Ian Plenderleith assesses the ability of players to take media criticism

Students of both football players and the internet might be inclined to reach an unscientific conclusion about the utterances of one and the content of the other. Namely, 98 per cent of what you hear from footballers, or read on the internet, is utterly forgettable. Imagine, then, the challenge of searching the internet for something of genuine insight and interest from an active professional.

Players, of course, are backed into a corner of rhetorical banality by the vacuous queries of a media which has predetermined that its content must be aimed at the country’s most dull-minded fan. The pros largely say nothing, either in the interests of team harmony or because they’re saving the juicy revelations for a future autobiography. Meanwhile, press officers are on hand to help their charges dodge any hint of controversy and only trusted, lickspittle hacks are granted more than cursory post-game access. It is ironic that in an era of saturation coverage, players are more or less muzzled by damage-limitation PR and fans have less idea than ever before about what a footballer really thinks.

Occasionally, however, a small bathroom window is opened and a brief cloud of steam is released from the game’s inner closets. At the end of the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) season in the US, Soccer America journalist and WSC contributor Mike Woitalla wrote that the league’s poor goal average of 2.14 per game was to blame for lower than projected crowds. “Come watch WPS to see good defending!” he wrote. “How enticing is that, especially as there is no shortage of stifling anti-soccer on the market already?”

His piece provoked a sharp response from Kristin DeDycker, a player with Washington Freedom, who accused Woitalla of bashing women’s soccer and claimed: “Every game was a battle and if you are a true soccer fan and actually know the game of soccer then you come to appreciate other aspects of the game besides scoring.” As a coach herself, she said that she taught kids that: “Defence wins games. Yes, you need a goal here and there but you don’t need six to win. You can go to a game and have your kid watch other parts of the game besides scoring.”

You can choose to disagree with that analysis and it’s conceivable that her reply was League-approved or even instigated, yet it certainly makes a refreshing change to hear a player not just saying what she thinks, but to hear the view from the inside. For all the journalists calling themselves “insiders” there are very few of us with an actual idea of what it is like to play professional football. DeDycker’s response comes across as a passionate defence of her league and her trade. There’s the overriding impression that she cares.

WPS players, however, get paid very little and wouldn’t be in the game at all if they didn’t care about it. Another frank-speaking player was Ipswich Town’s Irish goalkeeper Shane Supple, who got away with saying what was on his mind because he retired from the game aged 22. One of the reasons he gave the Daily Mail was that when he broke into the first team at his previous club Leicester City: “I saw that some of the lads didn’t really care whether we won or lost. I didn’t really like that, that was disillusioning. Things weren’t going great at the club at the time, which I suppose didn’t help, but it made me question whether this was what I wanted to do.”

You mean the lads weren’t all “absolutely gutted” after every defeat? Let’s hear more! “Some seem to think it’s about flashiness, the big house, big money, cars,” he went on. “That wouldn’t be my take on things. I remember Joe Royle saying that some of them think they’re stars and they’re not even players.” And off he went back to Dublin with the goal of following his dad into the police force.

One current player who seems to have free rein to say what he likes is Portsmouth goalkeeper David James, who has perhaps sensed that his career is reaching its twilight years and so has little to lose by coming clean. One recent Guardian online column addressed the way that players take criticism in the media, whose influence “should never be underestimated”. According to James, players found it hardest to take flak from ex-pros, seeing it as treachery. The former players who chose punditry as a career “were sometimes seen as jealous – bitter old bastards, some used to call them – especially around the time when money began pouring into the game after the older generation had missed out.”

Although he is at times an enlightening writer, James is not keen on a career in punditry, saying that on the one occasion he co-commentated a Radio Five Live game, he thought that John Motson was coaxing him into calling Thierry Henry a diver. “I thought, do I need to be calling Thierry Henry a cheat to keep the radio happy? That’s not really my cup of tea.” James wasn’t asked back, maybe because: “I like to know where every blade of grass was when the ball bounced before I feel comfortable making a verdict.”

And this is what we are missing as fans. We don’t need to know what players like for breakfast or what they’re listening to on their iPods. We don’t have to read bitchery or badmouthing from a self-styled dressing room maverick. But maybe we’d like to know more about those blades of grass or what it’s like to sit at Motty’s shoulder. Maybe we’d like to know about the actual experience of being out on the field, about what it was like to be unjustly slated by someone sitting in the comfort of the press box and how it felt for Shane Supple to be a young, homesick goalkeeper who preferred it at Falkirk because the players brought their own packed lunches. Just try us – even if only two per cent of players have something interesting to say, we’d love to hear it

Soccer America

Daily Mail interview

Guardian article

From WSC 273 November 2009

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