Facing Up to Footballers’ Faults

Posted by on Apr 19, 2011 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
Our latest guest post comes from our occasional wit and raconteur, Russell George. The Bard of Great Dunmow is, incredibly, one of two Manchester United fans on our author team, but gained nororiety for an attack on the behemoth that is Sky Sports in his previous effort for us. This sophomore outing once again sees Russell in fine satirical form:By the time you read this, Wayne Rooney’s vehement statement of intent — or foul-mouthed tirade into the wide-eyed lens of Sky TV, depending on your point of view — may have been all but forgotten. ‘Footballer swears into camera on football field shocker’. But even though little will happen to Rooney, and footballers will continue to verbally abuse both each other and the referee, it raised again the spectre of what many footballers are really like. Once upon a time, those eleven men were your idols, each one combining the unknowable skill and talent of a superhero. It didn’t matter that they lacked eloquence in a television interview because, as a child yourself, you could relate to that type of thing. If you ever got a footballer’s signature, the experience was very much like meeting Jesus in a tracksuit. I once queued up for over two hours at my under 9’s annual benefit dinner for Clive and Paul Allen to sign a small piece of card, which I then kept in a drawer for years afterwards. I don’t think I even knew who they were at the time, but as professional footballers, they were God-like.

But with age comes understanding, and a gradual acknowledgement that footballers are, for the most part, the sort of people you would leave a bar to avoid. The modern footballer stereotype — arrogant, conceited, boorish — obviously bears some truth, but closer consideration reveals that there is some heterogeneity within the group. Really skilful players — those whose trickery or passing can elevate the game above pure athleticism — can be the most eccentric. Glenn Hoddle may have been able to chip the Watford keeper and live contentedly in France, but he also thinks people with a disability are paying the price for sins in a previous life. Paul Gascoigne could transform a game through pace and guile, but his childishness would, in reality, be about as funny as slamming your hand in a car door, hiding as it does a man struggling to cope with adulthood. And Garrincha, one of the finest players the world has ever seen, lost his virginity to a goat. These are not idols. Even Pat Nevin, who read The Guardian, listened to The Cure and went out with Clare Grogan, still seems happy to spend his Fridays bantering with Perry Groves and Gerry Adams’ love child.

And yet, some footballers really do have hidden depths. Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle made presentable appearances on both Question Time and Countdown, whilst Racing Universitaire d’Alger goalkeeper Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. In fact, it was once the foreign footballer who was feted as offering something different in both skill and character. Whilst British players were stupid and crass, the foreign star was intelligent and cultured. Ossie Ardilles may have sounded like a pixie, but his flimsy skills made him loveable to old women and respected by young men. Eric Cantona is so French you could shove a baguette up his bum and call him un crayon, but his arrogance and temper have been reinterpreted as a massive Gallic shrug, which we grudgingly admire. Yet the grubby window that is YouTube can easily disabuse notions of foreign sophistication, as anyone who has seen Gerard Pique gobbing into the hair of one of Spain’s coaches on an open-top bus can testify. Young men who play football, wherever they were born, are often simply moronic.

But when does the character of a footballer affect us, the fans? I may not find Wayne Rooney’s aggression endearing, but I still prefer him to score goals for Manchester United than Manchester City. Does this make me a moral relativist, up there with Richard Nixon and Tony Blair? Whether the fans of Coventry City can blissfully ignore the presence Marlon King in their team may be a different matter. The actions of King, proven in a court of law, show that he has been a violent bully – a long way from Roy of the Rover indeed. But, arguably, the club is always more important than one player, and players will come and go. If Al-Saadi al-Gaddafi had been a hit at Perugia in 2003, I’m sure many of their fans would have reinterpreted his family’s sponsoring of international terrorism as freedom fighting instead. And if King helps Coventry stay in the Championship, there’s always the argument that everyone deserves a second (or fifth, in his case) chance. Ultimately, you do not need to like players as people, or even respect them. When a game begins, footballers are transformed into players, actors on a stage. And like theatre, watching football requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That is why morbidly obese men in replica shirts can accuse Frank Lampard of being fat, and players returning to their former clubs are sometimes treated with levels of vitriol once reserved for witches in the middle ages. The rules of normal life are frozen for 90 minutes, and whether the players who represent your club are people who you think might be good company is irrelevant. The status of the 21st century footballer will mean that the flaws of over-paid and immature examples are strewn across various media outlets, but stay away from the tabloids and mindless twitter feeds and you can continue to ignore footballers as men, and focus instead on footballers as players.

Russell George
Russell George watches random league and non-league football matches, has a half decent left foot, and pretensions as a writer and a critic. If you let him, he'll also tell you that he is a regular at Old Trafford, and that he was at the 1999 Champions League final. Don't let him.


  1. Graham
    April 19, 2011

    Fantastic piece and sums up footballers today very well

  2. William Abbs
    April 19, 2011

    Great article Russell. It puts me in mind of Jerry Seinfeld's observation that sports fans support the shirts not the people wearing them. We're essentially cheering for laundry, according to him.

    That may be the case, but I wonder if the blind eye that supporters occasionally turn to the actions of a player – because of the attachment they have to the shirt that said professional wears – is similar, in part, to familial loyalty. Within reason, we tolerate behaviour by those we're related to that we'd find tiresome or even repulsive in others. The same goes for the players at our club – until they're transferred.

  3. Lloyd
    April 19, 2011

    Nice post Russell. Reminds me of the time when I was working at the Plymouth Gin Distillery a few years ago and Paul Wotton had his 30th in the attached cocktail bar.

    As one might expect, I was bowled over when asked to serve light lager to Bojan Djordjic and Nick Chadwick, but by the end of the evening all illusions were shattered. Barry Hayles wasn't bovverred in the least when the house brandy ran dry and was quite prepared to pay £18 for a double hit of the premium stuff. That would have been fine, but to then go and spalsh Coke all over about 8 of them for him and his teammates before being non-plussed at the £100-something bill was mildly sickening, particularly when I try to calculate how many hours of minimum wage I would have had to work to afford just one.

    Otherwise, Gary Sawyer was surly and could have been easily mistaken for Plug, the Hungarian trio of Peter Halmosi, Krisztián Timár and Ákos Buzsáky were outcasts and then manager Ian Holloway either wasn't invited or didn't turn up.

    You can tell by this level of memory that it this was still a monumental occasion for me, though!

  4. Ben
    April 22, 2011

    Alongside King you could mention Lee Hughes at Notts County, convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. And of course there's our very own Joey Barton. The majority of Newcastle fans are supportive of him and get aggrieved if you dare to mention his, ahem, chequered past – content to turn a blind eye, in other words. I, on the other hand, was calling for the club to show some guts and principles and boot him out ages ago, and feel pretty uncomfortable cheering the shirt bearing his name (Seinfeld was right, William – thanks for reminding me of that great comment). The family loyalty point is definitely valid.

    Re Pat Nevin – something for the music fans amongst you. As Russell mentions, he's a huge indie fan and was actually invited by Belle & Sebastian to DJ at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival they curated last December. Friend and fellow blogger Skif of the mighty Havant & Waterlooville site Dub Steps was there and witnessed Nevin getting to take part in the intra-band 5-a-side. Needless to say he was a bit tasty – not surprising, given that (knowing Belle & Sebastian) he will have been surrounded by pasty, fey types likely to see the ball and run in the opposite direction. Anyway, certainly not your average footballer – and not your average pundit, either, as he actually offers some useful insights…

  5. Lanterne Rouge
    April 24, 2011

    Indeed, Nevin made it on to the subs bench in the XI I recently submitted to the superb Two Footed Tackle website.

    Lee Bowyer is another one who most fans would feel uncomfortable being at their club. Mourinho and Capello's alleged far right sympathies (the latter recently complained about immigration into Italy) as well as those more obviously exhibited by Paolo Di Canio should make us all uncomfortable.

    I hope the “Coke” Barry Hayles was splashing all over his team mates was the sickly liquid from Atlanta and not something else.


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