dangerous world tour concerts – where he would be catapulted up through the stage and would stand motionless for what seemed like an eternity whilst hundreds of fans would simultaneously faint – but there he was, flanked with his now trademark umbrella, Uri Geller and David Blaine. How had Exeter City pulled off the coup of all coups?
Uri Geller, the Israeli cutlery manipulator and part time illusionist, had befriended Jackson in the late 1990s through Harrods and Fulham owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. Geller had asked Jackson to be his best man when he renewed his wedding vows in 2001.
Geller became involved with Exeter City when his son Daniel decided they were his team of choice one night whilst watching highlights of them on television. The club was in dire financial straits after they were taken over by John Russell and Mike Lewis, who as it turned out had no actual funds to invest into the ailing third division club. So they reached out to Geller and he was made co-chairman alongside Russell.
Geller, in a bid to bring fresh funds into the club, brainstormed and came up with the concept of a charity event at the end of the 2001-02 season. Exeter had finished 16th in the old Third Division and it was felt the money raised from such an extravaganza could help bring stability to the club. The Israeli then delved into his black book of celebrities names who he felt could draw spectators to St. James’ Park, and who was a bigger attraction than the King of Pop?
Michael Jackson by his own admission was not much of a sports fan, despite appearing at half time of Super Bowl XXVII (thus starting the trend of major artists appearing); a lifetime dedicated to perfecting his craft and performing on stage from a very young age didn’t leave much time for hobbies or social interests. However he did admit that he could “play soccer a little bit.”
This wasn’t his first dalliance with the English game, either; in April 1999 he attended a second division game that pitted Fulham against Wigan, and was welcomed as a guest of Mohamed Al-Fayed. The home side eased to a 2–0 victory as Kevin Keegan’s men went on to win promotion at a canter. Jackson did a lap of honour around the pitch, waving to the fans.
Speaking about the experience in a rare interview weeks later, he said: ‘’I’m a soccer fan now, definitely. I’m addicted. It was so exciting and passionate – the fans were like the people who come to my concerts. They were screaming and shouting and cheering their players on. I loved it. I wanted to jump up and start dancing because I’m used to performing on stage when I hear all that noise.’’ It would have been a fascinating sight to see Jackson performing one of his trademark 360 spins up in the stands of Craven Cottage on a Saturday afternoon.
If the image of Jackson’s famous penny loathers walking across the St. James’ Park grass proved difficult, pulling the coup off proved even more so for Geller. Despite their friendship, Jackson would only come to England if they split the money raised 50-50 between the club and children in Africa with HIV. Jackson told Geller that there had to be sick kids from hospitals present on the day of the event. He agreed.
In an interview with The Independent months later, Geller stated that because they were friends, he couldn’t ask Jackson to sign a contract promising that he would appear despite “tickets selling like crazy”. “Physically getting him to England, and then on a train from Paddington station to Exeter, was difficult, but we did it,” Geller would later go on to say.
He was only supposed to speak for a few minutes, yet he stayed longer, his speech continually interrupted by bouts of laughter from Jackson himself, giggling as he lapped up the applause of the appreciative crowd. He handled with it with all the ease of someone who had spent his entire life in the public glare.
Jackson told his audience that the world had to do more in the fight against AIDS in Africa and he pleaded with everyone in the stadium to hold the hand of the person beside them. “Tell them that you care for them! That you love them! Go on, do it! Don’t be shy! This is how it starts!”
In a funny moment as he was wrapping up his speech, Jackson, catering to the crowd, declared England were going to triumph against Denmark in the last-16 of the World Cup, before innocently pointing out that he knew nothing about sport.
England did indeed win and, not content with breaking every musical record known to man, the King of Pop had a 100% prediction ratio too.
Following the event, dark days loomed ahead with 2003 proving to be a disastrous year for both the club and Jackson. Despite the ‘concert’ being a rousing success, and with Geller’s claims of “Exeter being featured in Sports Illustrated”, It didn’t prevent the club falling further into financial trouble. There were delays in getting the money to the charities and bills went unpaid.
The Grecians started the 2002-03 season badly, losing three of their opening five games and would eventually finish the season relegated thus dropping out of the Football League for the first time in the club’s history, with debts at a staggering £3 million. Geller would soon fade from the Exeter picture, and Lewis and Russell were later charged with fraudulent trading. Both men pleaded guilty and Lewis received 200 hours community service whilst Russell got 21 months in prison. The pair believed Geller reported them to the police. The club would later be saved from extinction by the fans.
For Jackson, life after 2003 would ultimately never be the same again. He authorised Martin Bashir to make a documentary whilst following him and his children for eight months. Jackson felt that Bashir, who had done such a wonderful job of painting Princess Diana – a close friend of his – in a positive light from their now famous interview in 1995, could aid him in rebuilding his misunderstood image. It was Uri Geller who made the introduction.
After the documentary was released and the ramifications of which turned into Jackson’s arrest and trial, Geller, whilst speaking to Louis Theroux (who was also vying with Bashir to make a documentary on Jackson but was rejected in favour of the former) felt betrayed by Bashir and regretted ever introducing the pair, wishing he’d set up an interview with Sir David Frost instead. Jackson, in turn, somewhat harshly, never forgave Geller and their relationship collapsed.
Six years later Jackson died, but one of Jackson’s former managers, Dieter Wiesner, believes the night the documentary aired in February 2003 was beginning of the end: “It broke him. It killed him. He took a long time to die, but it started that night. Previously the drugs were a crutch, but after that they became a necessity.’’
Despite how things disintegrated for both the club and Michael Jackson soon thereafter that unforgettable day, Exeter City fans can be content in knowing that in an era where movie stars and musicians pop up at plush Premier League stadiums – usually for self-serving purposes – a megastar appeared at a dilapidated St. James’ Park one Friday afternoon, and not just any megastar – but the megastar. The incomparable Michael Jackson.
By Emmet Gates @E_I_M_G