In the wake of the David Unsworth saga John Williams & Sarah Gilmore examine how football treats women who are married to, or linked with, players

In football’s “good old days”, way before 30,000-quid-a-week contracts and multi-lingual team talks, players’ wives were seen by the canniest managers mainly as a means of keeping their prized young performers indoors, out of the papers and off the bevvy.

At the first sniff of exposure, and having cast a glance at the “Bestie and birds” soap opera up the East Lancs Road, Shankly and Revie would famously scout for a suitable partner – a “nice, quiet girl” – as a means of stabilizing and civilizing their emerging young talent. This was necessary in a world increasingly, in their old, football-sodden eyes, filled with sharks, hussies and booze. On trips away The Don, of course, also favoured a nice game of gentle housy-housy with the lads; no wonder they were so ferocious on the park. No wonder, too, so few later made decent managers.

As the public life of the stars became ever more the subject of prurient tabloid interest, the term “football wives” began to smack of Dallas-like intrigue, a heady concoction of sex, corruption and power. At Old Trafford, football’s Southfork, The Doc and Big Ron both fell foul of “mistress v wife, you choose”, tabloid exposés in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 1990s the England team manager himself, Bobby Robson, was carpeted for his alleged part in steamy “three times a night romps with redheads”, breathlessly revealed just before the England team left for Italia 90. His near-invisible wife of 35 years, EIsie, had “gone to bed early”, according to a glum Robson when he was doorstepped by the press about the sort of reported passion few could easily detect in his early England team selections or performances.

Football marriages in the money-soaked late 90s have produced hyperreal combinations of Hello!-inspired images of early marital bliss alongside accounts of the dysfunctional domestic misery of hotel living, addictions and wife beating. The self destructiveness of living 24 hours a day in the public gaze,  with little or no restraint provided by background  or income, is obvious in the brief and unpleasant married life of Paul Gascoigne. Michael Owen, with a quite different personality and background, is now about to become the subject unremitting public  attention – pressures which already also seem to have claimed Ronaldo as a victim. Despite his innocent adolescent attractiveness to mothers and 13-year-olds almost everywhere, Michael’s bosses, Roy and Gérard, will certainly want “the little fella” married up and settled down, and soon.

Most football wives, of course, still shelter, or are hidden, in the shadows cast by their famous partners. Top managers looking to invest millions in players will hope that their new purchases have “good girls” as wives, but often little is done to help sort the domestic fall-out produced by a big money move. “There was no warning,” Sam Holdsworth, Dean’s put-upon and hotel-bound wife, told C4’s Cutting Edge last year, when the previously tabloided forward (“glamour models” were routinely mentioned) moved to Bolton. “But now we’ve got to find a house and new schools, uproot my life. It can be very lonely.” And miserable. In some ways, wives and kids are held much more accountable and are much more exposed than players when form dips or the goals won’t come. They are much more part of the local community, if only briefly, than are their increasingly itinerant partners. In such circumstances, the school gates can be a more cruel and a more accurate test of the public mood than the golf course or even the pitch.

Today there is rather more of a challenge to the Daily Telegraph’s Sue Mott’s nicely observed view of the gaffer’s ideal football wives as “She Who Must Be At The Hairdressers”. Managers are still moved, on occasion, to argue that wives should stay in the beauty parlour or in the kitchen, but this is beginning to sound a little outdated, even in football. Vicky Oyston is a well- established Chair at Blackpool, of course; the formidable la Peschisolido still runs amok at St. Andrews. But, if football wives have lives – or views – of their own, as they tend to these days, then further “complications” are still likely to arise.

It seemed natural for many last season, for example, to roundly abuse David Beckham just because his fiancée happens to be attractive, famous and successful. Who, after all, even in these times of alleged female-friendly “new” football, could let that opportunity go by? Other football matters are now at hand for Beckham-abusers, of course, but “Posh” will still get an obscene and offensive airing this season, no doubt.

A little while back Shelley Webb, Neil’s obviously better half, reportedly got on the wrong side of Alex Ferguson for suggesting, rather appropriately, putting in a creche at OT so she could better pursue her own broadcasting career. Ferguson bristled. Eventually, Shelley got her wish; Neil, of course, soon after got the big shove.

Are times changing, then? Perhaps. Even perpetually laddish Dave Bassett wrote recently in his autobiography about moving football jobs just to be closer to his family. However, most recently of all, David Unsworth’s transfer from West Ham to Villa and then to Everton has highlighted the tensions involved in a world where a “long term move” may actually mean a few months holed up in a sterile hotel in case the manager gets sacked, form is lost, or someone comes in with a better offer. A footballer who actually listens to his wife is still likely to be publicly ridiculed for having given up his trousers to an interfering, fire-breathing ogress. Get a grip, Dave.

Going to Villa, just for a few days, clearly was hardly rocket science, but did the Unsworths really deserve all that “Your dinner’s on the table” crap for owning up to a family mistake and for trying to rectify it? The response to his predicament also shows that, even in an era where some managers are just beginning to talk about dealing with players as adults rather than potentially naughty and cossetted schoolboys, how little attention is devoted to the fact that the clubs’ most expensive commodities come complete with real lives which deserve some protection and support from their employers. No wonder some players move clubs so fast and so often. And no wonder so many big money signings play so badly.

All this means that maybe some football wives are no longer willing simply to be “bought”, unconsulted, along with their feted partners, or to pick up the pieces after some tabloid-reported jolly. No bad thing. Some aspects of the home lifestyle may look seductive enough, but it ain’t all sugar and spice. Ask Sheryl, Shelley, Sam, Victoria and the rest.

From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month

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