3 November 2009 ~ Feisty defender-turned-pundit Danny Mills made some interesting points about the changing face of football last week. “The players coming through now get good money, but it doesn't mean they have to be disrespectful,” he grumbled, recalling his dealings with younger players as his own career fizzled out. “They’d look at you like they had brought you in on their shoe.” Those quotes appeared in Friday’s Sun, part of a curious media response to Wednesday’s Marlon King verdict. Mills and several radio pundits hankered wistfully for the days when apprentices were forced to clean senior players’ boots, as if this simple task would keep modern kids in check. Perhaps that dubbin also contained bromide.
Now King isn’t particularly young, and having started out in non-League football he was hardly awash with riches at an early age. And yet his (admittedly repulsive) nocturnal exploits have helped firm up the theory that young players just don’t get enough discipline these days. It’s a conveniently naive argument. To compete in the modern game young players are required to make greater dietary and social sacrifices than those from previous generations, and lead lifestyles that must seem prudish to their non-sporting contemporaries. Spend any time in and around clubs and it soon becomes evident that the image of egotistical youngsters running amok is misguided, certainly in regards to the group Mills was concerned about, the 16- to 18-year-olds.
In fact, until that first professional contract is signed most young players still undertake various character-building tasks, including cleaning boots. “We think it gives players a sense of discipline,” QPR coach Marc Bircham told the Football League website last week. Off the pitch they’re also obliged to become more rounded citizens, notably via the PFA-led League Football Education body, who thrust qualifications upon them and help the many dropouts find alternative employment. The army is very keen on discarded footballers, apparently, as they’re already attuned to a regimented lifestyle. That tells you a lot.
Of course, it’s rarely the under-18s who find themselves splashed all over the papers, and the off-field behaviour of many senior pros does leave a sour taste. But if a lack of discipline isn’t to blame, perhaps the opposite applies. Growing up in a strict environment will always cause a certain percentage to rebel later on. For every David Cameron following the hallowed path from boarding school to Downing Street, there’s a Stephen Fry getting expelled and going to prison for stealing credit cards. Which of the two would make the better prime minister is a topic for a different forum.
Those enormous wages are the most compelling argument that players are a different breed today, but such is the academy churn rate that just winning the pro contract would be enough to give many a sense of special status before the big money even kicks in. When the coach you always hated also rises through the ranks, that cockiness can turn caustic. Note Robbie Fowler’s long-running feud with Phil Thompson, before the former was packed off to join Leeds, and – aha – Danny Mills (manager David O’Leary was an “arsehole”, according to the ever-respectful ex-full-back, in that same article).
The next time an old pro bemoans the ills of the modern game then, and pines for the firmer direction of his youth, take it with a pinch of salt. Mills, remember, was also a contemporary of the young Lee Bowyer. They bred them differently in those days. Si Hawkins