Mickey Blue Eyes...
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Mickey Blue Eyes


"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things."

BIBLE, I Corinthians, chapter 13, v.1.   



Last Saturday I had a half hour to spare and watched a repeat of a BBC TV documentary Inside Sport: Is Professionalism Killing Sport? fronted by cricketer Ed Smith. The thrust of it was to suggest childish enthusiasm, or maintaining it, was the key to sports performance, that "amateurishness" was somehow preferable to outright clinical ruthlessness in professionalism, which, in turn, was killing enjoyment of the game. I thought it a good film with a promising subject wrongly skewed. At the time of writing you can still see it on BBC iPlayer if you haven't already. But beware, it isn't as easy an issue as the film makers would have you believe.


There is nothing new about the film's rhetorical title. In fact the same argument was used to try to prevent football professionalism at its inception in the late nineteenth century. In my view it was as invalid then as it is now. However, the original intent of this argument was to prevent football-talented young working-class men from intruding into what started out as a public school pastime and/or church-based health pursuit; at the time you couldn't get more powerful Establishment opposition. You can find this expressed in Hugh Hudson's quite brilliant 1981 film Chariots of Fire, written by Colin Welland. The arguments have evolved and are different now. But it is well worth thinking about because of recent falls from public grace of some players in different sports, which presumably prompted someone in the Beeb to commission the documentary. Naturally, this opinion concerns itself more with football than any other sport.


A sense of perspective is in order, if only to retain a semblance of sanity in the face of opportunist and sensational media hype. It was no surprise to find the film completely avoided the issue of what the media does with sport, how it does it, who is responsible and what adverse affects it has on individual professional sports players. This is no real shock since many media hacks make their living from exploiting players' abilities and all too human frailties. So you can hardly expect a media employee and fixer to do him/herself out of a job. That just isn't the way capitalism works: personal gain is all that matters, which is supremely ironic when you consider the question at issue.


At first glance the suggestion is hugely seductive. Who can forget their own childish dreams of footy glory "lost" because of a coach or manager? Who can want innocence lost at the hands of cruel cynicism? Who would not want to retain a child's wonder at the world? If only, you hear many fans and would-be players say, if only I had had the breaks, if only I hadn't been cheated. The notion even made it into Elia Kazan's great 1954 film On The Waterfront with Brando's famous words as a washed-out boxer turned mob-thug by his corrupt brother, "I coulda been a champ.......I coulda been a contender." Example in another way, when Andrei Kanchelskis joined Fiorentina from Everton, the Italian coach said he would have to coach back into him the football that had been coached out of him in England, which would have come as a revelation to the number of defenders left trailing helplessly in the Russian/Lithuanian/Ukrainian's (take your pick - he chose Russia) wake in his seven years in the English game. To say nothing of deeply systemic corruption that has emptied Italian football stadia and disfigured their game........Ah, yes, the coach as enemy of natural instincts and style, the disciplined gruppenführer who brooks no individuality at the expense of team play. We've heard it all before. But how much truth is there in it?


Fact is, the issue is not a straight forward one. And the reason is the different levels of abilities and motivation in individual players and coaches. What applies to one doesn't necessarily apply to another. Some players have such natural talent they scarcely need do anything but keep themselves at the proper level of athletic fitness. Others need a coach to realise the full extent of their abilities. Still others have to work really hard to make up for any deficiencies, coach or no coach. The same applies to motivation and self confidence. A good coach knows how, where and when to affect these factors. A great coach knows this as instinctively as a great player knows his game, knows how to apply it to the best advantage of his team and knows how to do it all within his intended vision. Which is why, for instance, tactical and half time team talks vary so much in content and style. For another instance, you couldn't get much more different personas than Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, but both of them have produced wonderful, truly great teams in different eras. So it is true a football team and its mix of player types is a reflection of management style. When the two happily coincide the result is a great team. And all of it is affected by financial resources, plus that old temptress, chance. Your chances of achieving the miraculous blend are in proportion to all of these factors. Someone, somewhere, has almost certainly tried and failed, thankfully, to produce a mathematical formula for it.


But does professionalism per se - in the sense of being paid to play - have an adverse affect on individual ability? In my view, for most players.....No, it's what they do and they're glad to be doing it, personal problems aside. Who wouldn't be? I don't think it makes their play cynical or their enjoyment less because that depends ultimately on the temperament of both player and coach. You have to have the stomach for testing yourself against the best. Amateur or professional, you have to want success badly enough to understand and deal with all the implications of the emotion. Anything else is mere narcissism. If you can't cope you won't make it. There is no shame in this. You either have the determination in you or you don't, in which case you move on to something else. At its best you get somebody like Bobby Charlton saying in a post-career interview, "I used to love going into training. Every day was different. And I was getting paid to play the game." Clearly, Bobby was a vocational man. At the other end of the scale you'll get a player who hates training and thinks it unnecessary - until he suddenly finds himself stranded by a fitter and faster opponent or team mate and wonders why. In between there is the normal human mix.


Generally, if someone is consistently a dirty or unhappy player it is more likely to do with their personality type; they would be that way whatever occupation they followed. However, the vast majority of players are not dirty or cynical or the game simply could not exist. True, there will be pockets of it, sometimes concentrated. Long-ago Leeds were notorious but then ironically had their greatest successes and respect when finally they stopped kicking everything that moved. And we could all name a limited player or two who tries to make up his shortfall in talent by kicking more able players. But in the end all professionals want to make a living in the game and anyone who kicks too much is likely to become a target themselves and become despised in the process. If professionalism is "killing football" then it follows logically you wouldn't see it at all in non-professional leagues. However, a visit to Sunday League playing fields will disabuse you of that naiveté. Some of the worst behaviour and thuggery I see in the sport happens every week in non-professional games. It has always been thus.


However, there are perhaps other senses in which we should consider "professionalism." And that is in the skill, competence, or character expected of a member of a highly trained occupation. So.........are those being "killed" in football? In the first two cases the answer must be an emphatic No, as anyone who has supported the game for many years will tell you. In those respects it has never been in ruder health, for which see aggregate attendance figures. World-wide, for all its faults professional football is still the preferred sports spectacle. I think this likely to continue give or take economic circumstances. The third case is different, and even then only by degree. For it is undeniable that great earnings have moved the very best players (but not the overwhelming majority, as the Professional Footballers Association will tell you) into a different social class. Many of them can and do live an isolated life in large detached houses in the suburbs or countryside, drive expensive cars with blacked out windows, often have "minders," and find themselves living life inside a glass bottle labelled "famous." They couldn't be more removed from the famous story of young Tommy Lawton's arrival by train at Lime Street Station and then on a tram to Goodison Park, only for the conductor to tell him, "You'll never be as good as Dixie." Small wonder, then, some modern players can't cope or go off the rails. For some of them the inevitable later loss of fame must be devastating, to say nothing of media coverage turned off like a light switch unless they do something notorious. However, much of it is down to their own inner strength, or lack of it, and how they transit life. I don't believe professionalism per se has much bearing on this except in very rare cases.


But, again, there is nothing new in any of this. Over the years there are many examples. "Performance-enhancing" drugs (i.e. cheating) are notorious everywhere and have been since the dawn of competitive sports; athlete Ben Johnson disgraced himself; boxer Ricky Hatton has just disappeared into the hell of alcohol and drugs, and he isn't the first in that lamentable "sport"; we all know how golfer Tiger Woods' life had to be rescued from the toilet; young and vulnerable Pakistani cricketers have just been set up; South African cricket fixing was notorious; even snooker player John Higgins managed to get himself into the claws of Murdoch's "journalists" and went all the way to Ukraine to do it. If you want to see all of this in melodramatic form you could do worse than watch Lindsay Anderson's fine 1963 film This Sporting Life from the novel by David Storey about Rugby League.


Two long-ago football examples will finally suffice, though you can find many more if you want to check all the way back to the game's origins. In 1950-1957 Manchester City had a talented and genuinely hard Welsh international wing half named Roy Paul, whose last game for them was against Everton, and subsequently played for non-league Worcester City when famously they dumped Liverpool out of the FA Cup. When he finished at the highest level he had a series of articles in a Sunday paper in which he "dished the dirt." That sweat on my shirt, he said, wasn't sweat at all: it was beer exiting my system and I kidded you all for years, a claim that would have greatly surprised many an opponent dumped on his behind by one of Roy's rock-hard tackles. Around the same time we had a gifted goalkeeper named Albert Dunlop whose life ended tragically, but not before he alleged in 1964 in the same newspaper that Benzedrine tablets were handed out routinely to players before matches. However, Roy Paul made his claim because his career was over and he needed the money. Similarly, Albert Dunlop, who was replaced by Gordon West and then saw his life go into a sad, downward spiral. Neither fall from grace had anything to do with professionalism. It was grounded in the character of both men and their circumstances. To these you can add more recent and obvious examples.


In fact players' attitudes develop in the same way as anyone else as they get older and gain more experience. Typically, a mature player won't run for a ball he knows he won't get because he wants to conserve his energy for later in the game. This is often interpreted as laziness or lack of motivation when often it is nothing of the sort; it is a professional athlete knowing his own limits. The misinterpretation can be exaggerated by unfair comparison with a player who "has a great engine," someone like tireless Alan Ball or Roberto Carlos or Sergio Ramos. Such a constitution cannot be "professionalised" or coached into anybody. You either have it or you don't. A good coach can help you learn how to pace your game better or make you more aware of play but he can't give you something you haven't got. In the end professionalism boils down to knowing your limits and pushing them as far as you can without deluding yourself. Professionalism of itself doesn't create cheats, crooks and unhappy players: character defaults do.


So no, I don't believe professionalism is killing sport. But our cultural system might. By this I mean our received social values and what importance we place on professional sport, both as individuals and collectively. If we create a sports system whose only concern is winning why be surprised at a one-dimensional sports culture? Why be surprised when we get a media whose objective is to build up an individual only to knock him or her down at the first opportunity, almost all of it cloaked in the most appalling hypocrisy? There is a sensible balance to be achieved between healthy competition and winning and an acceptance of the realities of life. Anyone who knows anything about professional sportsmen will tell you they usually manage to get the balance right long before non-players. It is only when they get things out of perspective that they start to cheat or break down. In which case they are not professional at all.


Ironically, the documentary presenter Ed Smith illustrated the flaw in his own argument when he said, "I stopped enjoying playing for England."  This seemed to inform everything else he said. But what did he expect? To always enjoy playing for England? If so, he falls at the first hurdle of growing up, that fence labelled "different circumstances." The one after that is labelled "disappointments." Hopefully you get to the final fence labelled "success" but there's a long, long course to run before you get there, unless you have large slices of luck en route. The idea that life is or can be a constant "happy" straight line is a natural commonplace in children but not one you find in healthy adults trying to come to terms with the inevitable and difficult problems of existence. We all love the innocence in our children, which is why adolescence is usually such a difficult time - too many elders forget how their own emotions evolved at that time and resent the loss instead of helping adolescents through to adulthood. No, it isn't possible to freeze or bottle innocence and re-use it. Once it has gone, it is gone, though it is possible to remember it sensibly and use its attributes without being as wilfully Somatic as Ed Smith.


Yes, there are issues with sport and professionalism. They are not insoluble. But we need to take a good long hard look at what we really want from sport, much deeper than simple castigation of professionalism and coaching. The film was a good if flawed start; now we need someone to look further than their own disappointment in life.



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