Long-term view: Rio opened his mind; so should we

Date published: Tuesday 4th April 2017 10:40

You know how it is on the internet. Be snarky. That dry, nothing-can-phase-me witty Twittering, as if now that the chips are down on our collective Western culture, and it’s turning to a rather unnerving pull-up-the-drawbridge and batten-down-the-hatches phase, the most noble pursuit is to find something wry that has not yet been noted about the similarity between the ethically bankrupt neo-liberal approach to economics and that way you act when something unexpected happens in Nandos. We’re out of ideas to save our souls, basically. Twiddling our thumbs at the precipice: say something funny then.

I’ve been snarky in spades about how football analysts of the Keown and Owen mould act on TV; and for the most part, why ever not? That special mix of tepid uselessness and solid-thighed self-assurance just makes you want to stick a big fat snarky lance right between their eyes. We can do this because they exist only as analysts of football on television and because they make such an ear-splittingly godawful mess of it. They’re not real people.

Rio Ferdinand was – if slightly elevated above the bargain basement in my mind where Owen and Keown stalk around each other muttering “pace, power and determination” and “he’ll be delighted to score” – one of those non-people. And I realised, as I watched the documentary about looking after both a bereaved family and himself, that since hearing the news a couple of years ago I’d completely forgotten I was watching a guy who’d had a central column of his life torn away, and scattered to the wind. And as the documentary made clear, he wouldn’t, at least until his cathartic moments arrived, have wanted it any other way. He didn’t want to be thought of as ‘a widower’, or someone suffering emotional torment of any kind. Essentially, as a real person.

Because what, to these ex-footballers, who generally give off the air that the language of interacting with the real you is as soppy a kind of foreign as they could imagine, does being ‘a real person’ even mean? Those parts of you that might slumber, but never sleep; that know where you’ve been, and know how it felt. How do you get there? On what terms do you get there?

Rio, in a way I found as heart-rending a thing as any footballer has ever done on TV, ever, confessed he had no idea. The language of his emotions was a foreign thing to him; and when that language is despair at how the foundation of your non-football life had left you and your three kids with whom you didn’t know how to speak either, that’s a brutal thing to realise.

So it’s fine to be snarky about Phillip Neville’s latest, trenchant analysis of what happened in that picture you just saw; like I said, we can’t really help it. But it should probably be leavened by a sadder reality – that when bad stuff befalls footballers, and clearly bad stuff cares not one jot about how many caps you have, they’re in horrible shape to know how to navigate through the waves.

So many times, Rio used the phrase “I didn’t want to know” about his wife warning him about the possibility of her cancer coming back, about dealing with his own grief. He cried a lot, though. Rock on and respect for that; and probably worth raising a small and improbable (and kind of inappropriate) glass for a certain English footballer, who is God knows where and in God knows what shape, for starting the very first little ball rolling on English footballers not having to be those stony-faced emotion-free zones of yesteryear.

Rio’s catharsis came in encountering an item of emotional literacy that you know he couldn’t have come up with alone. The bravery he showed to do something about his situation and make this show earned him the fortune to find that tool.

He said he could never talk with his kids about how they were feeling after their mother’s death; presumably because everyone just got swamped in gloom and no-one could bear it. So some bright spark of a girl who lost her mum around 12 told him to try a positive route – write down memories, put them in a jar, read them and talk about them. Suddenly him and his family were sat around the table restoring Rebecca Ellison as a happy presence in their life. But even something as simple as that – taking a different approach to your feelings – where do they learn about it? Where do they find it in amongst the banter and Big Sam bellowing at them to GET BLOODY TIGHT ON HIM? They don’t.

I’m really not suggesting that we all be nice to Martin Keown. It’s impossible, principally because of the shape of his head. I’m just saying – PLUG – as always, there’s a long-term view to take on this.

Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter here

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