FOOTBALL AND HEROES (AND VILLAINS)
Mickey Blue Eyes.
"Did you ever know that you're my hero?
You're everything I wish I could be."
'WIND BENEATH MY WINGS,' popular music song by Bette Midler (1989).
"Search for the hero inside yourself
Until you find the key to your life"
'SEARCH FOR THE HERO,' popular music song by Paul Heard and Michael Pickering (1995).
For some reason our species has a need for heroes in one form or another. They exist in all cultural expression. But why? What use are heroes, and how do they feel? Equally, at the other end of the emotional scale some people seem to need scapegoats. In both cases it would do no harm for the perpetrators to take a good long hard look at themselves, assuming they have the mental strength. How easy it is to see football things in black and white, a practice for which some one-dimensional sports fans rightly are notorious. Occasionally circumstances get out of hand and hysteria threatens common sense.
I ask this because the notion of "a football hero" - indeed any hero - is often unhealthy. It can be a fool's bargain, for hero-worshippers almost always expect too much or, in later nostalgia, attribute too much. Somewhere along the line reality diffuses into legend and/or myth. Having lavished adoration and expectation, maybe even money, they are generally loath to concede a mistake if Atlas turns out to be, well, Woody Allen or Victor Meldrew in mufti. It can get as downright weird as any other unrestrained obsession. Worshippers of any kind tend to leak reason; the younger or less experienced you are, the more susceptible you are. All heroes, no exceptions, have feet of clay. Being human, how can it be otherwise? However, sanity is usually the first casualty if the hero-figure also begins to believe the legends and myths that grow around him, and behaves distantly. The ensuing fall is as inevitable as it is heavy because the worshipper often feels betrayed too. Of course the rather obvious psychological trick is not to confuse public performance with individual character; that way, you won't rot into a poisoned cynic whose breath reeks of resentment and beer.
Nor is hero-worship confined to football, as anybody who has attended a stirring opera performance at La Scala will tell you. The same applies to popular music events or political rallies. There is something in the human genome that requires our species to find a focus figure. But it can be dangerous if it is hate being transferred, not affection. The advent of rapid information technology - currently referred to as "social media" - means these personality traits can now happen electronically, a strange development which has not yet reached a conclusion, though it may fizzle out as mere behavioural extension as heroes and villains rise and fall within the space of five minutes on a computer. Only time will tell. If enough emotion gathers and persists in one spot you can and do get mass hysteria, as football history has demonstrated all too often. Some people, it seems, cannot live without a scapegoat just as others cannot live without a hero. Scapegoatism of course is a contemptible last resort for cowards and scoundrels. When behaviour falls to that level you can automatically assume the culprits have abandoned Enlightenment ideals. Decent intelligence has fled the field.
However, we all suffer from hero-worship at one time or another, particularly when we are starry-eyed kids. You want great players to be good humans too, as though somehow the ability to kick and head a ball guarantees a temperament and intellect to match Gandhi's. Actually, greatest enjoyment of the game comes when you finish with the hero nonsense. Then, unhindered by personality cult(s), the gain in perspective is spectacular. You can admire football abilities for what they are, a craft like any other, that rare people have as an innate natural talent while others have to really work at it. Then you can appreciate varying athletic abilities as much as you can admire creative arts and crafts, your preferences notwithstanding. One of the great gains of athleticism is that it is so spontaneous and merciless, sometimes even brutal, it almost eliminates absurd lower middle class petty snobbery. Almost.
As with so much of our civilisation, organised hero cults really evolved in Ancient Greece and Rome, though there are some earlier examples derived from theistic cultures. One of them, no shit, was known as an "Oikist" cult (yes, public schoolboys derive "oik" from rote classics lessons), which seems somewhat appropriate in the present context. Since then cults have gone through several transformations, mostly military and artistic. The rebirth of organised sports and games in the nineteenth century led to the version we recognise now. Community roots of football first provided local heroes. Then the introduction of professionalism almost liquidated players' community boundaries: as long as you performed, nobody really bothered where you came from......thus demonstrating how deep the need runs. A Coliseum mentality is still evident in most aspects of the game.......thus demonstrating how little basic human nature changes.
The cultural situation is intensified when propaganda opportunities arise. For instance, national rulers and politicians have never failed to attach to footy success by teams or individuals. In modern times perhaps the most awful propaganda use of the sport was by a fascist Argentine regime in World Cup 78. Prior to that, Italian fascists, German Nazis and East European totalitarian communist regimes all used sport for their own purposes. Current regimes aren't that far removed from it either. But there has always been hangers-on at all levels, who, by definition, want to bask in reflected glory, which woe betides players who don't perform well when expectations are high. For examples see the last England World Cup team and David Beckham's treatment after being sent off in World Cup 98 in France.
Monopoly-owned corporate media systems are infamous if not crucial in creating and then demolishing heroes and villains. They always have been. The reason isn't too difficult to identify: the process keeps your average untalented information clerk in a job and can further a wider cause of profitability or politics. Rupert Murdoch's extreme right wing media ownership is particularly suited to pandering to the lowest common denominator, as demonstrated by recent high profile tales of unhappy private lives. Needless to say the people who manufacture this kind of muck would be the first to run away if someone applied it to their lives. All of which merely emphasises why nobody with any sense trusts them when they start to build up a hero - as metro media meffs have done recently with Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur, purely on the basis of two magnificent performances against one team. I hope for his sake it doesn't go to his head.
However, players can react as differently to the experience as any other human being. There is no formula, and how individuals react to it is mostly a matter of basic character. The following four examples can help illustrate the differences.
Brian Labone was one of Everton's greatest players, a full international and winner of Championship and Cup medals. He looked magnificent as a player, every inch a hero. Rightly, he drew the praise of Harry Catterick as, "The Last of the Corinthians," a phrase intended to convey not only his playing ability but his innate open and honest temperament, to say nothing of his "giving" nature. Brian was one in a million, a one club man, a bright, intelligent character who seemed to love everything about being alive. Everyone I know who met him said the same thing, that it was good to be in his company, that there was little that was false in him. Perhaps he is best summed up by a story told recently by Joe Royle, who was a young contemporary. Joe asked Brian how he put up with ceaseless mithering of autograph hunters and fans, and he answered, "When they stop asking is the time to start being concerned." All of this aligns with an experience I had in very early adolescence. At the time I was chasing the affections of a young lady who lived in the Wirral. I missed the last bus home and tried to thumb a lift through the Mersey Tunnel. A car stopped to pick me up. It was Brian. After chatting openly about players and playing fortunes he insisted on dropping me off at home, a long way out of his way. Brian could handle being a hero, as he showed when he retired and became a club hospitality greeter. The man really was an exceptional human being.
Later on in life, a student and married with an infant daughter, we were standing at the 60 bus stop on Queens Drive. A few hours earlier I had been to a match at analfield where the enemy had beaten Newcastle 6-0 and had displayed two new signings, Emlyn Hughes and Tony Hateley. A car pulled up and a vaguely familiar driver got out, invited a lift, picked up our folded baby buggy and started to put it in the boot. At which, I was about to tell him to do one - until the Better Half said it would be alright. And so it was. The guy was late middle aged and dressed like a scruffy hillbilly with pretensions. He had on an old gray jacket with a sewn-on, raggedy-edged Liverpool FC badge on the top pocket. I thanked him for the lift and told him I had been the game as an Evertonian and I wasn't impressed by Hughes, who seemed to kick everything in sight......and as for that Hateley, he might have scored goals (can't remember how many, two or three) but I wouldn't ask him to empty my bin. Yes, said the Good Samaritan quietly and without rancour, Hughes was raw and needed to learn a lot, and, yes, Hateley would have to prove himself fully. No sweat, no tension. He was a very pleasant and kind man, obviously. Then he dropped us off. Next week I saw a team photograph of the enemy. The kind man was on it. It was then-trainer Bob Paisley.
How times have changed.
Then there's the great Bobby Moore, surely England's finest ever captain. Was there ever a truer hero, a more superb looking football athlete and representative of his country? You could tell he was good because all opposition fans hated the unhurried way he won a tackle and came out of a desperate playing melee with the ball as though it was all a mildly distasteful but necessary experience. What a player. Until World Cup 70, when he was accused of stealing a bracelet from a shop in Bogota, Colombia during a pre-tournament tour. Well, it couldn't be true, could it? It must be a greasy South American set-up, mustn't it, said our metro meff media. Blond, Aryan, blue-eyed, magnificent Bobby couldn't do things like that, could he? Eventually the whole thing petered out, though the shop girl never retracted her accusation. Later, Jimmy Greaves was quoted, "But you know what......actually, nobody ever asked Bobby if he took it or not." Of course. Innocent until proved guilty. But the marble hero suddenly looked terribly human and perhaps not so pristine after all.
Finally, what of Paul Gascoigne? Was there ever such a natural, wonderfully gifted player who, sadly, maybe came to believe the hero-publicity? His continuing battle with alcoholism is now routine reporting fodder, a personal tragedy which he will take with him to the grave. You wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy, let alone such an obviously extrovert personality with an irresistible sense of humour. Poor Paul, like most addicts he just didn't know where to draw the line. It cut short a career that should have ended in playing glory and glittering prizes. Instead it has ended in famous tears on and off the pitch. But to me he always looked a terribly vulnerable young man with serious psychological problems eased only by his playing abilities. Once they faded he was on his own and even more vulnerable, which is where he finds himself today. Paul is the kind of hero that haunts all those in the fame game. It may transpire that his greatest heroism will be in defeating the addiction that has plagued his adult life. You would have to have a heart of stone not to wish him well.
Most fans will have stories similar to the four recounted above. Some will treat them with understanding. Others will be dismissive on the basis that a public figure can't have it two ways. You pays your money and makes your choice. This fan dreads the day the second attitude dominates, because our culture will then have made a final transition to institutionalised, priced-up insensitivity - in which case we deserve exactly what we get. It seems to me a duty to point out to our youngsters that we can greatly admire playing abilities without making any player a role model, and certainly without paying attention to someone's private life. We should be able to share their playing heroism and playing failures in equal measure. After all, it is the ebb and flow of life that gives it its spice. To this end I have always urged the youngest members of my family not to wear a player's name on a football shirt, only their own. There is a difference between hero-worship, admiration, and making your own way in the world; be responsible for your own actions and aspirations and life can be so much sweeter. The best hero is yourself, but only when you earn it.
But what happens when something happens to disillusion you while you are still naive? In my case this happened not long after Brian Labone gave me a lift, (described above). I had found out where the players gathered on Saturday nights and I managed to get into the night club. To my surprise, Everton and Liverpool players met there and mixed freely most weeks, no enmity whatever. That was a shock, but nothing compared to what was coming. At the bar stood one of Everton's greatest players faced by a circle of fawning hangers-on, the type of thing you see still. Everyone was drunk. The Everton player was busily engaged in telling them all that if Moores had all that money it was time he got his hands on some of it. Young and highly impressionable, I felt as though I was hit by a free kick. John Moores had selflessly regenerated the club, hadn't he? This player was adored by the fans wasn't he? What did money have to do with it? Weren't we all in this together? It was a salutary moment when the scales drop from your eyes. Now of course I would simply say, so what, alcohol is the avowed enemy of discretion and common sense and you don't mix them with strangers, let alone mere hangers-on. But at the time the experience was as welcome as a flame thrower in a methane tank. I duly burned with resentment until nature took its course and I understood a lot more about professionalism. It was a hard lesson, the only useful type. I have never forgotten it.
Since then I have had no illusions about owners, players or fans. So it came as no real surprise to me years later when, for still another instance, it emerged that Brian Clough and Peter Taylor used to deliberately flood their Derby County home Baseball Ground (a horrible slum of a place) to cheat the opposition during their rise to prominence. Typically, Clough later joined Leeds United and (rightly) accused their players of cheating to win things. He conveniently forgot his own milder form of cheating as Derby manager, including tolerance of a Dave MacKay who had aged badly as a player and in the end was little more than a pensionable thug in a football strip. Despite his reputation and achievements, Clough was never one of my heroes. He had too much self-aggrandisement, too much disregard for anything or anyone, a sort of desensitised, paranoid Norman Tebbitt of football. Tragically, his end was as predictable as Paul Gascoigne's........fatally flawed giants both, and all too human.
So, if all heroes have feet of clay what is the point of having them? Answer: in football the true hero is playing and behavioural excellence, not expanded bladder capacity, a destroyed liver or a personality like Julius Streicher. None of which means standards taken from The Little House on the Prairie, or, worse, Conservative Party Headquarters. It is a matter of common sense and intelligence, not impossible and inhuman squeaky-clean antiseptics. It would help too if the likes of Murdoch's and Berlusconi's media propaganda would suddenly find a reasonable level of decency free of manufactured gossip. At root, it is a cultural issue informed by individual choice.
Reasonably approached, football can be (and mostly is) a perfectly healthy and harmless obsession. Most fans and players are capable of shrugging off the ebbs and flows of playing fortunes without mistaking them for the false perceptions of sensational publicity and the horrors of tribalism and weird chauvinist hatred. Still we are not free of these poisonous infections and probably never will be. The global popularity of the game and the amount of money running through it means it will always attract the best and worst of humanity, as cricket has discovered. Impressionable and vulnerable youngsters will continue to look up to the game's great figures; it is what you do at that age. But surely we must show them how to keep their wits about them. It does no harm to remind them not every player can be a Brian Labone, and not every player is like Barton at Newcastle and the ineffable if aptly named Savage of Wales. People will be people whether they are wonderful athletes or not. Varieties of behaviour are as varied as any other occupation. Some learn and change as a result, some never learn and stay stuck in their peculiarly resentful rut, while rarities like Brian have the balance right almost from the beginning. Most do the best they can manage.
Football is a great game at any level, professional or amateur. All it requires is a sense of proportion from everybody who plays, watches and administers it. Sometimes we lose sight of that straightforward fact.