There was a time when you could saunter up to your local stadium and you’d know you’d have a fairly good chance of meeting one of your heroes. You might even have a chat with them. A photo. Definitely an autograph. But as the song goes, “something changed”. Ian Rands knows exactly what happened.
There is an oft-quoted saying – “Never meet your heroes”. Given the apparent dissatisfaction that the saying suggests will follow, I recently interviewed a number of ex-Sheffield United players with a degree of trepidation as well as excitement. Would the outcome be a good interview, but an over-arching feeling of disappointment in the person I meet?
I guess I am lucky. Most of the players I grew up watching are untainted by Premier League riches, although some were playing at the top level as the Premier League began. Whilst their lifestyles are a huge leap forward from my dad’s generation of players who travelled on bus or tram to the ground alongside the fans, or who lived on the same street, they retain a belief that they were incredibly lucky to do what they did. Some feel humbled that their on-pitch exploits are still so fondly remembered nearly twenty years later.
Both at club functions and through the interviews I have been able to conduct with them, I have found players that, after an initial awkwardness and the tempering of excitement on my part, have been open, honest and great to talk to. Maybe the reason why is the fact that many of those players had to work hard to achieve their career aims. Several started off in the lower leagues and worked their way up, often whilst studying or working as well.
Although they played at the top level for United and, in the case of Alan Kelly and Brian Deane, played international football for their countries, they retain a sense of perspective that is so often missing from the game today – a game that many are still involved in. Others are not involved in the game anymore and find themselves working in and amongst those who stood and watched them play. They are grounded individuals, who recognise how lucky they are and recognise that, using their own words, they “lived the dream”. You may say that is a cliché, but these are the words used by several of the players.
As I typed up my interviews I wondered whether my son’s generation will ever get the chance to meet and chat to the players they will grow up watching? Even outside of the Premier League, the money these players are being paid provides them with a lifestyle and attitude to life that immediately detaches them from those who sit and watch them, week in, week out. People that they will rarely get the chance to mix with post career, too. How many will need to work again, to switch to real life, post-football?
Few appear to have any strong social skills – who needs them when you have a club PR person or media man telling you what to say? Who needs them when you have money, flash cars and a nice house sat behind a large wall and gates? When communicating in the bars in town involves showing the young blonde who has approached you the pictures of said car and house and buying the drinks?
What happens when your heroes are increasingly highlighted as cheats, of using racial slurs, or are found guilty of violence, both on and off the pitch? Try explaining to a 6 year-old why his team’s star striker and most talented player isn’t playing, when it’s because he’s in prison. Try explaining why two teams aren’t shaking hands at the start because the England captain might have called another player “something naughty”.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hero as;
“a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”
Yet there are very few examples of courage or noble qualities in the beautiful game anymore. So much so that anything approaching a charitable or noble act is hyped up for media impact. The word ‘legend’ is bandied around for players who have achieved relatively little in the game or even at a particular club.
The fans’ adulation engenders excessive levels of self-belief in players – if being a footballer is given such an exalted status by the media and society, is it any wonder that they have such a dismissive attitude to those around them? Football has changed. Money has changed leagues, changed clubs and, more potently, changed players. The media focus intensifies as more and more millionaires are created, at an increasingly younger age. There is a bubble put around them by the clubs. Everything they want they can get – ask and they receive – creating a sense of entitlement that few can associate with.
I recently spoke to Brian Deane about his work in giving young players released by clubs the chance to get a degree and also to train, be coached and re-launch their playing careers. The academy, at the University of Leeds, opens up life options and multiple career opportunities. Yet even he notices this trait in some who haven’t yet made it.
“I have standards. Sometimes kids don’t understand what it takes to make it all the way and that is my frustration. I try and be a mentor/guardian and give them the best advice and they can’t always see it.”
If some young people, who, without the opportunity Brian’s academy affords them, would otherwise be on the employment scrapheap at the age of 18 have such an attitude, what does it mean for those left in the game?
If my son or daughter pursues an interest in writing, can you see the players of today being so willing to chat, willing to talk of their career, their highs and lows and those endless nights out on a Nando’s black card? I doubt it. They are wary of those who express an interest in them; wary of those who might make commercial gain; wary of those who will portray their story in a different light to how it has been told. Even if they meet them at a social occasion, will the footballer be willing to chat or will they fear misrepresentation of their words and thoughts through immediate dispersal on social media?
The world has moved on in the last twenty years, the game of football has moved on and sadly so has the connection between fans and their heroes on the pitch. The connection and close proximity has moved towards isolation and disconnection. Like so many Sky-fuelled developments in football, I don’t really see it as a change for the better.