It’s Friday, so here’s this morning’s instalment from Birdkamp
Before you read this week’s blog, please be aware that it was written from scratch in an hour-long window at the end of a long, frustrating day. I try to tackle a tricky topic so I apologise if I don’t cover it with the amount of tact and precision it probably needs.
Anyway – here’s something I’m sure you didn’t already know – as a rule of thumb footballers shouldn’t be held up as role-models in any sense beyond their feats as professionals at the top of their game. And even as pros doing what they’re best at they’ll fail us sometimes.
What’s interesting about sportsmen is that their career before they hit their late-teens is obscure and private. When we think of other celebrities it’s likely that most enjoyed the public eye and were prepared for it. Actors, musicians and TV stars are personable from youth, used to audiences and capable of moderating their behaviour and persona to make it more palatable for the crowd.
Little of that for professional footballers, who wouldn’t have played in front of more than a couple of hundred people until they were young adults. We shouldn’t expect them to be adept at, or enjoy, living under our glare. And neither should anyone try to force them into it.
Fun example was Jack Wilshere, who, a little giddy after winning the FA Youth Cup in 2009 before a decent crowd, said of his 17-year-old teammates something like, “All these players should be starting in the first team”.
This came at the end of a difficult season for the first team, in which the fans had first started to grumble about the management. The boo taboo had been broken just a few months before, when Eboue had been jeered off against Wigan by a section of the fans.
Smiling warmly, Steve Bould brought him down to earth as gently as possible a couple of minutes later, while not belittling his achievements that night. Jack had a lot to learn about about football, and plenty to learn about what the media would do with that kind of comment.
By the time they need to work out how to deal with cameras they’re pretty much developed human beings, and as much as people might warn about the added pressures of fame, I doubt anything can prepare anyone for the real thing.
It makes you realise that Paul Scholes, tight-lipped and famous for guarding his privacy, had it right all along. I can barely remember seeing him in a TV interview, and I know that despite having a 20-year career at the top of the game, he’s never tried to cash in on what marketers might call his defined “brand values” and “brand awareness”.
It’s because he’d be inviting a rabble to his door, and he knows he won’t be able to handle it. Only a few can – Thierry Henry looked and talked like he’d been on TV his whole life when he made those Clio ads. People realised long ago that David Beckham’s best when he doesn’t talk, but beyond his conventional good looks he does seem to emit a whiff of charisma. Ian Wright too, who’s made a decent media career. I think we’ll see more of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain off the pitch – he’s lively, genial and knows how to talk.
Extroverts all, too.
But what makes footballers good at what they do – what made John Terry a fearsome competitor and leader, on and off the pitch, most likely does not translate to the public sphere.
For all his misdeeds, I’ve never felt too strongly either way about him. We know he came up tough, and that his family has some pretty unsavoury characters. It’s not an apology, but it mitigates a little – at least for me. Really, the only time he ever got my goat was in the week after the Ferdinand incident last year.
His people knew he was embroiled in a race row, so some Einstein thought it would be a shrewd move to send a picture of him cradling a baby of African heritage to the newspapers. The headline was something like “Terry shows his caring side” – no more than a couple of days after he’d called a person a “black cunt”. So here’s an unreconstructed sportsman from a difficult background, piloted by the raw drives and urges that pushed him to the top of his game, being manipulated into something audiences can digest. To hell with that. For various reasons, he’s an asshole. And he doesn’t need to be better than an asshole to do his job well.
Footballers come across as relatively straightforward human beings. I suppose it makes sense, their simplicity (I don’t mean intelligence) is why they’re here, they’re focused; they’re conditioned throughout their teens to forget self-doubt, maybe ignore sentimentality; to achieve their goals. On a human level there’s little that a feckless lazybones like me can empathise with.
But these guys also have to handle to the disorientating effects of unimaginable wealth without missing a beat. It seems the way they most achieve this is by living like monks.
To me Wenger’s blog on Eurosport this week painted RvP’s domestic life as the routine of those blokes from the Bourne films – lying on a bed, eyes open, waiting for a call from the hierarchy. The benchmark has been lifted – their raised standards don’t quite track the incredible leap in what they earn, but the best footballers seem to work harder and look after themselves better than any generation before. The levels of professionalism that make footballers better than ever also, I imagine, make them less exciting.
Future autobiographies will make for relatively dull reading I reckon. Fewer orgies and dentist chairs. And who knows, maybe not as many nightclub fist-fights to read about (let’s be reasonable here!). Most of that’s been consigned to a time when clubs were less aware of the effects of partying on performance.
The point I suppose is that we shouldn’t expect too much from footballers, and shouldn’t get too excited when they make mistakes. Contempt should be reserved for the shady, unaccountable characters that try to exploit players.