‘Playing the game’ makes you weird, not an expert…

Date published: Monday 27th March 2017 12:21

As soon as Seamus Coleman was injured by Neil Taylor, I was waiting for it. You knew it was coming. And you knew who would be saying it, because they always say it.

“He’s not that sort of player.”

John Hartson was keen to tell us how he knew Taylor and that he definitely wasn’t that sort. Dean Saunders likewise and oh, here comes Chris Coleman to repeat it once again.

The following day, back on Planet Sanity, Danny Taylor in The Guardian more eruditely said: ‘It might have been out of character but Taylor evidently is that type of player: just look at the evidence.’

What’s the difference between the trifecta of ex-players and Daniel Taylor? That’s right, he’s not played the game. He’s not an ex-footballer and so doesn’t have weird ex-footballer goggles on, nor uses weird ex-footballer language. Of course, this will mean many ex-players will not just disregard his comment, but will never even read it, because it’s in The Guardian. More importantly, if you didn’t play the game, they’re really not interested in you. They think you know nothing of their world.

The variations of ‘not that sort of player’ are one of football’s almost comical repetitions, and most pour scorn on those for whom it is the first over-worn phrase in their grab bag of word barf. But it seems only a certain type of ex-footballer doesn’t realise this, and he ploughs on saying it, as though it is insight never before uttered.

It is one of the many points where the ex-pro divorces from the public. And this is one of the many reasons why we need far fewer ex-player pundits casting their badly expressed runes upon our football consciousness, and far more intelligent observers who have never played the game, but crucially, are connected to the real world, uninfected by football’s weird insularity.

And let’s be in no doubt, British football is weird. It makes many of those who play it weird. If there’s one thing an ex-player can never be, it’s a fan who has never played the game. They’re employed for their on-pitch insight, but lack the normal life experience of those of us who are unencumbered by the weird rituals, rites and assumptions of English football culture.

Yet if you question the veracity of their perspective, it often seems that they dislike the outside world even having a view. Quickly, a lot of them fall back on the defence that they’ve been there and done it and we haven’t, implying therefore our view is much less worthy than theirs, or perhaps wholly irrelevant. Civilians are not allowed into their narrow little world. Many dine from the same menu, many spitting out the same half-baked notions in the same semi-digested way when they come together on TV or radio.

Even a man as well-read and educated as Roy Hodgson in a recent interview with the Big Issue appears to buy into this strange narrowness. Talking of his England tenure, he said: “I think it is probably the best work, in many ways, that I did or have done so far.

“But of course, any work you do as a sporting person, a football coach or any coach, if it is good work you’ve got to have something – a championship – to show for it. We didn’t get that, quite the reverse. But I believe people who work within the game and inside sport realise what I did.”

The implication is clear. If you’re outside of the game, I’m not going to listen to you. Only an insider can understand. And that’s football people in a nutshell.

Football often does seems to be an exceptionally narrow-minded sport, full of misconceived preconceptions and full of self-regard for its own wisdom. There are mystical unknowns to football truths which you can never understand unless you’ve sat naked in a big bath with 10 other muddy men. That only when you’ve spent 20 years in breeze block dressing rooms being sworn at while you have your thighs rubbed, can you ascend to be a footballing Bodhisattva and take the rest of us mere mortals by the hand to the higher ground of wisdoms unfathomable.

Only then can you start to pluralise people’s names, repeat he word “top” a lot and tell anyone who will listen that spitting is literally the worst thing you can do on a football pitch. Only then can you proffer the view that if you are a footballer who is “lucky” then you must always be a “boy”. You too can come out with wise pearls such as “he’s tried to head it too much” or “England just need to play the right ball” or “it’s been a bit bitty”, as Glenn Hoddle did yesterday.

It gets more odd. In this world, there is such a thing as “digging out” people. And people who do the “digging” are “leaders” and we all know there are no leaders anymore and this is a bad thing. We are told this time and again, along with the brilliant insight that some players “need an arm around their shoulder” or “a kick up the backside”. We look on as the ex-players nod in agreement with each other, a cabal of self-justification, wise only to themselves.

Because it doesn’t take the wisdom of the ancients to understand football. Ex-players can’t see something that is invisible to the non-player. They are not peering behind the thin veil of linear existence at a fourth dimension, though I do often feel Garth Crooks is a trans-dimensional being. Yet to listen to some ex-players, you’d think the opposite was true.

The very thing that is claimed as an ex-player’s asset – that they played the game – is all too often a negative, at least until proven otherwise. Their experience of football is sometimes so blinkered and lopsided by their 20-year career, warped by a macho dressing-room culture, invested with a lexicon of strange expressions and even stranger notions, and fed by what seems to be a hermetically sealed cultural world which, if you don’t have the ability to step outside, means your football life remains an island untouchable by those who make football the people’s game.

John Nicholson

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