Do footballers have fun? Part Two

24 11 2011

The books featured in this part of the essay include;

The Keeper of Dreams”  by Ronald Reng (KoD)
“My Father and other Working Class Pros”  by Gary Imlach
“Soccer at War: 1939-’45”  by Jack Rollin
“Woody & Nord” by Gareth Southgate and Andy Woodman (W & N)
“Only a Game?” by Eamon Dunphy  (O a G?)
“Kickups, Hiccups, Lockups“  by Mickey Thomas
”Kicking & Screaming”  by Rogan Taylor and Andrew Ward (K & S)
Some columns by the anonymous Footballer in Four Four Two magazine.

The Second World War should have seriously affected organised football but as Jack Rollin tells us in “Soccer and the War” there was a vibrant football scene during the conflict. Theoretically the total mobilisation of Britain should have ruined organised football as a spectacle – clubs had to form scratch teams to fulfil fixtures and players were forced to develop a “have boots will travel” attitude – but football wasn’t ruined. With life and death in everyone’s minds the privations presented by wartime football, in comparison to peacetime football, were trifling.

The problems didn’t seem to matter to anyone. The players didn’t mind as compared to the death and destruction they could face the upheaval associated with football must have been enjoyable. Young players didn’t mind as they would be given chances they wouldn’t normally been granted. The fans didn’t mind either as clubs could call up superstars that were stationed in a nearby garrison or airbase, and this was perhaps their only chance to see superstars in their clubs’ shirt.

Instead of ruining organised football the Second World War may have been the only time when organised football was as enjoyable as it was in the good old amateur days. It may have been the only time that playing professional football felt like the football matches you played as a child; playing for fun, playing without pressure. Football soon reverted to type after the Second World War and the problems for footballers soon returned.

To follow on from part one of this essay, I have noticed eleven further problems with a carrer as a footballer;

1) The constant threat of injury

Injuries are an inevitable problem when physical activities are based around competing groups. A mistimed tackle can cause a broken leg, a shot can cause broken fingers and misplaced enthusiasm can cause a mass punch up. The problem of injuries is obviously historical. For example Norah Bell tells us what happened to her husband Jack in the 1930s;

“When he finished at Luton, he injured his foot and couldn’t play properly anymore and they didn’t give a damn. If you finished football, you finished, and that was that…” (K & S)

Anne Savage said this of her husband;

“He couldn’t run anymore and he was told he’d have arthritis in that leg for the rest of his life as long as he lived, and that leg used to go black up to the knee and he had very bad sleepless nights with it…” (K & S)

They shoot horses don’t they? Violence-related injuries were still common in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s because the omnipresent “hard man” stalked the land. Bobby Keetch illustrates this era;

“I’ve got about eight stitches in my leg here, from a particularly savage encounter with Johnny Giles.“ (K & S)

Today our tolerance of violence is so low that players are sent off for sarcastically clapping and most of today’s “mass brawls” would fail the Trade Descriptions Act (They should be re-christened “Immature pushing and shoving”.) This environment means that players no longer become victims of full-frontal assaults.

While football is now softer and cuddlier this doesn’t mean mindless aggression has ended. I see it on a weekly basis and players like Ryan “Breaker of Welsh Legs” Shawcross are still allowed to play. Even though violence may not happen as often mouthy buggers are still with us so the potential for a short sharp return is always there.

Hard men, clumsy opponents and advertising hoardings are not always required to cause injuries any more as players can injure themselves. For example they may break metatarsals (a new bone discovered in 2002) by turning too sharply in their plastic coated boots. When you think about this situation being chopped by a hard man was preferable as there was certain brutal nobility to it. A player getting injured because they’re wearing ridiculous footwear isn’t what football should be about.

The threat of injury exists even before footballers set foot in a stadium. Footballers have a lot of spare time which means they will spend a lot of time at home. A home becomes hazardous to your health with inanimate objects like ironing boards, aftershave bottles and condiment jars lying around. Even driving high powered cars can result in strained ligaments.

2) The historic lack of glamour

Has there ever been any glamour in football? Even in the so-called “age of glamour” in the 1950s I wonder if there was much glamour. During that time a players’ existence wasn’t much different from the rest of the working population. As the true cliché states, they may have even caught the same buses and trams to matches. Players may have drawn an extra look from an adoring fan so they weren’t glamour-less but the extra look was all they drew.

In “the age of glamour” most players also had to take other jobs to help make ends. A particularly well-known example is the international superstar plumber Tom Finney. During this time  players were taught to know their place. Stanley Matthews recalled an experience when he was an international and claiming expenses;

“They gave you a little card and it says ‘from Stoke to London’. Well we had to put this down and Tommy Lawton put an extra sixpence on his travel fare , you see, and Mr Huband (the treasurer) also had the prices and he said, “Lawton, you’ve overcharged” so he crossed out the sixpence out”  (K & S)

Tom Finney also has a similar recollection;

“I got a very Curt note back; ‘Dear Finney, we’re returning your expenses sheet. Herewith enclosed a new one to make out and for your information the third-class fare from Preston to Liverpool is x shillings and you didn’t have any meal because you only travelled from Liverpool to us” (K & S)

There was no freedom of movement either thanks to the retain and transfer system as George Hardwick relates;

“At the end of every season it was the wail all round the dressing room; ‘I wonder what I’ll get next season?’’ I wonder what they‘ll offer me for next season?’ ‘Am I going to be retained or are they going to kick me out?’….. You were truly slaves” (K & S)

Stuart Imlach’s biography (written by his son) further highlights the situation faced by British players up to the 1960s; the Scottish FA also thought their player were paid slaves to be seen and not heard.  

While the relationship between players and clubs has changed considerably in the present epoch of plutocratic ownership the players are still kept at arm’s length.

3) The effect on your family

Stuart Imlach played in the era of change; from the serfdom of the 1950s to the relative freedom of the 1960s. However the freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, it was certainly a better situation but this greater freedom may have led to other problems. A player could change clubs more easily but think about his family, how would they feel about moving around the country?

If you wanted the same level of pay, or constant first team football, you may have needed to move. You may have even felt the need to move several times. If you were injury prone like Stuart Imlach there was a distinct possibility that you would need to move to improve your situation. The clubs involved in a move could be at the opposite ends of the country, would this sort of move be fair on your family? Could you concentrate with a disgruntled family? The same worries and problems exist today.

We haven’t even mentioned how a family would be affected by having a family member in the public eye constantly either.

4) The bright lights of football fame don’t always shine brightly

Lars Leese highlights a few examples;

“And in the dressing room he was welcomed with a grunt by the kitman ‘What have we here, another new boy? More kit for me to wash?” Actually Lars wasn’t imagining that one …….. Welcome to the world of professional football” (K o D)

“………..At Leverkusen he threw himself at the strikers’ feet, just as he had been doing for years in amateur football, and saw with surprise that they didn’t just shoot, they waited until he was on the ground then casually lobbed it over him or dribbled around him. They called it ‘goalie-watching’” (K o D)

“The box of 3,000 Lars Leeses was on the passenger seat. “I’ve got autograph cards. How fantastic is that?” ……. And then he started writing. He wrote Lars Leese in a black art pen, very carefully, very formally. After 30 minutes he was writing only L. Leese, after an hour Leese, and later just Le___ with a long tail that could, with a little effort, be interpreted as se. He spent two evenings at the sitting room table. Now and then he would curse”  (K o D)

5) A footballer is surrounded by Alpha males

Most male football squads are like any other groups of males, they will indulge in exaggerated hyper-masculine behaviour to prove how great they are. This is mainly because most male groups are led by an Alpha male. He sets the tone and runs the show. He’ll be a narcissistic egomaniac with an attitude problem, or to be put it more mildly, he’ll be  a complete prick.  If you think about it most of the world’s bullshit flows from the actions of Alpha males. 

Would you actually want to spend your work life in the company of people acting in exaggerated Alpha ways?  If you weren’t an Alpha male but you found the attraction of professional football too tantalising to resist you’d have to develop two mental attitudes to survive.

Firstly, you’ll need the moral cowardice to hide within a group, as Andy Woodman tells us;

“At sixteen you don’t know a lot. I thought it best to accept responsibility for the goals that went past me……… (Then) Everything becomes your fault ………….. Of course the lads liked it when I owned up. How can you defend properly with a crap goalkeeper? “ (W & N)

Dunphy highlights this attitude too;

28 August: The tendency after a defeat is to look for scapegoats ……….. In that sense Brownie, in our eyes, pays the penalty for being young……”       (O a G?)

This bullshit is something I remember from my own time in teams. Everybody looks to blame someone else. I’ve been called “a prick”, “a wanker” “fucking useless” at various times because I had the temerity to make a mistake.

Secondly, you’d have to become immune to the relentless and often vicious mickey taking, as Gareth Southgate tells us;

“Fashion had never crossed my mind …….. All the guys at Palace had their Adidas tracksuits and Lacoste jumpers …… they were cool south Londoners, I was a bumpkin from the country ………. One day I walked into the apprentices dressing room and Chris Powell was dancing across the floor a là Fred Astaire. Everyone was keeled over laughing and then I twigged why, Chris was wearing my grey Hush Puppies ……… Larking about with Dave Stephens I said something half smart to him. “Hark at Leo Gemelli” he said, referring to the brand name of my jumper . ………. “Hark at Leo Gemelli” was all Dave had to say and the boys were falling about laughing and banging the floor” (W & N)

Then there’s the joke played on Andy Woodman because he was released in 1994;

“The Club had supplied us with t-shirts with the word “Champions” printed on the front. (Palace had won the First Division title). On the back of mine one of the lads had used a felt pen to scribble: “For Sale. One Careful Owner. Offers considered”  (W & N)

As I know from experience this can cross into downright obnoxiousness. This obnoxiousness is highlighted by Four Four Two’s anonymous “Player”;

“Footballers can abuse their fame; …………. I saw girl one night …….. I told her my girlfriend was going away for a year and that we needed a career to look after the kids ………… I offered her £22,000 a year. I pulled her that night ………. Four days after she turned up at my front door. She told me she had quit her job ……… I lied and told her there’d been a problem with visas …….. I’m not a bad lad”

One mate shouted (at people in a queue at a club); “Fuck off paying Public” (As he got in for nothing frantically grasping the coattails of the sainted player)

One team-mate had cancer and he didn’t even escape. When he refused to come on a night out, another player said; “Why not. You’ve only got a month to live” ……..

“Do you love your new bird? He asked. “Yes” replied the player sheepishly. “Could she be the one for you?” “yeah” “So how do you feel that he’s shagged her, so has he, so has he!” He was crushed and cried in front of all of us”

I’ve never fully understood why this level of cruel humour is necessary to mould pro athletes into a team but then I’m not an alpha male. Could you stand working with immature morons?

6) The cold-heartedly blunt attitude of the professional

 This is how the some players dealt with Andy Woodman’s misfortunate release in 1994;

“We then had training and I could tell from their reactions that the lads already knew. Alan had told Gareth and Gareth had told the lads to go easy on me. I was unbelievably angry, I played a blinder in training and Eric Young, the centre back, who was a cold, blunt bastard but not a bad bloke, said to me: ‘Woody, too little, too late son. Too little too late’ As cool and callous as that. But he was right. The misery was only beginning…..” (W & N)

7) Unemployment is a perpetual risk

Imagine if you were an unemployed footballer; you’d obviously want to become an employed footballer again as soon as possible. You’d probably exhaust every avenue trying to get back into football. You’d probably try your old contacts, you might try your old teammates. You may even try a new agent.

If you tried to find a new agent you might find that there a load of crap agents out there; they might be the sort of people that offer to help you but don’t really care. Even if you found an enthusiastic agent you may have to go through the indignity of hawking yourself around clubs. This all happened to Lars Leese;

“Thus in February and March 2000 Waldorf Mannheim, 1860 Munich, Alemania Aachen, Rot-Weiss Essen, Kickers Stuttgart, Fortuna Cologne and FC St. Pauli all received faxes from Holgar Wacker (Leese’s agent)………….” (K o D)

Leese waited months for non-existent replies.

Apart from the genuine superstars nobody truly feels that their job is secure. A player only needs to have a couple of shaky games and the pressure starts to mounts. Doubts will be formed in peoples’ minds and the questions begin to form; “Can he really do it?”….. “Can he hack it?”……… “Is he up to it?” The precariousness of  football as a career is illustrated when  Leese posed one question before signing for Barnsley;

“So this contract is valid for both Premier League and First Division?” (K o D)

Even if you don’t suffer a career ending knee injury your career can still end very suddenly, as Leese found out;

“Professional footballer? It seemed like another life (his life only a year before). Now at half-past five in the morning he was standing in one of the business parks in Gelnhausen, selling sandwiches.” (K o D)

For the vast majority of footballer there is the real risk of this happening. The list of released players can be very large; 123 players were released by Premier League clubs last June.

Eight) The pressure placed on players

Mickey Thomas tells us what it’s like to play for Manchester United;

“My pressure was appearing in front of those fans. My pressure was getting and keeping my place in the team. My pressure was putting in the kind of performance those thousands expected every week. That was the pressure for me. They only saw Mickey Thomas the footballer. They didn’t see me as a fragile human being who couldn’t handle my footballing life.

They didn’t understand the problems I was going through mentally. Howe could they when the mask never slipped outwardly? Back inside Old Trafford I became adept at hiding my feelings. We would all sit around as a group, as a team . Different characters. Different Mind Sets. Some Strong. Some lacking confidence. Some, like me, unable to cope with the pressure.

We all had our problems. Some were bigger than others. Many couldn’t handle theirs. I was one individual who just couldn’t hack it in that particular phase of my often troubled life. Mentally I was distressed but no one knew. I kept myself to myself. I didn’t confides in anyone.

Everyone assumed I was Mickey, the happy-go-lucky, cheeky chappie. A cocky little guy without a care in the world who loved his job. Far from it. I had so many demons in my head and I couldn’t kick them out. It was literally doing my head in.”

Even George Best felt pressurised sometimes;

“When you’re flavour of the month they come to you…… I couldn’t hide, and I tried. That’s why I disappeared so many times. I kept packing in just to get away from it all, trying to find havens to disappear to, and I couldn’t” (K & S)

It doesn’t look like you can have a normal existence even with all your money. For example you can’t go out and just have a good time;

“Once they went dancing in the Barnsley nightclub, Hedonism. It was the last time. ……….. (Lars) Finally fled with her to the dance floor (away from questioning fans). Everyone else immediately stopped dancing. They stood around the couple in a circle ‘and stared at us though Frank Sinatra had shown up in the club’ Daniela recalled.” (K o D)

This example sounds like a scene from the nightclub scene in “This Sporting Life”. You may remember the trouble Steven Gerrard had on a normal night out once.

9) Footballers are judged by exacting standards

Footballers seem to exist under the highest possible level of scrutiny. The scrutiny is one of the main things that put me off the life of a footballer.

I don’t have a problem with the role of “role model” as it’s an easy role for anyone to accomplish – it basically involves not breaking the law and being polite. What I’m talking about the perceived public accountability of footballers. Footballers seem to have been allotted a major social role in contemporary British society, most of this role involves becoming a  lightning rod for criticism

If you were a “Footballer” you would occupy a role and perform a job that few people can adequately fulfil. To be a “Footballer” requires several things. You need a high degree of specialised skills. You need to make it through continual sifting progress that ensures only the best players make it. You need to make it through training by constantly prove that you’ve still got what it takes. Lastly, you need to work like a Trojan all the time.

Even though a “Footballer” has to pass through all those hoops in order to remain as a “footballer” some people still criticise them for being crap and lazy. Even though they are the best people suited to the job they are still criticised. The critics would have a point if the clubs let just anybody become a footballer but clubs don’t, they pick competent people through several sifting processess. If footballers weren’t able to make it through the stages of development they wouldn’t be footballers.

The fact criticism of players exists tells you that some people feel the job is easy. If the job was as easy as these people seem to claim there would be ten of thousands of professional clubs in Britain rather than about 130. Criticising footballers with impunity is rather unfair, as Dunphy puts rather well;

“The cheats or simple inadequates of other walks of life could come to the Den and apply to our work a set of judgemental criteria they wouldn’t dreamed applying on Monday morning” (O a G?)

It would be interesting to ask these critics how they would feel if their work was judged in the same way that they judge footballers, how would they feel if their work was pulled apart on live TV in front of millions? Would they like faceless nobodies to phone up radio stations in order to complain about them and the standard of their work? I sense these critics wouldn’t like it.

The situation is now worse than the one Dunphy describes as the criticism is now a lot stronger. The ridiculous pressure applied by some fans – A lot of fans seem to think that the game owes them success and glory –  must be horrible and I’d hate to work in this environment of criticism.

10) Players can become tools of the PR Industry

The spotlight on players is made worse by the commercial pressures exerted by sponsors. Footballers have been hoisted up society’s flag pole of attention as examples to us all, this allows sponsors to think they can take advantage of a footballers’ position by offering them endorsements.

It seems that both sides win out of this arrangement; the company gets some sporting stardust and the sportsman gets a lot of money. Yes, everybody looks like a winner in this situation. However  the sportsman only remains a winner until they transgress the spurious moral code dreamt up by the company. When the sportsman transgresses the scrap heap awaits, the sportsman no longer fits in with the company’s wholesome image. It’s like a footballers’ private life is in control of the sponsors and media.

The Public Relations industry’s bullshit has infected football by clouding the minds of football’s administrators. The people under the spell of PR bullshit have created a type of football where TV dictates to football, where companies dictate to clubs and where Bullshit PR teams have decided that player interviews are best brought to you by the good people over at Castrol, Red Bull and IBM.

The people spouting PR bullshit think they are bestowing glamour. They think that a company logo on a polo shirt collar is glamorous apparently. The pressure on players to become spokespeople for horrible companies by proxy is degrading.

11) The people making astronomical sums of money out of football are not the players

Billions in profit are made from football. The sport allows chairmen, shareholders, administrators, sportswear companies and the sponsors to make obscene profits. The simple act of 22 players playing a sport on a pitch allows this to happen. Everything else grew from this simple act; the grounds, the chairman, the administrators, the sponsors they have all come after the game.

Without the 22 players there would be nothing, no profit, no flash suits, no HD TV coverage, no third-party ownership of contracts. Yet the players only see a fraction of the money that’s the result of their labour. They’re kept down, prevented from mixing with the owners, made to feel their place by the gilded plutocrats.

 If you add these ten points together playing professional football simply isn’t a dream job, it seems more like a waking nightmare. 

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