Stress the point

Stephen Wagg examines the press coverage lavished on Stan Collymore's latest indiscretion

“Sounds like a nice bloke,” I said innocently to my mate as we drove out of Watford on February 12. We were listening to Stan Collymore tell Radio 5 about the welcome he’d had at Leicester City and of his pleasant surprise at being able to get through 90 minutes of Premiership football after nearly a year away. But it seems I was wrong. The following day in the Observer, former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith, now apparently a consultant psychiatrist, pondered whether Collymore was “an ultra-sensitive soul” or “simply mad”.

Either way, the player was “insecure and not too bright”. Collymore had apparently once got lost in Wales. Moreover, he had been unable to cope intellectually with the Palace dressing room, staffed as it was with “sharp-witted Londoners”.

Worse was to follow. On Monday morning I learn­ed from Daniel Taylor in the Guardian that Collymore could “strike with either foot and both personalities”. And as if we still might not recall that Collymore had recently had psychiatric treatment, Taylor added helpfully that Stan remained “a conundrum wrapped in a contradiction and stuffed with scrambled ego”. I returned to the front of the paper, thinking maybe I’d brought the Daily Star by mistake.

But there was more. A couple of days later Collymore flew to Spain with his new team-mates. There, already tainted with mental illness and intellectual inadequacy, he now became the antichrist. Amid some drunken and boorish behaviour by Leicester players, Collymore squirted a fire extinguisher at the Leicester City physiotherapist. The party left their hotel and returned to Leicester, where a huge press corps now awaited them. Film of players driving tight-lipped into the night appeared on BBC television news and the sporting press, virtually as one, turned on Collymore and began a vilification of him for which it’s difficult, even in the recent history of such grim spectacles, to find a parallel. Why?

These episodes are shows of strength by the press. In a competitive market for football information, where actual play has mostly been seen on TV and many background stories go out on websites, teletext and clubcall  lines, reporters now fall back increasingly on comment. Here, they rule. All the FAs and football managers in the world cannot stop them saying what they want to say on tomorrow’s back pages – maybe, if they get lucky, the front pages. (Three tabloids denounced Collymore on their front pages.)

This comment veers back and forth between celeb­ration and punishment and it is mostly about the Premiership. The Premiership is fat city. Its people are excessively rewarded and this, understandably, causes resentment. There will, however, be little criticism of the system – no calls for a maximum wage in line with average earnings. Instead punishment will be meted out to individuals who misbehave and their wealth will be used as a pretext: it’s disgusting and them getting paid all this money, they’re spoilt brats, and so on.

Footballers in recent times have variously brawled in bars and city centres, assaulted taxi drivers, plough­ed their cars into bus stops, fought addiction to drink, drugs and gambling, and gone nose-to-nose with referees. Whole books have been dedicated to their ex­cesses. But in this ultra-masculine cul­ture the greatest crime is to show weakness. In a world where a player is assumed to be homosexual because he reads the Guardian and collects antiques, someone who has moods, doesn’t mix with the lads and says he’s depressed is beyond the pale. Other transgressors have had their allies – Paul Gascoigne for instance, with his coterie of multi-bellied mates and populist DJs. But Stan became an outcast when it was announced he was being treated for clinical depression; this and not the hotel prank (however objectionable) was his initial, and principal, crime.

The attack on Collymore has, in reality, been an attack on the idea that working life might have an emotional dimension and on the whole notion of mitigating circumstances. When Collymore went into a clinic, John Gregory, his manager at Aston Villa, was contemptuous. Having de­rided David Unsworth, briefly a Villa player, for his dangerously effeminate desire to live where his wife wanted to live, Gregory told Collymore he was finished at Villa. After La Manga the football press was only too anxious to join in. Just as newspapers who can tolerate any amount of brutish behaviour from the police splutter with rage when officers claim to be suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, reporters, happily ignoring the misdemean-ours of other, unnamed Leicester players, fell on Collymore: Colly’s Shame, Colly Runs Riot, Colly Is A Wally and so on.

Importantly, though, it was the so-called “highbrow” papers that led the way here, mocking Collymore’s medical history well before the La Manga incident and leading calls for no sympathy afterwards. Indeed, one of the ugliest and most intemperate reflections on the affair came from Jim White of the Guardian, who wrote, on February 17: “Football has been over-run by a bastardised form of California regression therapy. There is no need to take responsibility for your own actions because it is always someone else’s fault…”

This sort of saloon bar populism has been standard fare among English football reporters since the 1950s. Desmond Hackett did it in the Express, JL Manning and Ian Woolridge in the Daily Mail. John Sadler and the gruesome Richard Littlejohn are heirs to the tradition. It appeals to what the sociologist Stuart Hall once called the “little bircher and cager” inside us all. In the old days, though, there was a liberal alternative; sadly, in these Danny Baker-ised times, it seems there isn’t.

Stan Collymore has behaved badly, as we all have. And he’s done worse things than set off a fire extinguisher – he once struck his girlfriend, for example. His real sins here, though, were (a) to have raised questions about his masculinity and (b) to have tact­lessly reminded the world how rich footballers are at a time when many people in Leicester are trying to find the money for Wembley tickets. (Leicester City fined him for bringing “bad publicity”, the greatest sin of all in modern business.) I doubt that he is mad – although I defer to Professors Smith and Gregory on this. But I doubt that the football world which declared him a misfit is entirely sane either.

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month