Note; I can only apologise for the failure of this blog to be uploaded last week, I had been experiencing technical issues with our website provider which have only just been resolved, so today’s blog (which you must read with the events of last week in mind, with the addition of the exploits of Liverpool prodigy Ben Woodburn this week, as that links well into this paticular subject) will be followed up this week’s scheduled blog tomorrow. As before, it was something out of my control that I can only say sorry for, but in a more positive frame of mind; let’s look forward and crack on with this weekend’s blogging double-header!
In another momentous week in British sport, we have witnessed the retirement of Liverpool and England legend Steven Gerrard, the goal scoring return from mass media slaughter of Wayne Rooney and potentially the departure of another of their fellow former teammates in Frank Lampard, who has yet to commit to any future so far in playing for New York City. The winding down of the playing careers, at least, of some of these forward most names in English footballing history, as well as the departure, in the recent past, of a number of similarly gifted members of the supposedly destined ‘golden generation’ of English footballers, is testament to the pressure of the roles they played, not just in the back pages, but also in wider English society, as pinnacles of the national dream.
Using this case study as a painfully obvious example of the media getting on the backs of players as soon as their form takes a dip, can we clarify whether the effects of the stereotypically flippant British media on a number of admittedly grossly overpaid professionals are ruining the potential we see in many of these players? Does this hyper-critical stance on the part of many national newspapers and footballing ‘experts’, as well as the fans of both club and country more commonly, debilitate the mental capabilities of the players who represent us, especially when they enter a tournament mind-set, to the extent where they simply can’t perform to their clearly capable standards? If so, where is the support for the players, who, if you believed the old adage, can only rely on two things in life; death and tax, not their similarly pressurised managers, teammates, or even the well-meaning but often impractical player associations? Or if not, why are players seen to be so sensitive to what, at times, can stretch to abuse? Is this an easy excuse for them to bail out on, or are they justified in their protestations of the press’ harassment?
Let’s start by deconstructing the main issue we are observing here. Why focus on it now? Well, as our press are stretched, especially and subconsciously through sport, to their furthest in arguably their entire history, to deliver the news readers want to hear, presenting concepts that are tailor-made for each stanchion of the political map, desperately digging for the latest money-spinning headline, where is it easier to create a media frenzy with a scandal or lamentation of performance, than sport, mainly football in this country? It’s a difficult subject to attach political views to – although they are becoming more and more prevalent in the articles you do read -, and on most occasions, I believe there is a belief that it is editorial cannon-fodder, utilised to offer light relief from the daily struggles we face concerning house prices, working wages and the dramatic fall in value of the pound. I care to disagree, as I attach great importance to a whole range of issues facing the sporting, and specifically for this blog, footballing, landscapes in the world today, and I realise that there are a vast array of well-informed and perceptive editors out there who agree that sport is far more than just a game these days, it is part of the economic and cultural fabric of each nation, as well as the world as an entity.
But there are glaringly obvious blemishes on the all-pleasing, dishonest articles that dot the back pages of our broadsheets and tabloids especially, who, along with their customers, we just love to hate in our bottled-up British manner. I don’t think we can honestly trust them. Everything that they feed us these days is through a politically-slanted funnel, tainted with specks of inwardly self-conscious sentiment, as they cover up their own issues by pointing their grubby finger at, who better to target in society, than the millionaires who parade around in wildly expensive jerseys, splashed with the logos of unethical brands across their chests, supposedly representing the residents of each town or city they reside on the outskirts of, in their glitzy mansions. Yes, footballers. Professional male sportsmen, but specifically those at the very top of the footballing ladder in the English league system. What have they done to deserve such treatment? Well, apparently worse things than the owners of each tabloid, who definitely haven’t made their billions through spreading ingloriously false and misleading messages over not just the front pages of their chosen weapon of mass public destruction, but all throughout if you inspect some of the truly awful and hypocritical things they have commented on over the years. Granted, there are a number of footballers who have committed such offences, but at least they have been stamped out one by one from the game, and are in the minority, particularly when compared to the ruthless business titans at the helm of respective media outlets.
It’s not just these news providers that can be targeted for their lamentation of footballers in the public eye though; we as fans also have to hold our hands up as another responsible party in the degradation of many player’s mental states through our unrelenting criticism. This isn’t necessarily on each fan’s part, but as a larger body of often ‘diehard’ supporters, some of whom take their support a little too far on many occasions, we have to stand up and accept that our outspoken opinions can reflect badly on those who only serve to represent and entertain us, the players of our, and other’s, clubs. Yes, it is true that many media outlets spin stories to fit the kind of headlines and messages we, as fans of specific clubs, want to hear, which then spur many fans on to continue what can turn into damaging behaviour. However, we are only encouraging them by continuing to purchase their paper or follow their social media page – as this section of global media is becoming increasingly prevalent as generations shift in power -, allowing them to continue what would be considered invasive and unfair treatment by the players who are subject to their judgement.
Some may argue that as fans we have the right to judge, and I would never dispute that, as it is one of the most enjoyable trivialities of the game in wider society, but often it can go to a dangerous extent, so much as to make the individuals targeted wary for their own safety, and that cannot be acceptable. There are a number of shameful examples of this constant pressure affecting players and managers involved in the game, most famously in recent times, such as Gary Speed’s suicide back in 2011, which could have been attributed to sporting pressure, German goalkeeper’s Robert Enke’s similarly depression-fuelled suicide in 2009, and former PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle’s admission of attempted suicide only a couple of years ago. Add to this the painfully obvious lack of opportunity and support for homosexual players to come out in the game today, in fear of the potential backlash from some fans and members of the media, and the picture of modern day football, appallingly, isn’t as progressive as many would’ve thought a few decades ago. This is even despite the efforts of organisations such as the PFA, Kick It Out, Football v Homophobia and Stonewall (particularly notable in this week’s Premier League games with rainbow laces and armbands), as well as clubs such as St Pauli, Deportivo Guadalajara and Rayo Vallecano.
Throughout this all though, there is one persisting suggestion, that professional players have led this sort of treatment upon themselves, not just the threatening messages, but also the offhand criticism that 99.99% of fans have surely partaken in over the years. With their continuing acceptance of disgusting and disheartening wage hikes year on year for their (at best) 20-year careers of comparatively little work, at least when compared to the junior doctors, police officers and teachers across the country, who also offer more to the stability of the country, at face value at least, with higher than average wages, but figures that pale in comparison to those that footballers receive. I’m sure the media would argue that their criticism of certain, if not all, players, is deserved as a result of the possibly chauvinist and reckless behaviour of a number of footballers, most young but some also older. As I’ve mentioned before, the late-night antics of people in the public eye like England under-21 player Jack Grealish, full internationals Jack Wilshere and John Ruddy, or even the overstated actions of club and country captain/stalwart Wayne Rooney, give tabloids just the ammunition they need to target footballers and the overall industry, justifying their questionable choices of words later.
There’s no surprise that when these players return to action, whether that be at international or club level, their performances in high-pressure situations – which is the entire test of professional football – are compromised then, as the headlines they have to face for one basic mistake, or the joke status they face in the stands, undoubtedly hamper their mental state. Even for the most – to quote a commentator’s cliché - cool and composed of footballers, this is a totally prominent issue, as nobody is immune to the pressure of a whole nation on their shoulders – just look at the examples of David Beckham or Wayne Rooney for England at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups respectively, as they were lambasted for weeks as the roots of all the countries’ problems. In less obvious examples, as captain, Steven Gerrard appeared immobilised in the 2014 World Cup, Joe Hart performed to nowhere near his clearly world-class potential/ability (depending on how you look at it) in the recent Euros, and overseas, France’s 2010 World Cup fell apart around them as Nicolas Anelka and the media turned against boss Raymond Domenech, as well as the rest of the angsty squad, as they fell out at the group stage.
The point here is that the often unfair treatment of players in the public eye can seriously limit the performance of these same professionals on the pitch in the aftermath, as they evidently cannot fully focus on match instructions, too preoccupied by the figurative monkey on their back. Even if players do live completely out of touch with the rest of society, they are still normal human beings, rather than being an alien race who are reeled out every week from their seclusion to perform for the paying public, and deserve the same respect and decency as the rest of us all. Yes, their industry should be treated equally to that of politics, business or banks, as it contributes arguably more on an economic scale than a social one at times, and creates serious societal issues more commonly associated with the aforementioned everyday subjects. The employees of this business, the players and managers, are placed under serious pressure, however, that would never be attributed to MP’s, CEO’s or Bankers, and that does place a huge weight in society on their shoulders, as if they don’t perform, they can impact on the nation’s morale, particularly if that is in an international game.
Now, we might be able to comprehend why so many players with great potential crumble as soon as they reach this stage, and why so many pull out of national squads in the days leading up to matches, not that I’m arguing that many players do pick up injuries in this environment, it’s just that they might feel more pressure on them if they perform poorly with a slight niggle for England than they would at club level. We’ve seen it with players like Francis Jeffers, David Bentley, Michael Johnson and, in part, Adnan Januzaj, Martin Ødegaard and Freddy Adu, although these three all have time left on the clock, but may end up on the same unfortunate paths as the former trio. Imagine what it was like for Bentley, or Dean Ashton, the West Ham prospect who had his career cruelly cut drastically short by an ankle injury, as they faced a media invasion as soon as their talent was discovered, having to answer pressing question after pressing question, putting them off training and relaxing, which ultimately would’ve allowed them to progress their talent, and potentially one day become England regulars. Obviously Bentley, in good company alongside the likes of Mario Balotelli, Ravel Morrison and Joey Barton, was a talent ruined by what could be perceived as his own arrogance, the label that Steve McLaren slapped on him that he would be the ‘next David Beckham’ building up his ego, only for him to take the wise decision only a few years ago to retire at the age of 29, proving that he had grown up as he citing his disillusion with the game. If only he had shown that maturity in his prime, then he may not be the owner of a Spanish holiday resort now.
All this only serves to support the pre-existing notion that the media can, perhaps not single-handidly, but play a big part in helping to, ruin the careers of a series of promising but mentally vulnerable and foolish young footballers, as well as depreciate the obvious skills of mature and long-serving players, as they heap the hopes of a nation upon physically brawny but mentally weak shoulders, a practice that is always going to result in disaster. The thing is, these media outlets can then profit off that disaster, if they’re smart, as they continue with this negative precedent for years, if not decades, to come. It’s a disgustingly repetitive process, and I for one am tired of it, especially when I tuned out of a highly clinical and generally dominant England performance against Scotland earlier this month to find that BBC Sport, tabloids and broadsheets alike, were going to openly criticise sections, if not the entire, team, for not fulfilling absolute perfection. Seriously? What were they expecting? Only a few days later, they were praising Adam Lallana for 25 minutes of work against Spain, and the majority of the side for their fairly samey performances, so it’s all a question of perspective I suppose. Throwing away a 2-0 lead with a minute of normal time remaining, against a side whose newly installed manager started an honestly second-string eleven, was apparently superior to the 3-0 dismantling of what had the potential to be difficult opponents, considering their motivation for the game as historic rivals and neighbours. I know which performance I would be praising more had they both been in the group stage of, let’s say, the next World Cup or Euros.
Is it too far to go though, to demand government action on this matter, in order to stamp out casual abuse on players by supporters on twitter, or journalists in the tabloids? Should they be allowed to build a player up, and then tear them down so ruthlessly once they have made one game-changing mistake? Well, I suppose it’s one of the parts and parcels of sport, but most prominently football, that such heavy criticism should come a player’s way, and it’s something that we are taught how to deflect whilst growing up, not by teachers or parents, but by our peers. You have to be thick-skinned to survive in a lot of sections of societies, but especially in your work, as there is no space for immaturity or arrogance when you are being paid as much as some footballers are to carry out what can be often quite a simple task. But when some groups take this abuse too far, there is a requirement for external action, whether that is emotional support through organisations such as the PFA and Kick It Out, or even lawful proceedings by the government, imposing new acts to prevent any kind of abuse occurring. Obviously, you could argue that abuse is just pitch-side banter, but when it is repeated time upon time, the player or manager targeted begins to feel not too confident about him or herself, which isn’t positive for any section of the footballing landscape. Besides, I’m not very confident the government would be able to garner enough support a bill such as this without it being so flimsy that the people it targets wouldn’t even notice, with larger backlashes against what might be seen as a restriction of free speech.
This is more than just free speech though. This is about players having the right to perform on the pitch without the fear of abuse being hurled their way or their name or picture being attached to a negative adjective on the next day’s paper. Surely players coming through youth academies right now should have this right? Football is prepared, sadly, though, for these damaging messages to come the way of their players, preparing them by organising press training sessions. This is the reason why the players we see coming through Premier League clubs these days all give such monotonous and predictably clichéd responses to the increasingly emotion-draining queries of tired journalists, who have to siphon through wades of meaningless nothingness to attempt to evaluate what is actually going on in the heads of these professional players, who may act composed, but behind closed doors, actually are some of the most insecure and mentally fragile members of our modern day society. Who could blame them, too, with the potential financial and social ramifications of a single punt of the old pigs bladder (another commentator’s cliché for you) riding on their shoulders every weekend?
They entered that industry, though, so they should’ve been prepared, right? Well, maybe. But I would like to see more support groups for footballers in our increasingly news-centric and social-media-fixated world, as they are liable to face the brunt of fan’s anger in the immediate wake of a painful loss. Remember, they only do this for us, as without us as fans, they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills, so they require us to get whipped up in the storm that is football, if they want to fulfil the dreams they had as children, performing in front of packed out stadiums. If only the fans and the media could play into this dreamscape a little more, by acting a little more positively at times when it is required, then there might be the environment there for real characters – not the type that Brendan Rodgers would ascribe that word to – to thrive in the game, and the wider culture of football could be a more positive and inviting one, rather than one that is attributed with discrimination and negativity on the part of both fans and the media. Oh well, one can dream, eh?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!