Blind Hammer examines whether there is any future for the tradition of the Gentleman Footballer in the modern game.
James Tomkins’ arrest earlier this year and Diafra Sacko’s recent double arrest has given me cause for thought.
It is important to remember that an arrest does not in any sense equate to guilt in either of these individual cases. However I did reflect that I would have been more astonished if, for example Geoff Hurst or Alvin Martin had endured similar involvement with the police. If they had it would have been a far greater shock.
Comedian Phil Jupitas’ love of West Ham is well known but I remember his description of the time Tony Cottee approached him to invite him to meet with the players. Jupitas described conflicting emotions. On the one hand his heart was racing because one of his idols was actually talking to him; on the other hand he dreaded meeting the players. The reason he gave for this dread was that he wanted to idolise the players as footballers. His big fear was that if he met the players he would not like them as people. If that happened he feared this would ruin his long standing love of the club. I had a similar, as it turned out, completely unwarranted fear before I met Trevor Brooking at work.
Why should footballers be necessarily nice people anyway? It was Ron Greenwood who insisted on Gentlemanly conduct of his players at West Ham. His values and attitudes were in stark contrast to the more aggressive approach of more successful clubs like Don Revie’s Leeds United. Arguably this translated to West Ham being a comparatively soft touch on the field. John Lyell certainly did much to instil much needed steel and aggression into the team. Players like Billy Bonds, Keith Robson and later David Cross were nobody’s soft touches, and helped West Ham struggled to adapt to the inevitable standards of modern physical competitiveness. .
In this era aggression was largely left on the pitch and dressing room. Billy Bonds was allegedly a team enforcer, and rumoured to have held Ted MacDougall by the throat against the wall because he did not consider his work rate as appropriate for a West Ham player.
Yet away from the club these key players did, by and large, act as role models. Bobby Moore liked a drink and famously fell out with Greenwood over the Blackpool nightclub debacle. He was also famously fitted up and arrested in Bogota. However you could never imagine Moore being arrested for taking a swing at somebody. He did his best to conduct himself with the appropriate conduct of the classic Gentleman. The same can be said for other great players in our tradition, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Alvin Martin, Billy Bonds, Tony Gale, Tony Cottee, Julian Dicks, and Alan Devonshire and so on.
Culture is an important component of support for a club. I have supported West Ham for over 50 years not because of our outstanding results. For a West Ham fan it is as important to manage the disappointment of defeat as much as the joy of winning. I have a literal blind loyalty to the club but I do not think my support is metaphorically blind. My enthusiasm for the club is based on the traditions of a club with values that over time I have admired and assimilated into my own identity. I loved Billy Bonds as a player not just because he was able to stand up to the bullies and protect the skills of a Brooking on the pitch, but I loved also his polite gentle nature off the pitch. Similarly Bobby Moore was a role model for me as I was growing up in the 1960s. I loved the polite family atmosphere of the club.
It is of course easier to be a more polite person if you have fantastic ability. It was also arguably easier to be nice in the past. The circus which surrounds modern football is a more critical and hostile environment. It is arguably more difficult to emotionally thrive in most modern football clubs.
A football player in any generation needs to have massive psychological toughness and self-belief to succeed. If you or I have a bad day at work, the result may be a summons to an office and a talk with your manager. You may well feel upset and bruised after this but consider the experience for a player. A bad day on the pitch for a football player can result in your receiving aggressive abuse from hundreds, if not thousands of so called supporters. In the past you may receive a critical write up in a newspaper report or receive a fleeting mention on scarce TV exposure. . For the modern player it does not end there. Today your performance is dissected and analysed at length in myriad radio, online and social media forums. Whilst brief football highlights appeared once a week in the past, Football exposure on the television today spans many days and is far more deeply analysed. In a live televised match your deficiencies may be examined and analysed in great detail in front of millions by TV Pundits.
This is of course all on top of any hair dryer treatment you may receive from your own Manager /coaches in the dressing room or training pitch after the game. Whatever the consolation of massive salaries players are only human and may well wilt under this pressure.
It is probably true then that today you need not only be a physical freak of nature with extraordinary ability, supplemented by obsessive training, you also need to be emotionally amazingly tough to withstand the inevitable criticisms which will come your way.
The personalities which can withstand the massive pressure of 24 hour scrutiny of their performance over the long months of the modern football season are likely to be colder and tougher than their antecedents of past years. It is very possible that a “nice “person may be submerged by the torrents of criticism that may come their way. Put bluntly, the emotionally dysfunctional or borderline psychopath may be better equipped to deal with these sometimes savage pressures. Gentlemen’s football may sadly be a thing of the past.
The one glint of hope may be in the preference for good team spirit and camaraderie. Good social individuals may flourish here. Of course there are also famously successful teams with dysfunctional individuals and relationships as well. For myself I think I will follow Jupitas’s advice and not seek engagement with the personalities of my club and continue to admire them as footballers from afar.