Football is finally willing to embrace empathy, equality and rest of ‘woke agenda’

John Nicholson
Jurgen Klopp and Mo Salah hug as football gets more empathic

Football is now increasingly leading the way, actively encouraging its huge audience to embrace liberal progressive values. Who saw that coming?

In 2005, when Southampton employed Clive Woodward as ‘performance director’, he had led English rugby to its greatest triumph and was hoping to transfer some of his ideas from that sport to football. But it didn’t work. Football wasn’t ready to accept anyone from outside of the game. The Proper Football Man was still in his pomp and any PFM worth his non-brewed condiment knows not to trust anyone who has never played the game.

The Saints manager was Harry Redknapp, so anything progressive was obviously never going to work. Football was insular, inward-looking and didn’t want to let the outside world into their secret society. This was why when you saw any footballer or manager speaking outside of the context of the game, they looked alien, as though breathing different air and speaking a different language.

Woodward’s head of sports science Simon Clifford left within two months and Woodward was only at Southampton for 13 months. All he tried to do was analyse play and look for what became known as marginal gains. While some younger players were receptive to his ideas, such as improving eye reflexes to take better advantage of crosses and looking at body shape when taking penalties, many traditionalists were not.

Saints owner Rupert Lowe said later that football had a Luddite culture and that continued to prevail for at least the next 10 years. Around that time pundits and players purred about Sam Allardyce’s modern methods which largely seemed to involve putting Kev Nolan on a large vibrating plate pre-game and looking at Prozone. This was as sophisticated as football got. From the outside it looked vaguely ridiculous. Not much was worshipped from within the game as though it was a lot.

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When David Moyes took over at Manchester United, he was said to have a ‘high-tech bunker’ which in reality was just a room with an iPad and a whiteboard. Breathlessly reported as though he was a cross between Inspector Gadget and Stephen Hawking, perhaps that inadvertently illustrated what Lowe meant. Football culture seemed forever old-fashioned, clumsy, slow and well behind the curve.

When Hearts employed Ian Cathro as manager, a man who hadn’t played the game but who had done well as a coach abroad, the Scottish Real Football Man bristled that the boys wouldnae respect ‘a laptop guru’. As it happens, it didn’t work out as Cathro’s methods didn’t match recruitment. He went on to be assistant manager at Wolves and Spurs alongside Nuno Espirito Santo. But the negativity to the very principle of a man with a background like Cathro’s being in charge in 2016 was instructive.

Even though that was just six years ago, it now feels like it belongs to a different era altogether. Fast-forward to 2022 and we see Brentford employing Ben Ryan, a rugby coach who led Fiji to unlikely Olympic success. A Brentford fan himself, he is their new director of elite performance, a term that would have alienated many, even just a few years ago. But many clubs now have such a role, though usually they are appointed from within football not from other sports. Presumably Brentford will not be doing pre-season training that involves running up sand dunes until you vomit, as per the old school.

Clubs now employ set-piece coaches, throw-in coaches, psychologists, sleep coaches, dieticians and an array of specialist physiologists and everyone is looking for that aggregation of marginal gains. There is now a belief within football that, at least in the higher echelons, such employees are well worth their wages. Add to this the plethora of statistical analysis, along with whatever physiological info they get off those wee vests they all wear, and it’s clear that football at the top level has embraced a far more evidence-based, progressive and intelligent approach to the game.

Hand in hand with these developments, attitudes on and off the pitch have also changed markedly in the last few years and continue to do so. One might even say it has embraced what right-wing weirdos call the ‘woke agenda’ when it comes to player welfare. Yeah, empathy, kindness, understanding, support and emotional intelligence, down with that sort of thing. Boo. Just stick to football, lads. But of course, those attitudes are stuck in the past. Old-fashioned, out-dated, irrelevant to the real needs of human beings.

There is less ‘just man up’ and more ‘how does that make you feel?’ which must appal the PFMs left in the game who believe everything can be sorted out with the help of brandy, golf, the gee-gees and leg squeezing. The men’s game is becoming increasingly relaxed about gay men in football, but still has some way to go to be as cool about it as the women’s. Even so, progress is happening.

There is now an understanding that off the pitch and in the head matters as much as the game itself and that being sensitive and thoughtful is a strength, not a weakness. It’s no longer PC gone mad to think that being aware of discrimination based on gender, age, race or religion is simply unacceptable. It’s just being decent. And England’s manager embodies that, which is why some find him so awful, I imagine.

And here comes Hope United, a great new initiative to help put an end to sexist hate and how to deal with it. The accompanying video even touches on menstruation and the centuries-long fearful and negative attitudes to this most natural of biological functions.

And the video Gareth Southgate has contributed to in support is superb and quite moving. Do watch it.

He lays the blame for sexist hate at the door of men. We cause it, we can stop it. Can you imagine that being said by anyone in football even five years ago?

No other past England manager would or could ever have participated in a video like this, saying what he is saying. And at no time in the past would it even have been thought about, let alone addressed in any way whatsoever. Players would never have been involved. It would have been thought of as weird and embarrassing, even something to laugh at and take the pish out of.

Some may well still do so, preferring what used to be called ‘a man’s man’ which, by the way, ever since I was a kid, was always a marker for what we now call toxic masculinity but back then was called ‘being a tw*t’.

All of this is tremendous progress and shows that a new future is being carved out of the granite of old bigotries and redundant social mores. From being forever behind the curve out-of-date and old-fashioned, in so many areas, football is now increasingly leading the way, actively encouraging its huge audience to embrace liberal progressive values. Who would’ve thought it?