Archive | Players

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The Return of Kenny Dalglish

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

A few days after her death, my grandmother comes in through my bedroom window after lights out. I am six years old.

She does so again on other nights. The dream always follows the same path. Malevolent twilight and her body framed against it, her back turned to me. The head slowly coming round; and the face wrong, changed, and wicked with appetite, wholly intent upon me; my rollercoastering nausea coming up and my fear: my stomach clenching, then darkness, a chorus of voices howling in the black and I’m falling, down, faster and faster and gritting my teeth, holding my eyes shut until I impact on the bed and waken into a chamber that’s unlit and alive with menace. I’ll hold still on my sheets, tight and noiseless, til sunrise.

Three years later, and I’m in my father’s living room in a town two and a half hours’ drive from home. Windows at each end let in album cover sunshine and there’s snow outside. Alone but vigilant for raised voices starting up away in the house, I’ve turned the stereo’s knob to tuner and found Radio 2. Football: the voice of Peter Jones. Or was it Bryon Butler? Or Alan Parry?

Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool are playing my Manchester United. I’ve been waiting for this game: waiting for it in the way you wait for a school bully, or a bombing raid. The speakers smell of cloth and dust, and their rich bass tone adds a luxury and a cruelty to what is unwinding, inevitably, out on the pitch at Old Trafford. I am armless in this fistfight, powerless, unable to do anything to help.

What’s forgotten now, except by those who were children at the time, is just how frightening Liverpool were. And in particular, just how frightening the one player every 8 year old had heard of was: Kenny Dalglish.

Back then, Dave Sexton’s United was a team of friendly, fatherly figures. Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Martin Buchan, Brian Greenhoff. Ipswich had them too: Mick Mills, Paul Cooper. You could imagine them joining in your playground kickabouts; you could imagine them wanting to; you could imagine them being the sort of grown-up who knew what to say.

My Liverpool fan mates might have worshipped him, but to me, Dalglish wasn’t friendly or a father figure: he was a knife. A cool, sleek blade that cut you. He was a boiling kettle, hovering over ants…

I won some of my United team at school through Panini flick-card competitions. If you had Dalglish’s card, which hardly anyone did, however, you wouldn’t enter it. You kept it separate. You kept it clean and undogeared. It gave you power and standing, in a way and of a kind that everyone understood. For children, iconic power is hard, tangible. Our best playground player knew it, and when he got the ball he’d shout out “Dalglish!” and dribble around you all, endlessly untackleable and unbeatable.

What made it worse was that my Liverpool fan mates seemed to have been Liverpool fans forever. They’d inherited their team through some distant, mysterious group exercise in wisdom and integrity from which I, foolishly and unknowingly, had absented myself.

Ending up with Manchester United felt like an act of carelessness. Because everyone was Liverpool.. Dave Sexton’s team spent that season fighting Coventry City for a mid-table spot.

I’m still United now, and of course, you might say, it ended well. Not so much of a supporter after Heysel, of course. Blind allegiance died that day: now it’s warmth and best wishes, no more, because no more could be justified. Nevertheless, I could wander down to the Baillie in Stockbridge in 2011 to catch Liverpool v United in the Cup and feel somehow shielded by all those titles and trophies. I could relax on a good seat with my wife in that great navy captain’s cabin of a pub, wander over to the bar for a pair of pints and some crisps, and get ready for a game that wouldn’t have a great deal at stake for me.

But just before kickoff, Kenny Dalglish emerged into view, framed against the light from the tunnel.

He was deep in conversation with – Sammy Lee? with his back to us, and as Dalglish slowly came round towards the camera, I saw his face with another thirty years on it, changed, wrong, and wicked with appetite: somewhere inside, I felt an ancient vertigo that I’d thought grown-out-of, beaten and outrun, starting up once again and I remembered what it felt like to fall, what it felt like afterwards to cling on silently, too frightened to move..

It’s one month later. In their last game, Manchester United lost to Wolves. Liverpool are DWWWW.

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Agincourt and England 2010

Posted on 18 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions – not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

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Owen, Beckham: it feels like growing old

Posted on 15 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Beckham out. Thus passes a generation of English players who came to prominence at the very end of my twenties. This is how the story ends, then: that group have indeed passed on without winning an international trophy. What Gary Neville feared, and perhaps expected, has come true.

Truth to tell, England’s teams since 1998 have always fallen well short. First France, then Spain, have produced better squads and performances. Holland have also just lost a generation – one which began with the astonishing Ajax European Cup winners of 1995 – but one that always seemed more likely than England’s to succeed.

Moreover, the best players of the 1998-2010 era have always been prone to injuries. Owen and Beckham were doubtful for both 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and weren’t fully fit at either. But for 1998 and the era of AOL, Freeserve and BoL, we’d never have seen either man playing at full tilt at the top level.

So much for a golden generation: England’s 1998 team, were, after all, the best of modern times. What would you give to have even an ageing Shearer now?

But these are the thoughts of someone for whom Owen, Beckham and co. were the last players to arrive when they themselves could still conceivably play.

For anyone now in their late 20s, the attachment to Owen and Beckham might not be there. Instead, each injury to the Old Guard brings Milner, Huddlestone, Lennon and now Adam Johnson closer to their destiny.

And there’s little doubt that Capello, for all his regret at losing players through injury, is capable of picking and organizing replacements. Only Wayne Rooney, of the 23-man squad, lacks an equivalent, although there are other capable goalscorers. Unlike in 2002, the injuries to Beckham and Owen make little difference to England’s chances. Beckham’s dead ball skills would have made him a useful substitute, but it is more than time that someone made the right wing their own and remade it in their own style.

It might not be over for either Beckham or Owen. Owen will play for another couple of years, and although at present it would take some real slapstick on the injuries front to knock over everyone who stands between him and the squad, it can’t be ruled out altogether. And Beckham was supposed to be gone after 2006. The man’s ability to dig himself out of the grave faster than his critics’ spades can bury him is a source of lasting entertainment and amusement.

But across the rest of the established squad, there are injuries, losses of form, ennui, niggles, an accumulating depression. Under any other manager, this would be worrying. It would prompt reflections that perhaps the time to rebuild the team is now: to use the World Cup to rebuild around the Huddlestones and Johnstones. But Capello doesn’t work like that or think like that.

So while Capello gets on with the job of seamlessly closing the gaps opened by injuries and turning James Milner into a kind of calm Paul Gascoigne, let’ s reflect on how Owen and Beckham will be remembered.

Not, I dare say, like Shearer and Adams are remembered. At his peak, Shearer gave England the sort of security you feel when you’ve been trapped by freak weather in a millionaire’s pantry: that feeling of infinite backup. Both he and Tony Adams had a football fan’s sense of priorities (which Shearer comically rehearsed all over again in this Smalltalk interview). I approve of footballers having hinterland – Owen’s racing, Beckham’s… skiing. But I know that most fans would rather their heroes be as obsessed as they are.

There’s some chance that Beckham will morph into something Charltonesque: he’s already to some extent a go-to-guy when it comes to competing for Olympics and World Cups. He’s good at being an ambassador, and if English football needs anything, it needs a sunny exterior to show the world. Beckham will not be wasted as Bobby Moore was wasted.

Owen’s own future is already well mapped out. A bit more football, then training racehorses. He’ll pop up on television now and again as a contemporary, relevant figure in a different sport, one which some suspect he prefers. His relatively closed personality will leave him with an enigmatic air around him: a man who appeared very suddenly, scored 40 goals for his country, and then went away again little older than George Best.

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Anyone But England’s 1966!

Posted on 28 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

English football doesn’t obsess about 1966 as much as Scottish fans might like to think.

My first post on this is here; Alex Massie here and Rob Marrs here have taken the subject further.

Rob, being English, won’t shut up about 1966:

Scots talk about the English bringing up 1966 far more than English folk ever bring it up. I would note to Celtic fans reading if you tire of people talking of 1966 you might wish to put 1967 in a box. This very day, I sat in Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh and heard four Scots moan endlessly that the English talked about 1966. I was drinking with another English chap and neither of us had brought it up, the TV presenters hadn’t brought it up… the four Scots had brought it up.

I can still remember how surprised – shocked, even – I was on the rainy day in 1979/80 when I discovered that England had once won the World Cup. I was 11 or 12: My Manchester United-supporting stepfather had lived with us for seven years. I’d played at right-back for my football playing schools and sat through Argentina ’78 without once hearing anyone mention it.

So the news had to find its own way to me. Rummaging through a pile of old books in a junkshop in some left-over of a Bedfordshire village, in the last days of Callaghan’s Britain, I came across a battered Pan paperback about great postwar sporting moments. The usual list, but I was getting it for the first time: Maureen Connolly, Tommy Simpson, Gary Player, Cassius Clay, Celtic 1967. Oh, and England.

Well, the first thing I read about sex was a “found” copy of “Letters to the Happy Hooker” by Xaviera Hollander. She invites an American footballer over and, you’re joking..

In the late 1970s, England were a team of tired cloggers, playing heavy football in a wet, bored country without wine. Surely they’d never…and I wanted to run into the street to collar passers-by for confirmation: is this real? yet part of me thought I could believe it.. because I have early memories of a very different world and of a sunlight streaming into my pram, sunlight rich with colour and promise. 1960s sunlight, always dappling through leaves or through the long hair of the mini-skirted blonde who has bent down to pet me. A modern, confident light, shining on Alan Whicker and the Banana Splits and me, last seen at the 1970 World Cup and never again. In that light, anything can happen. Moonshots. Bob Beamon’s jump. An English World Cup win.

I had eleven months in which to enjoy the sixties, and, for want of better information, I trust I made the most of them. And I’d have eleven years in which I didn’t know about 1966: I hope I made the most of that, too. Because to listen to anyone who thinks the English don’t shut up about all that, you’d believe that we’re boasting about it: that England thinks itself, as of right, World Cup Winners, in the sunshine, top of the tree. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1966 is spoken about more than it was. Three contrasting things brought that about.

One is the 1990 World Cup, when England stumbled through the nettles to a semi-final that no one saw coming.  Before the semi against West Germany, English mood was split. The casual fan, who hadn’t seen the horrible earlier games, was excited. Those of us who had watched them, through our fingers, felt only dread. The West Germans forecast they’d win 4-0. Most English opinion worth having agreed. The English opinion that wasn’t worth having, however, had had old memories stirred.

In the event, England played quite well. The luck tank was dry, but the performance inspired hope for the future. The very quality of that gallant defeat, and it was real enough, did something quite peculiar and contradictory to the English footballing mind. Without any change in the fundamental belief that England just weren’t on a level with Italy, Holland, Brazil and the West Germans, an expectation formed. From here, England could kick on… 16 years later, Charlton fans would have the same thought, as they bid farewell to underperforming Alan Curbishley. Over all who would kick on, a great dark bird silently circles..

And of course, (don’t blame Nick Hornby for this) in the wake of 1990, literary types took an interest. I’d like to, but can’t, pass over the nausea, the disgust-inducing nature of some of the TLS-style stuff that’s been poured over English football since 1990. Think yourselves lucky, Scotland, that you had Irvine Welsh. Because England got David Winner…

So here the TLSers come, like missionaries and anthropologists, and all of the fan violence and the decaying stadia and the obvious clicheed football things have to acquire context and meaning and they become a subculture and it all gets plugged into history, and what’s in history? 1966 is in history, and, lovers of clumsy lecture-room humour as the TLSers are, look! it’s just like “1066 and All That”. Which is  really awfully amusing! And on the TLSers went, in Granta and the London Review of Books, taking from football  such insights into post-industrial alienation and radical politics and the working class..

Thirdly, and most regrettably, in February 1993, Bobby Moore died.

Bobby Moore’s death was, and felt, premature. It hurt in the gut: shouldn’t people survive cancer, these days? There was a general sense that, although he’d not followed up on his football career, he still had time. And, if there was still time for him, there was still time for his playing colleagues to do whatever it was that you might call writing another chapter. Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were both still managers, weren’t they? Contemporary figures, men busy in the active present, not ready, yet, to be rounded up with Ramsey and the rest and frozen in carbonite..

More time for Moore would have been more time for us. When he died, death lurched a lot closer. It felt a lot later in the day, all of a sudden: no more pretending that the the 1960s have only just finished. No more pretending that all that brilliant sunshine is just waiting its opportunity to return.

With Moore dead, it became important to remember, and to gather the memories of those who had taken part in it all, whilst they were still around and able to reflect.

Idiots got their piece of the late captain too. Moore’s death amplified a thought that had always been there and thereabouts in the minds of control freaks and anal salt-of-the-earth types. England’s 1966 side, according to this thought, were the last of a better breed. What that breed was, no one could decide, but no matter. The last street footballers. The last real grafting working-class team who rode the bus to matches with the fans (no one ever refers to players riding the bus home with the fans afterwards, do they?)  The last to cut their hair short/drink mild/use dubbin/pinch matron/shovel coal/wear slippers/wear lipstick.

The purpose of this particular, and very footballing, narrative is clear: it’s to rough up the moderns. To lay a punch on those long-haired types with their skinhead cuts, who’ve been made soft by the abolition of national service, white collar jobs, comprehensive school, Eagle Magazine, foreign cars, pretty girlfriends, Central London, not drinking with journalists, Southport, Dubai, Ipod Twitbook, corporal punishment, sex with nuns and the horrors of NuLab Thatcherism.

What it isn’t about, most emphatically, is English arrogance. If only it were so.

Because if you’ve read all of this up until now, you’ll know that although I’ve tried to tell it from the English point of view, I’ve missed out on the Scottish. Because I’ve been trying to say to the Kay’s Bar guys that it ain’t so. I’ve been trying to give them reasons to think more kindly, with more gentleness than they do, about England. But it’s not about that, is it? There are no reasons. What reason do you need to be shown?

The myths that sustain a nation and its sense of self, after all,  can be about other nations. It’s a Scottish myth, that England go on about 1966 all the time. They don’t; it isn’t true. More than they did, but not all the time, and not like that. But the Scottish myth has its place in a much wider conversation. Argue, if you like, that it’s projection: Scottish insecurity, confronted with an English achievement that Scotland has undeniably failed to come close to matching, creates a mitigating counter-factual to reduce the pain of it all. But why bother?

Because they may be bigger than us, for all that we’re bigger than Scotland, more successful than us, they may have more money – but they’re more stupid than we are, they’re loud, arrogant, blundering, badly-dressed, less cultured, less educated and short on common sense. And this is all good news. Because without it, how could we English go on? Go on, being English, in a world we lost to the United States… (This isn’t a narrative I buy into – but you can see the parallels I’m sure).

I didn’t hear about 1966 until I was almost in my teens. This despite growing up playing the game and reading about it and watching it on television at every opportunity. (I discovered 1966 in the same year I found out about Munich, which says something) It wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in England then, and if it is a topic for some discussion now, it’s because the men behind it are dying like  Beatles. And, to tell the truth, because we’re afraid we can never match them. And not just at football.

(And it’s a comparatively gentle myth, isn’t it? Typical of Kay’s Bar, really – the best sporting pub in the UK, a place where I once spilt a stranger’s drink and found him buying us a pair of replacement pints…)

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Christmas 2009: Tom Finney, Man of the Match

Posted on 23 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

So many forward-thinking men in English football in the Fifties: Matthews and Finney after seeing Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, Malcolm Allison after watching Austrians train in Vienna in 1946, Joe Mercer and Don Revie in the wake of the Hungarians. It took England four years to go from the Magyars to once again being one of the world’s best teams – a fact disguised, filthily, by Munich.

But even before then, they had their moments, Here England put nine past Ireland, with Finney man of the match:

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Deisler, Football and Depression

Posted on 14 August 2009 by JamesHamilton


I’d like to thank Rob Marrs for putting me onto this particular story. I don’t follow European football particularly well, and the Deisler situation had completely passed me by. I doubt very much I can do more with it than rehearse the usual things, but here’s what I make of it nonetheless.

Depression is “my” problem, in that in the company of (my off-the-cuff estimate) one in three of the kind of people who’ll find themselves reading this, I’ve put up with periodic bouts of dysthymic disorder every so often since my late teens. It’s a common mistake for people in my position – those who’ve experienced the problem AND practiced psychotherapy – to consider ourselves as having an unusual insight on it or some similar reflection. For what it’s worth, I’ve read the same autobiographical accounts, textbooks and analyses of the experiences of the famous depressed as you have. And all I can say having done so is that, in terms of communicating the experience of depression to those who haven’t had the pleasure, it isn’t so much that we can’t provide the right sort of metaphor, but that we lack the kind of syntax for the job.

People talk about “pain” in depression for instance (usually after telling you that it’s different from sadness on page 1.01) but then admit that they don’t mean it: the pain in question lacks the narrative, temporal quality of pain from injury or grief. And the desires for self-harm and suicide can come at the same time but drive in quite different directions: the self-harm can feel a bit like, but altogether unlike, a signal to the outside world that one has cottoned on to one’s dragging uselessness. Suicide can be a bit like, but not like – I really apologise for this – not “ending it all”, but “ending specifically this” , this nameless, faceless ongoing way of living.

Reading this account of Deisler’s experiences doesn’t provide me with anything original to say about him either, but for what it’s worth, here is what I think there is to say.

Firstly, we’re talking about Germany, not England: the attitudes towards mental illness here do not necessarily copy across to Europe. Of course, 100 years ago, they had both Kraepelin and Freud, the men who began the essential psychiatry vs psychotherapy argument that rages on in e.g. Richard Bentall‘s books. Football in Germany isn’t exactly set up for what happened to Deisler, but they are much less likely to borrow the metaphor of possession and witchcraft that we saw with Tackling My Demons. (Although Deisler has called his book Back To Life…) home was not a place I could withdraw to for getting support as my parents had other problems to deal with.

That’s Deisler, and I can imagine a host of depression sufferers inside and outside sport nodding in recognition at that. In my own former practice, a majority of depressives had had the kind of experience that Alice Miller (a German-speaking Swiss)  describes in The Drama of Being A Child:

It is one of the turning points in therapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love she has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for her as she really was, that the admiration for her beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements and not at the child herself. In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind her achievements wakes up and asks: ‘What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all those things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?

Back of the net, there, in my opinion. And I’m also saying that there are elements in Deisler’s experience that are only circumstantially related to football. If the genetic potential is there, if the peer influence is right (and Deisler says “When I was young playing football in the streets, the other kids would mock me for being small”) then the stage is set for the situation at home to wrap things up long before the final whistle.

Are there “pressures” in the game, however, that make it a situation unto itself when it comes to depression and other mood disorders?

The article talks about “a dream of becoming professional footballers with the guarantee of fame, a full bank account and an Aston Martin in the driveway” and comments that “it does not always lead to a happy life”. Does it ever? At any rate, if you have grown up badly mirrored in the Alice Miller sense, or otherwise feeling low in the universal pecking order, invisibly flawed, then money, fame, success and “new friends” – surely this doesn’t need saying – are, far from covering over the wounds, only likely to exacerbate them.

There are balanced people in this crazy game, and consistently they are the ones who reject the Aston Martin side of things: Shearer found himself a retreat in Northumberland and a city that would regard him with affection and respect his privacy. Matt Le Tissier did the same on the south coast. Nicky Barmby went home to Hull, and is still there, loving it.

Deisler talks about fainting girls and men admiring his money and pulling power. For someone with any depressive (and while we’re here, isn’t “depression” quite the wrong word for something that internally violent?) tendencies at all, this is the nightmare. When you need to hide, where do you hide? When you need trusted people to bore silly with your talk, which of your absurd hangers-on can you trust not to run to the papers? And look, there’s Deisler: in the papers…

The top of football is not the place to be depressed. And there’s another angle: therapists can be a predatory bunch when it comes to fame. I didn’t find many familiar faces coming into my consulting room, but there were some, and believe me, you feel the tug of money and attention playing on the lapels of your jacket. The sensation is very real, and some give in to it: think how many therapists you’ve heard of simply through their famous, publicized, clients.

If you are the famous client, you can find therapists who will e.g. not ask for a public testimonial, or gush about you to their friends at conference, but you will have to tread carefully at a time when treading carefully is the hardest thing.

And it might not help you anyway. Paul Gascoigne’s two autobiographies made me feel wretched and ashamed of psychotherapy. Firstly, there was the hideous misdiagnosis of what at a distance looked (primarily) very much like a severe anxiety disorder that he was self-medicating with alcohol. Secondly, there was the treatment, well-meaning and all, but leaving one with the picture of poor Paul padding around expensive Colorado retreats looking after everyone else except himself. That warm, caring, generous man being propelled unwitting through all that 12-step stuff which his background gave him so little traction with (is there anything more essentially middle class than therapy, really?)..

If you are prone to difficulties, then football isn’t the best place to be, and fame can make finding worthwhile help all the harder and riskier (if it’s to be found at all: can I put my hand up and say that although I criticize Paul Gascoigne’s treatment, my distant/unreliable diagnosis isn’t exactly awash with optimism about what could be done for him?) .

But is there something special about sportsmen, about footballers, that sets them up for mood disorders? Or about the environment itself?

Real sporting talent is harder to miss than it used to be. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved nutrition and working conditions meant that Middlesbrough, a place with famously little to do if you were a boy who didn’t like football, was awash with playing talent. Brian Clough could remember many a man better than either himself or Len Shackleton who simply preferred factory life to being treated like a chattel by Ayresome Park. That’s all changed now: coaches can no longer rely upon chance discoveries in non-league football of the Ian Wright variety. If you are good enough to be good at sport, it’s more likely that you’ll end up like Phil Neville, with more than one sport knocking at your door when you’re still at a young age.

And if you are that good, the pressure to take the chance given you is immense. Sometimes, it will be welcome: sporting biography is full of men and women who had been able to do nothing right until they e.g. picked up a javelin… and, finding something they could do, they hung on to it as hard as they could.

But football draws into it men and women – more and more of the latter as the game grows – who are extremely gifted at it, and able to work hard enough to develop that talent, but who aren’t actually interested in it and don’t enjoy it. Fans can miss this, because we all wanted it so badly ourselves as kids (and do you find, as you get past 30, that your fantasies contemplate retirement, your fantasies hang up their boots, your fantasies start taking coaching badges?). But it’s perfectly possible to be international standard at football and not care about the game at all.

You can live the dream and find it’s your nightmare job; and then you find that no one wants to listen or sympathise. Footballers can’t complain about anything – all that money! what more could they want? except the things that we all really want and need: an honest day’s work, and then the sleep of the just. But how many footballers fetch up with the sleep of kings?

And yes, football is ultimately a male competitive environment, and no, you can’t display weakness. One of the most revealing conversations I had in this respect was with a young coach at a Premiership club. He’d been struggling, and, whilst struggling, had overheard his “colleagues” discussing with relish how they were going to take advantage of his difficulties, pile pressure on his head and steal his opportunities. One hears similar tales from business, but business people bullshit on the grand scale, and I wonder.

Thus the environment, and I know I’ve added nothing new there. As for the footballers themselves – and the sporting mentality in general – there is something that I’ve seen, that I don’t altogether understand, that might contribute. I can only describe it as a kind of teak-hardness.

I’ve come across this mostly in golfers. By teak-hardness, I mean that from my perspective, the men (all men up until now) that I’ve seen in this appear to have trouble feeling any real emotion at all. They persist in a steady, solemn, serious, strongly judgemental frame, giving little away, not laughing except at another’s humiliation or misfortune, admitting to no grief or upset of their own, and looking ahead only to opportunities to distinguish themselves from the contemptible mass of mankind. Writing it down in one go makes it sound a lot nastier than it actually looks: there’s little unpoliteness – indeed, they will tend towards old-fashioned courtesy and a surface-level protectiveness towards women and the defenceless. They aren’t rude, but neither, you realise after a while, are they paying any particular attention to anyone else, and they have, ultimately, little interest in, and no knowledge of, the feelings of others.

Sitting with people like this – they’ll usually have come complaining of some mysterious, essentially physical complaint that they suspect and fear of being psychsomatic (ever met anyone with glove anaesthesia? rare but fascinating..) – you have the sense of being in front of a thick sea wall, with powerful currents and a world of natural chaos hemmed in behind it. If that wall goes, everything goes – identity, personality, sense of place in the world, sense of being worthy of humankind – total collapse. Worse than depression, or an anxiety disorder: total, enduring, nervous breakdown.

It’s not something I fully understand, and I suspect I’ve described it badly, but it’s a type I’ve only met in full in sportsmen. I’m reminded of that wierd BBC belief that sporting success should inspire the young. Given how many top sportspeople are solipsistic egotists who enjoy putting one over on other people, I do wonder what they are trying to encourage.

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World Cup 2006: England’s Forgotten Captain

Posted on 02 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

Simon Barnes is one of the very best writers in sport today – one of the best writers in journalism altogether, and his Times article today about David Beckham is well worth reading in full.

On his walk around the England captain, Barnes touches on a few themes of my own:

The myth has taken hold: Beckham is past it, he’s only in the team because of his occult hold on Sven-Göran Eriksson. Any real man would have dropped him years ago. A shadow of his former self — and he was overrated then.

Three of the past four big tournaments have been Beckham events. As we build up to the World Cup finals, Beckham has become the forgotten man of English football. In all the fuss about Rooney, Gerrard and so forth, Tuesday’s fizzing, curling crosses — echt Beckham — were scarcely noticed.

That “myth” he’s referring to there is one of those stories that emerges from our media every time England don’t win by three or more goals. It’s been Beckham’s misfortune to have turned in a number of very memorable performances for England – notably the one against Greece in 2002 that ensured England’s qualification for the World Cup. Every time he is merely alright in the shirt, he comes in for a great deal of frankly unjustified criticism. You don’t hear calls for Gerrard to be dropped, for example, but can you remember the last time he really turned it on for the national side?

Like all myths, there is just a hint of something in this one, however.

When Beckham went to Real Madrid, it was clear that he had in mind playing alongside the greatest players of the day and proving himself their equal. The goal was to evolve into an influential playmaker in the centre of the park, a Zidane – and to be mentioned in the same breath as Zizou, as Figo, as Ronaldo, as Raoul.

It didn’t happen. Beckham fell just short. It wasn’t a failure: he of all the galacticos is the one who has been good for the side in their recent troubled times. His astonishing passing, unmatched talent with the dead ball, huge workrate and never-say-die attitude have been an example to others.

My suspicion is that falling just short like that led to Beckham experiencing something of a loss of meaning for a while, a personal crisis of some sort, which I would place in Winter 2003 and Spring 2004. It was a matter of coming to terms with who he was and wasn’t; where his career was going, and where it turned out it was not going to go. I think he’s over it, now. It was worth the attempt. Barnes puts it well:

It was at that moment that Beckham realised, and his most serious admirers accepted, that he would never be great. Not great as in Zidane, anyway. What people failed to understand is that Beckham did not therefore become a poor player. He just showed that he was less good than he — than we — had hoped.

And so, inevitably, he contracted Henman’s Syndrome. This is the punishment we visit on those who have made us hope too much. Henman was at one stage No 4 in the world, but he never won Wimbledon and so he is regarded as a miserable failure. He was very good indeed, but we wanted him to be still better. As a result, he is reviled as a loser.

I don’t believe that Henman has ever come in for anything like what Beckham’s had to put up with. Even with Henman at his excellent peak, Wimbledon was always a matter of hope, not expectation.

I think Beckham is over it all, now, and is playing with a new confidence in the abilities he has got, a new freedom and an evident contentment. Barnes puts it like this:

But Beckham the Not-Quite-Great has been keeping the faith and looked, to be frank, in the form of his life on Tuesday. He looked so full of fitness, confidence and good cheer that next thing he’ll be trying to get his job back as penalty-taker. (Absolutely not, the nation’s nerves won’t stand it.)

There comes a time in the life of many great athletes when they cast off care. They come to terms with their own failures and their own successes and they start to play sport in a mood of demob happiness. Ah, sod it, they say. And sometimes, as a result, they find their very best form at the last possible moment.

Ed Smith, the Middlesex batsman, has written eloquently on the cliché of “it’s all about who wants it most”. Frequently, he says, the prize actually goes to the one who wants it least, the one who has cast off the desperation to succeed and simply plays the ball.

Aside from that last bit, that’s about right. Ed Smith is right about the problems an excessive desire to win can bring to athletes who perform best on instinct. The current climate in the British press is for an end to the contained confidence of the Erickson era, an end to treating our players like adults, and a return to the old days of “passion”. “Passion”, if you’re wondering, is a kind of headless-chicken approach to the game where “if you want it more” you win despite your lack of skill. It’s psychobabble, and it’s wrong.

The freedom Ed Smith refers to is not a result of abandoning the desire to win. It has different components to that. I think there are four.

  1. You do actually have to want to win. Otherwise, rather than find freedom in your game, you simply won’t try. There are brilliant footballers out there for whom the game is just a living – they don’t like football much, and don’t really mind what happens. If you ever wondered why there are some evident geniuses playing in the lower leagues, perhaps for Welsh clubs, that’s why. Just wanting to win is not enough, though. Ask Sunderland, a side who never gave up on a match for all that they put in the worst season ever seen in the Premiership. Plenty of passion – but no belief, and above all, no skill.
  2. You have to believe that winning is a possibility. If you go into a match that you want to win but don’t feel it’s possible, far from freeing you from the burden, you’ll find it weighs you down – look what happens to teams who go two goals behind early in a match to a good side; they slump.
  3. Once you believe that you’re in with a chance, you need to be willing to fail. You accept that there are limits to what you can do – you accept, really accept, that you’ll get it wrong from time to time, and feel OK about that. You know and accept that bad luck, weather and referees intervene. If you make a mistake, you’re still a superb player, and the next time you attempt something, you’ve a real chance of pulling it off. Beckham’s successful free kick against Greece in 2002 was his fifth of the game: he’d missed the other four. Compare Shaun Wright-Phillips’s slumped shoulders after he missed a couple of sitters early in the match against Holland.
  4. You have to be comfortable with yourself as a winner. Tricky for Brits, this one: we do love a gallant loser. And natural winners aren’t always pleasant people to be around – ask any top athletics coach about his “role models”. Beckham, Owen and Gary Neville aside, I don’t see many of these types in the England side, and it’s a worry for the World Cup.

But in any case, those are the conditions necessary for real, free, confident play. Beckham seems to have found his way there now. Let’s hope Gerrard, Owen and co follow him into it this summer.

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