Gender and Football: Getting Stuck In
Even by the standards of Twitter’s water cooler moments, the debate over the award of the Ballon D’Or earlier this month had to be one of the most curious.
Cristiano Ronaldo emerged victorious but in the wake of the Real Madrid man’s accolade, most attention was directed towards England manager Roy Hodgson’s preference for Javier Mascherano. In a perplexing online assault, the magnitude of which perhaps only Adrian Chiles has been forced to suffer, the Croydonian was roundly portrayed as a conservative and out of touch dinosaur.
Leaving aside the perfectly good footballing reasons for choosing the Argentine (a faultless World Cup for one), I found myself strongly sympathising with Hodgson and that sentiment has at its root a sense of admiration for something one is not.
As a player in my youth and early twenties in the East Berks League, on the rare occasions that I was actually allowed on to the playing surface, I was capable of the very occasional drop of the shoulder, the ability to take on a defender and emerge with the ball and a modestly good record at finishing with the net in front of me.
But the list of what I couldn’t do was far longer and, as I became forced to admit to myself, far more important.
Hence, I think I notched up an average of two successful tackles in a 10 year period, had an uncanny habit of failing to head the ball properly in both an attacking and defensive context – I was the original ‘50p head’ – and Lord forbid if anyone ever asked me to take a turn in goal.
A ‘player’s player’ I was not. I hated the fact that successive Saturdays would take me to the dimmer corners of Bracknell and Slough. I was once forced to hide for 85 minutes after an opposing player threatened me not to ‘do that again’ after slotting home an opener against a team from the then notorious Britwell estate while I was nobbled off the ball in the fifth minute of my first match after moving to a league in North London. Risking injury was far from my forte and I preferred to avoid confrontation.
So, the difficulty of mastering the skills of tackling, challenging and scrapping for the ball left me, like many, with a lifelong admiration for those – from Nobby Stiles to Paul Pogba – who can do such things.
In Britain, we tend to regard an unwillingness to ‘get stuck in’ as untrustworthy and a somewhat less than masculine trait, a betrayal of the characteristics of the male sex – evidence of Guardian readership, a preference for lattes and the application of expensive after shave.
We baulk at players who wear gloves in October, we wince at David Beckham jumping out of a challenge against Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002, admire the blood and thunder of a John Terry or Lee Cattermole, bemoan the passing of Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline and love the way Nicky Butt cancelled out the Argentinians in that same World Cup that ol’ Golden Balls graced.
The thought of Ronaldo preening in the mirror or Robbie Savage making yet another trip to the barber’s makes our blood boil while we contemplate with satisfaction that ‘wet Wednesday night in Stoke’ and how those dastardly foreigners will be thwarted.
As that beacon of intellectual sanity Chris Moyles would have it, we need to ‘man up’ and stop being ‘gay’.
My own tendency to be lily-livered has extended beyond the touchlines of Wokingham and Maidenhead and it’s as a fan that some of my previous unwillingness to endure physical comfort has also reared its head.
In short, I am beginning to really not enjoy the cold.
There – I’ve said it – the very thing that as red blooded Britishers we are supposed to relish – the feeling which my fellow blogger Lloyd told me he ‘absolutely loves’ after a decidedly chilly trip to an FA Cup tie at Bath City a few seasons back.
Just this weekend, I was subjected to a temperature plummeting afternoon at Crawley Town’s preposterously labelled Checkatrade.com Stadium, arctic blasts rebounding off the post war new town houses, the arena’s tented roof recalling the experiences of Captain Oates. That the football was of the most deeply unreconstructed hue didn’t help as I shivered despite donning no less than four jumpers (although I could argue that one was a mere sweatshirt).
I’ve jettisoned my season ticket at Reading this year partly because Nigel Adkins’ rudderless football did not appeal, partly because a match ticket costs three times the amount you would pay to see an Oscar nominated movie but partly also because the Football League thinks it’s fine to schedule matches for Tuesday nights in December and January.
So in the eyes of many, my very masculinity is compromised – just as it was in my less than honourable playing days.
But despite having shared the wider world’s admiration for Mascherano and swelling with pride at the sight of Terry Butcher’s blood stained shirts, one incident sticks in the memory in illustrating to me how this macho world is only one side of the story.
In December 2000, Blackburn Rovers travelled to Burnley for the first East Lancashire derby since 1983, a re-stoking of one of football’s lesser known but bitterest rivalries and one in which the enmity was heightened by the lack of recent action.
Enter, David Dunn, a local lad and one of Blackburn’s most promising young players; enter also Kevin Ball, a wizened midfielder for whom the concepts ‘ball’ and ‘man’ were far from distinct. Bang! Ball upended Dunn in a clash that would have made the Butcher of Bilbao blush and this was the moment where the Loaded magazine style celebration of hard men became redundant for me.
For this wasn’t just ‘a bit of a laugh’ or a justified act of competitiveness, this was raw, brutal aggression, with no concern as to a player’s safety. It was the moment when I parted company from the ‘all’s fair in love and war’ doctrine.
So I’ve been repelled ever since by the notion of what purportedly constitutes ‘real men’s behaviour’ in football while the kinds of ‘hi-jinks’ highlighted by Laura Jones in her post in this series on Monday also make me embarrassed.
Does being one of the lads really require one to react with good humour to the breaking of your car aerial by a Chris Morgan previous notorious for an assault on Iain Hume? Were Alan Shearer and the Newcastle squad’s alleged Christmas presents to Alessandro Pistone and Didi Hamann supposed to be hilarious? Were Malky Mackay and Dave Whelan’s words really just banter?
Football needs to catch up with other parts of society in recognising that there are many different forms of masculinity – not just the Millwall fan in a luxuriant cream coat, bouffant hair and winkle pickers launching foul mouthed tirades against the referee, but the PNE fan with whom I discussed the merits of the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall in Crawley’s excellent Swan pub on Saturday.
We need to move beyond the old days where letting the guy in the next row out of the stadium car park first is a sign of effeminacy, screaming dog’s abuse at the opposing team’s best player is acceptable and pronouncing Brighton to be a town full of faggots equates to mere mickey taking.
As the previous two post in this week’s series have shown, football is still very much mired in the old ways – at an official level and via decades of jobs for the boys. Although outnumbered by decent folk, the Ched Evans apologists and trolls of social media are still doing their best to spoil it for the rest of us.
So perhaps I should have been a little prouder of what I could do on the football pitch. I enjoy the sport’s blood and thunder as much as the next person but underneath the surface of an increasingly globalised game, there is still pressure to conform.
It is masculine to show weakness, to be horrified by football’s treatment of its minorities, to concede in an argument and to refuse to behave in an obnoxiously partisan way. Justin Fashanu had as much right to regard himself a ‘real man’ as John while Ronaldo’s achievements are as valid on their own level as those of Mascherano.
Being male doesn’t have to mean being a cock.