Do footballers have fun? Part One

21 11 2011

To continue with the subject that I wittered on about yesterday, change over time………..

If you asked someone to name their dream job it would not be a surprise if you heard them say ” footballer”. My dream job used to be  “footballer” but I haven’t felt like that since I was about 15. Slipping through the net a couple of decades ago certainly helped me deal with my dream ending, unlike Tim Lovejoy the celebrity bellend I have no regrets. Any residual desires ended when my illusions about professional football were shattered by some books about the subject. These books were the starting place for this article.

I was going to review the three football books I had found in a discount bookshop (The books were “The Keeper of Dreams” by Ronald Reng. “My Father and other Working Class Professionals” by Gary Imlach and “Soccer at War: 1939-’45” by Jack Rollin.) but the simple book review developed a life of its own and eventually became this two-part essay. This essay is partly a defence of footballers against incoherently angry phone-in callers, but it’s mostly a representation of my further disillusionment with certain aspects of football.

The erstwhile review developed for two reasons. The first reason was because I thought about the image of footballers. The media tries to bombard us with an image of glamour, glamour, glamour. They tell us that a footballer’s world is non-stop parties and premieres, marriages to WAGs and wheelbarrows for their wages.

This kind of life is a clichéd exaggeration from tabloid culture. As with most things written in tabloids that are not written by Paul Foot or John Pilger this cynically created image is mostly bollocks. When you apply this created image to the total number of professional footballers it can‘t be anything but bollocks. They might earn a lot more than the average wage but is the life of each footballer really that glamorous? I doubt it.

The three books cover three different eras but there are common themes within them. These common themes – Things like; dealing with January mud, psychotic opponents and having to bow and scrape before notable members of a local community – tell you that football hasn’t changed in certain fundamental respects. The common themes not only totally refute the clichéd tabloid image of footballers they make you wonder if there ever has ever been glamour in football.

The second reason the review developed was that I realised the common themes in the three books were present in some of the other football books I’ve read. Books like “Woody & Nord” by Gareth Southgate and Andy Woodman, “Only a Game?” by Eamon Dunphy, “Kickups, Hiccups, Lockups“ by Mickey Thomas, ”Kicking & Screaming” by Rogan Taylor and Andrew Ward. I threw in some columns written by the anonymous Footballer in Four Four Two magazine.

Altogether the reading material covered nearly every era of professional football in Britain so I was able to see that the relationship between footballers and their sport, and the character of football, hasn‘t changed very much over the years. As a result I began to feel a bit sorry for the position that footballers have always found themselves in.

So here goes the mutated book review………………

In the past I vaguely remember claiming that football should be fun. At the time I thought I was right because most people seemed to feel the same way; they always say that football is the most popular sport in the world.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing as it allows you to reflect. Consequently I may have been a little too hasty with my pronouncement. I actually need to go further than this banal statement; I’m not sure I find football enjoyable any more. In case you’re wondering I’m referring to the playing side.

Let’s consider why people play football. That’s not too difficult to work out; it’s the basic joy that playing sport provides. The joy comes in many forms; physical achievement, communal joy, keeping fit, having a laugh with your mates whilst keeping fit, being part of a flowing move, catching the ball perfectly, seeing the ball make the net ripple after you’ve had a shot, the joy of just being in the open air. Let’s call this “the spirit of football”.  When I say that I don’t find football enjoyable any more what I really mean is “I haven’t felt “the spirit of football” for a long time”.

Two thought processes led to me disliking football. One of the processes began roughly 18 months ago amongst the boring details of the nagging aches that plague my sleep. A Tuesday just wasn’t a Tuesday without a dull throbbing ache.

The process of disillusionment accelerated thanks to my position; goalkeeper. This vantage point allowed me time and space to see the full gamut of human behaviour. Mondays (excluding bank holidays of course) have become an exhausting procession of twats and their inexcusable behaviour; it’s was a cavalcade of simpletons, show boaters and loudmouth gobshites. It was so different in my day; you could actually chat with opponents as you left the pitch together but Llandudno in the 1990s is an entirely different continent.

The worst thing I’ve noticed in Llandudno’s minor, minor league is the rise in aggression. I don’t remember that level aggression being there a few years ago. Obviously there were some hotheads but generally people seemed calmer. People used to take defeat, or even being tackled, as part of the game. Now it seems that a lot of Llandudno’s players can’t accept the simple facts of football and so they lash out. Someone I know explains this problem really well; there is now a gap between some people’s perception of their technique and the actual level of their technique. These people fill the gap with aggression.

These fuckers, these twats, these malodorous recidivists, have ruined my favourite physical activity. An anthropologist would have a field day studying their display, the loudness, the cockiness, the loud cockiness, the posing in the style of the anointed rulers of civilisation. They strut around as if they’ve earned the right to speak in public, sneering at those living by more civilised values.

Consequently, if ever I spare a moment’s thought about Mondays my sap rises like larva. I’ve reached my very elastic limit and I can stand the sneers of the Philistines no longer. Football has allowed their base values to flourish. I hate football

The second process happened through reading numerous books about football. Thanks to the reading matter I started to wonder whether I really liked football any more. I wondered if I should be encouraging something that put so much pressure to perform on some of my fellow human beings. I wondered whether I should be putting pressure on them just because they were wearing polyester in a colour that I like. I began to wonder whether professional footballers are also disillusioned. I wondered if they also missed “the spirit of football”. I didn’t like football as much.

Footballers are thought to have dream job but there seems to be precious little joy, aside from a thin veneer, in the autobiographies I’ve read. Even with all their money (Even before the mega-wealth of the moment, footballers have always been relatively well-off in comparison to the rest of the working population) and fame I’m not sure I would like to be a player as their general work environment doesn’t seem very appealing.

Let’s consider the idea that football is somehow glamorous. The kind of glamour associated with football is not real glamour in the traditional sense. There isn’t much glamour in the Christmas morning training sessions.

Footballers are people. In fact they are just like the people who fawn over them the only difference is that footballers have better balance. They have foibles, they have bad days, they may have problems with their neighbours. Why would someone automatically become more glamorous because they sweat on TV for a living? The glamour that’s attached to football a hollow and shallow version of glamour. It’s the kind that requires a sponsor to exist, it’s not the glamour of Hollywood or the Pyramid Stage.

The idea of glamour in general has taken a bit of a nose dive in recent years. Film stars used to be glamorous but that was due to their image on the screen. People like Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich exuded glamour, they may have had their peccadilloes but we manage to remember their work more than their “little problems”. As for today’s film stars, Mel Gibson doesn’t seem to work much now. The main reason for the faded glamour is the media. They may have had muckrakers but they didn’t have Perez Hilton.

As for football it’s just the same. The last time there was truly glamour was the 1950s, with hushed reverence for Puskas, Di Stefano and company but then glamour was allowed to develop at this time. The lack of exposure allowed a mythical image to develop. The thing about the creation of cynical glamour of today is that it can be dispensed with if there are tabloid front pages to fill. Ironically these are the same tabloids that are complicit in the cynical creation of glamorous footballers, footballers that are kindly brought to you by Gilette, Nike and McDonalds……….

This cynically created glamour is utterly shallow and it bares no relation to the reality of football. Unfortunately reality is not the image that footballers are judged by. Even though footballers generally earn above average wages this is rather unfair, why should they be judged on something that’s not of their making?

After studying the reading material I wonder if there was ever was a time in which you could say football has been truly glamorous. As general rule footballers seem more concerned about worries than parties. Their pressure-filled work environment isn’t very healthy and it certainly isn’t glamorous. You don’t need to read books to realise the tabloid glamour version of football isn’t really that truthful. The vast majority of pro footballers do not exist in the constant glare of glamour and publicity. Have you ever seen the tabloid exclusives featuring Brad Friedel and Darren Fletcher?

Eamon Dunphy’s famous “Only a Game?” shows us a side of football that is a million miles from  glamour. The book paints a picture of football as a constant stream of worries; getting in the team, staying in the team, a suspicion of team-mates who seem to be fakers, malingerers or show-offs, the need to fit in with you team mates even if they are objectionable bastards.

As Brian Glanville put it in the intro “The pro footballer’s endemic paranoia….“  A footballers’ world is a world where there’s no loyalty to a team per se because the team only worries about you when you’re useful to them. They don’t care when you’re not in the team. It’s world where your only real loyalty is towards your bank account. There’s no glamour.

Dunphy dedicates his book to “The Good Pro”. This player is “a trier….. Accepts responsibility ………. Often rescue you ……… makes himself available for the ball all the time …… He will make that run, get that vital touch in the box, go for a return pass instead of holding back …….. Never on the missing list”  You sense that there aren’t enough “Good Pros” in the game for Dunphy.

Dunphy frets about moral issues “Ethics matter everywhere, but in sport they matter more than anywhere else …….. (Sport is) a place where virtue is rewarded and cheating exposed” Again you get the sense that not all footballers, or people, have these values for Dunphy. You can see that worries are never far from the surface.

Here’s a brief taste of the book’s contents to illustrate a less than glamorous job;

25 July; “People are always happy to come back…… You don’t really think about the season today”

26 July: “The first day is always hard but it is not the hardest ……….. And you are really knackered”

27 July; “But this lad was completely unabashed; “I’ve only come here for first team football” he said ………. Oh well we’d better watch out, then. Because he meant it.

3 August; “One is conscious of little things – the apprentices begin to seem absurdly young, you call them ‘son’ now, it doesn’t seem so long since older players addressed you in the same way……………… You begin to wonder what is coming from the friend’s Provident fund, about a testimonial……… about retirement ……….. How much longer will you spend your summers in this idyllic way, dreaming of glory? ………. It’s a shock to realise how rapid the descent is from pinnacle to valley”

13 August; “We always feel quite hard done by at Millwall over close-season tours. Orient went to the Bahamas; even Hendon went to Spain; and we come to Bournemouth!”

14 August; “You could see him measuring himself against us, seeing if he was still as fit as he had been. Seeing if he still had it”

24 August; “Tomorrow is the first game. I am confident. Not certain, for that is impossible ……….. For nine months our lives are committed to the business of winning games.”

31 August: “When they sign a new player who plays in your position it is not funny. Everyone is delighted they’ve signed a new player, but you know it is you who is going to be left out…….”

18 September: “We’re on our way. Only four points behind the top side now, two wins in a row setting us up…..”

1 October: “……… and I looked around ……… ‘I’m Dropped’ ……… No! But I am ……… I could not believe it. I could not think for a minute ………….”

2 October: “Being dropped is something everyone in the game has to face. Manchester United dropped Bobby Charlton once. How do you face it? Yesterday I came home and I just cried. But it’s eating into you the whole time. You can’t think about anything else for one minute. You go home and you are restless, edgy………”

27 October: “Today we got found out. The chickens came home to roost……”

29 October: “A failed football club in October. A depressing place. Already with seven months to go, the morning becomes a dread”

3 November: “Going as twelfth or thirteenth man is a drag. The thirteenth man is the one who normally gets the worst of it. You are in effect skip-boy”

7 November : “Back in the bloody Midweek League again. It’s an unbelievable sensation going to play at Orient on a Wednesday Afternoon in November. There is no one there, absolutely nothing at stake, except your own pride. You don’t feel like it at all”

15 November: “……But he has got absolutely no chance of making it. He really is the butt of everything”

20 November; “Playing in the Midweek League football is futile enough at the best of times. But playing Midweek League football at the Valley really tells you how futile the whole thing is. The biggest ground in London and there was no-one there. No one at all….”

27 November: “I got very worried because it suddenly dawned on me that I am living in a Millwall house, and that this house, which I regard as my own, isn’t mine at all”

Within the pages of “Only a Game?” you are treated to the whole of football life; Ups and downs, winning runs and failures. Even though it was written nearly 40 years ago it still resonates because it could be any season. The pre-season is full of hope before autumn becomes the graveyard of those plans.

The worries Dunphy articulated are still universal  – you can be dropped, your teammates may be tossers and you may worry that your hopes will remain unfulfilled – so if football was unglamorous then it remains unglamorous today. The training depicted in the book seems tough and even though football has become more scientific, with plush new training facilities and Sam Allardyce’s Sport Lab, one basic point still motivates training; you need an awful lot of strenuous physical activity.

Even though “Only a Game?” highlights a lack of glamour this doesn’t turn football into horrible career by itself – most of a film star’s jet set life is spent in draughty studios but this doesn’t make the Hollywood unglamorous – it merely disproves the tabloid glamour. Having said that the book makes you question whether the footballers life is all it’s cracked up to be. A footballers’ job is certainly not a dream job.

Tomorrow we’ll turn to the other pitfalls of a career in professional football.

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2 responses

27 11 2011
Kowalski

Thanks comrade, much appreciated!

26 11 2011
D. Walsh

Great stuff Kowalski, will be retweeting…

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