Any day now, a handful of clubs at the top of the second tier in English professional football will receive a dream visitor.
Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, will call to say hello and to begin the process of welcoming them to the game's elite.
They might not make it, of course - a lot can happen in the last, pressure-cooker weeks of the season - but Scudamore's arrival will be the surest sign yet that a hallowed place in the most lucrative competition in football is tantalisingly close.
According to research from accountants Deloitte, membership of the Premiership is worth at least £90m a year to a club - comprising TV income of more than £40m, gate receipts, replica kit and other sales, and sponsorship.
That's for the minnows.
For the big boys, the clubs with the largest crowds and international followings - such as Manchester United and Arsenal - the rewards are far, far higher.
Predictably, the Championship play-off match that determines the final team to be promoted each season is known as 'the £90m game'. It's a nerve-shredding affair.
Paul Rawnsley, director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, says: 'In financial terms, the Championship play-off final offers the winning club the most substantial prize in world football.'
The numbers are staggering. Any club being ejected from the 20-strong list of members receives a parachute payment of £48m to soften the blow - just for being relegated.
Last June, the Premier League announced that BT had been awarded the television rights to 38 games a season for three seasons for £246m a year. BSkyB would be showing a further 116 live matches, also for three seasons, for £760m a year.
That total of £3.018bn was 70% up on the last round of contracts.
That was on top of the BBC deal to show recorded highlights, for three seasons, worth another £179m.
And it does not take into account the overseas TV packages. When these are factored in, the overall value of showing the Premiership on TV, to 643 million homes in 212 countries, is more than £5bn.
This, don't forget, is before tickets are sold, sponsorships are concluded and replica team kits and all the other paraphernalia are purchased.
Not surprisingly, Premiership names dominate the annual Deloitte ranking of the world's richest clubs. Its players, too, are paid as pop superstars, some earning £170,000-plus a week.
'Too much power'
But the Premiership has its critics. A recent House of Commons committee report castigated those who oversee football, including the Premier League. Too much power was concentrated in the hands of the few, found the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The professional game at the top level was increasingly exclusive and distant from its grassroots.
The MPs were not alone. Unattractive comparisons have been made between the Premiership and the German Bundesliga, where the clubs are still owned by the fans and tickets are much cheaper.
And further evidence of that money-grabbing sickness came this January when David Sullivan, co-chairman of West Ham, said he was threatened with violence by an agent during the recent transfer window.
On the pitch, too, there are rows galore, with players accused of racism, cynically diving to seek penalties, deliberately fouling, abusing the referee and winding up supporters that do not need any further winding up.
Presiding over this controversial, rollicking moneymaking machine is Richard Scudamore, CEO of the Premier League since 1999.
What do you think of when you imagine Scudamore? A permatanned, larger-than-life character, dripping in gold and wearing the most expensive suits known to man and crocodile shoes?
You'd be disappointed. The first clue comes with the offices. The Premiership's headquarters are hardly a temple to bling. They're set in a Georgian terrace in London's West End. The interior has been modernised so that while outside it looks traditional, inside it's all wooden floors, steel and glass with a hollowed-out basement of meeting and conference rooms. The atmosphere is of hushed, businesslike efficiency.
That's the point: this could be any corporate office anywhere. Such is the quiet, it could even be a firm of lawyers.
Likewise, Scudamore himself. He may be the boss of the best football league on the planet; he may have TV companies queuing at his door; he may be able to pick up the phone to the chiefs of the most glamorous clubs on earth and they'll listen; he may earn more than £800,000 a year, but you couldn't tell from looking at him.
He is smartly dressed, but in the uniform of the executive everywhere. He could be a supermarket manager, retail banker or perhaps even Mr Mackay from Porridge.
You look at his neat, dapper appearance, at the business suit pressed just so, and note the lack of thumping great rings and a giant watch, and you wonder.
Can this really be the man who presides over the league that embraces the likes of Sullivan at West Ham or Mohamed Al Fayed at Fulham or Roman Abramovich at Chelsea?
He is, but that's the message too.
His is the business end of the Premiership, about maintaining image and reputation, regardless of what occurs on the pitch, and ensuring the league negotiates the best prices for its members. And that, too, is another aspect to Scudamore. He may be in charge of the league but he is certainly not in charge of its members.
He's both master and servant, answerable to their requests, vulnerable to their say-so.
Scudamore's lean, wiry physique provides clues as to what he likes to do in his spare time. He's a fully qualified county-level football referee. And he has the same disciplined, rigorous approach as the man in black.
He was born and raised in Bristol (he's a lifelong fan of Championship club Bristol City). 'My mother and father were both NHS evangelists,' he says. 'My father was number two in the regional health authority and my mother was a nurse, which she was all her life.'
One of three brothers, he went to a grammar school that became a comprehensive while he was there (he was head boy). He got into university at Nottingham to study law. 'I enjoyed university, but hated law - I didn't find it enjoyable at all.'
Why? He shrugs. 'I was young, I didn't want to be a lawyer.' He does not want to talk about it. However, he does offer, as an aside: 'The irony now is that I spend a lot of my time dealing with legal documents and lawyers.'
He moves on. 'My career was built around three blocks. The first was when I worked for Yellow Pages. I joined them after university. I was an account manager. I did pretty well - I was promoted eight times in eight years, ending up at 30 as a divisional sales director.'
The second, he says, 'was when I joined the newspaper revolution. Ralph Ingersoll had come over from the US and bought some UK newspapers. Ralph did not have a saleshouse in London. I worked for him in newspaper media sales. Then Ingersoll became Thomson Newspapers and I was its UK sales and marketing director. I was also managing director in Edinburgh of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News. Then, at the end of 1993, Thomson sold all its UK newspapers and I went to the US to work for the Thomson Corporation as senior vice-president in charge of all their newspaper operations in the southern and eastern United States.'
He smiles at the memory. 'I had 200-odd newspapers in 40 different states to run; that was from 1994 to 1998.'
The third block was football. For a brief period he ran the Football League. 'Catherine (his wife) and I wanted to come back to the UK. I saw an advert for the Football League chief executive's job in The Times. I was at Heathrow, waiting to fly back to the US from a friend's wedding. My wife saw it and said: "This is for you. You love Bristol City, you're crazy about football." When I got back, I rang up Spencer Stewart, the headhunters.'
That was in late 1997. Two years later, he was appointed chief executive of the Premier League. 'Now I'm halfway through my 14th year.'
Wasn't it odd, going from running newspapers to sports supremo? He shakes his head.
'It's not like I was a stranger to the game. Since my 20s, I'd been involved in local football administration. I sat on league committees in (his native) Gloucester, and I was a referee. I knew a lot about the game. At the interview, I was able to draw on my multimedia experience in the US, of working with TV and radio and newspapers.'
It also helped that he came from Bristol. 'My CV did not say I was from either London or the north-west, the traditional centres of football power. In football dogma, I was regarded as a neutral.'
At the Football League, he says, 'I was left to get on with the job. There are 72 clubs and they need someone to run it. It's the same here, except there are 20. But they still need someone to run the Premier League.'
The league is a plc in which there are 20 shareholders. Three change each year as clubs are relegated and others are promoted from the Championship. His philosophy is very much that of the collective. The mantra trips off his tongue: 'We do things collectively, which makes us strong; the bits we do together we're strong at.'
However, the potential for feuds and damaging rows is ever-present. Indeed, such are the egos of the owners that it's hard to imagine them ever agreeing on anything. That's why Scudamore cites 'keeping us all together' as his biggest achievement so far.
The sticking together line is one he repeats. It's behind the success of the TV rights, where the price has soared during his tenure.
By selling as one, they can raise a bigger total than if some clubs broke away and did their own thing. That threat is ever-present, he says, but by 'keeping our collective strength together', it can be seen off. Similarly, he maintains, attacks from external bodies, from politicians, regulators and commercial rivals are also best dealt with collectively.
What's his biggest regret? 'We've not been able to communicate our success particularly well. Some of the criticisms levelled at us are wide of what we do. We hear too many commentators say the football is fantastic but we're not so good as a business. We've not been able to communicate that link better.'
Warming to the theme that too much attention is paid to the money pouring in - the footballers' salaries, the high ticket prices and the invasion of rich foreign owners - he says: 'If you want to see the world's best talent on the world's best pitches in the world's best stadia, playing with an intensity that does not exist anywhere else in the world, that's what we provide, and you can't have all that without it being linked to our business model. It's high-octane, fast, noisy, aggressive and sometimes vitriolic - it's a healthy cocktail.'
In other words, anyone expecting a mea culpa from Scudamore, an acknowledgment that some of the criticisms surrounding Premiership football are right, such as egregious behaviour on the pitch, can more or less forget it.
Discipline is not his concern - that's the preserve of the Football Association, the umbrella body, and individual clubs. Scudamore's main concern is keeping the fans and broadcasters sweet, to make sure that money keeps flowing into his members' coffers.
He seems to have something like the perfect job - if anything untoward occurs, it's almost certainly a problem for someone else.
It's frustrating talking to him because he plays a dead straight bat. Football may attract more mud than any other sport, with one scandal after another, but little of it seems to affect Scudamore.
There he is, head of the league of all the major clubs, the one whose players, managers, supporters and matches grab the hostile, shrieking headlines, and he's as calm and collected as anything.
Partly, it's the referee in him: he does dispassionate for a hobby, taking decisions with a detached coolness. Partly, too, it's the American corporate persona: he talks like someone well schooled in marketing and business-speak, putting brand loyalty above everything else.
But it's not all Scudamore's fault. It's the way the Premiership is positioned. It's not the FA, and neither does it dictate to the clubs, which, after all, are its owners.
Of the MPs' verdict, Scudamore says: 'It was almost impossible for us to identify with a lot of that report. They ignored virtually everything I said.'
But, he waves his hand, 'I do understand it's difficult for a group of MPs to get to the facts. The reality is that the MPs were not from sporting backgrounds and there was not the time for them to do their own research. It's quite likely it was not (the chairman) John Whittingdale's pen on the report but some researcher who wrote it.'
Looking at their points, he says: 'They argue the FA needs to be structured and made fit for the 21st century, but the FA isn't a single company, it's an association of interests. Those interests are the game as it exists here, so they cover the grassroots where the game is played. It's true, we've moved on from factories in the late 19th century laying on football for their workers and affording them bragging rights.
Interests of the sport at heart
'The game is largely run by volunteers at the grassroots, then you've got a whole new industry, the pay-to-play sector, including firms like Goals, then you've got the clubs at the top end.'
The clubs in the Premier and Football Leagues, he says, see themselves as operating differently from the grassroots, but they've still got the interests of the sport at heart. From the Premiership's viewpoint, 'we can't win. If we overplay our hand with the FA we're accused of interference. If we underplay, we're criticised.'
Generally, says Scudamore, relations with the FA are good, but he adds, smiling, 'it's no secret that Lord Triesman (the last FA chairman) didn't embrace all the Premier League stands for.'
On financial fair play he has made progress, persuading, by the narrowest of margins, the clubs to vote in favour of new rules that come into effect next season. They cap the amount that can be spent on players' wages and limit losses to £105m over a three-year period.
It has taken all Scudamore's softly, softly diplomatic skills to get this far, although for many the move does not go far enough - the new code lags behind the regulations imposed by the European body, Uefa, for instance.
Says Scudamore: 'No one in football is proud of the kind of wage inflation we've experienced, but, equally, we mustn't do anything that dampens the international appeal of our league.'
If a sentence sums up Scudamore's approach it's that one: he won't jeopardise the relentless march of his employer, the Premier League, and its 20 members.
He pronounces himself pleased with the season to date. On the footballing side, Manchester United are 12 points clear but there are still plenty of matches left, and the fight for the coveted Champions League spots remains tight.
And at the bottom, four, six, possibly eight teams could be in the mix, come the season's end.
'On the commercial side, we're having our most successful season - as we've had every year.' Despite the furore over high ticket prices, the stadia are full.
'So far this season, they're 95.1% full, up from 92.4% for the whole of last season. You do that by getting the pricing mostly right.' He clearly resents the accusations of greed, citing the Premiership's community programme by which the clubs have put a combined £60m into the grassroots. 'Clubs have never spent more time or money on this, they've never worked harder in this respect.'
The sport, he declares, has come a long way from the days when the great Tom Finney would ride a bus to the ground, his boots slung over his shoulder, mixing with ordinary, working-class fans on the journey.
But it would be wrong, he insists, to charge the clubs with deserting those historic ties, of forgetting their traditional fan base. 'I understand we're not there yet but we must be doing something right if the stadia are 95% full and TV audiences are up. Any sport would give their left arm to be in that situation.'
That's not to say it's perfect, he admits. 'It's like we're flying a jumbo at 37,000 feet. We're hurtling along but there are dangers.'
Such as? 'IP rights. We're suffering as much as other creative industries from illegal downloads. We're great content creators, too, and we need a tough regulatory regime and we need to educate people against stealing our product.'
The only other threat, he says, is integrity. 'Our league is the most honest in the world but it's still a concern at the professional level. You've seen Lance Armstrong in cycling and 'bloodgate' in rugby. Things like that hit at the integrity of any sport.'
In that regard, betting worries him. 'It's allowed to ride on the back of our game, but there's no link with us as to what people can bet on. They can bet on who takes the first corner, the first throw-in, all of which are capable of being manipulated by the participants.'
Football betting now accounts for 35% to 40% of gambling revenues (not so long ago, horse-racing took 75% but that figure has fallen and football has soared).
But his league has no formal relationship with the betting operators. 'They pay us no royalties for the fixture list, for example. It should all be above ground, legitimised and regulated. The idea it can somehow stay below the ground should be anathema.'
By now, you must have realised, he rejects the claim that Premiership football has overreached itself.
'Greed to me is a pie divided into six segments and someone takes three of them. That's not how it is. We've achieved growth but not at the expense of any other part of football. I don't subscribe to the greed view because I'm not sure whose lunch it is I'm supposed to be eating.'
Far better, he believes, that it's seen as a serious business, a rare UK export success. He accompanies the prime minister on his trade missions and takes the Premiership trophy with him. 'Usually, we'll know the broadcaster or the broadcasting market there. Everyone who sees the trophy will say "wow". Heads of state, prime ministers - they all want a photo with the trophy.'
And that no doubt paves the way for another contract with him. He grins: 'It's what we like to call soft power.'
He's got five children. Does he take them to the big games, like Man United versus Manchester City? He chuckles. 'No. They do all right. They go to Bristol City. What more do they need?'
What more, indeed.
FOUR CHALLENGES FACING SCUDAMORE
SCUDAMORE IN A MINUTE
|1959||Born 11 August, Bristol. Leaves Kingsfield School in 1977 to study law at Nottingham University.|
|1980||Joins Yellow Pages in advertising sales. Works his way up to become sales director.|
|1989||Joins Thomson and is promoted to senior VP responsible for newspapers in the southern and eastern US.|
|1997||Becomes CEO of the English Football League.|
|1999||Moves to the top tier as CEO of the Premier League.|
|2013||Drives the league to ever greater heights. Criticism directed at Premier League clubs for their perceived greed - and players for their stratospheric wages and behavioural lapses - bounces off him as fans flock to grounds, TV rights soar and the clubs get ever richer.|