Matt Nation explains why beneath the surface all football teams are a seething mass of personal enmity and hatred

Players not really fitting in – it’s as old as the hills, but is always considered a scoop: Bobby Charlton was considered aloof as a player at Manchester United; Steve Archibald never used to talk to anybody: nobody understands Stan Collymore; and now, most recently, Klinsmann, and just about every other German international, won’t have anything to do with Lothar Matthäus.

Hats off to those working on the sports pages for trying to undermine German confidence in order to give the rest of us a chance, but trying to make a scandal out of the fact that footballers don’t like each other smacks of journalistic laziness.

Most people who have watched any football game anywhere will probably be able to tell you that the collective noun “team” to describe eleven footballers wearing the same coloured shirt is a misnomer of the highest degree. (A suitable generic description fails to spring to mind, although “clump” seems about right for a group of Wimbledon players.)

Emlyn Hughes wrote in his autobiography (Right, now it’s out in the open: I have willingly read Emlyn Hughes’ autobiography. Now I’ll just have to get up and get on with the rest of my life as best I can) that, prior to an important trials game, his Dad told him to do something, anything, to get himself noticed. “So when the lad went past me on the halfway line, I rugby tackled him.”

And that’s about the long and short of it: getting yourself noticed, even if you are the only one who has noticed what you’ve actually done to get yourself noticed. Look at the defender who heads a backpass onto the keeper’s arms; he always, always, wheels away in a giant semi-circle, elbows protruding and eyes to the floor, failing to conceal his pride at having been the only member of the clump capable of propelling the ball in the wrong direction.

Look at the midfield playmaker who, with no opponent within thirty yards of him, puts his foot on the ball and tries to look pensive, rolling his eyes and sticking hid tongue in his cheek, like Mae West in a saloon bar just before she comes out with the one about pistols in pockets; look at the forward who, having scored a toe-poke from less than a yard out, fights off any well-wishers and runs away, the prettiest girl in a playground full of boorish kiss-chasers. Narcissus would have been a wallflower in comparison to any of these people.

It’s not only about wanting to appear the best. At the other end of the scale, players are just as mercenary in their efforts not to be the worst. I once played in a clump in which I was one of only two players who, in five years, had never scored. And it never looked like happening. In my case, this was because I never crossed the halfway line, due to the manager dictating that there always had to be one duffer on hand to prevent counter-attacks, even if we were 10-0 up, and, moreover, because I was crap. In his case, it was because he had a stupid surname (something like Chumley or Dearlove) and was even worse than I was.

There is that Laurel and Hardy film in which Stan, unaware that the war finished twenty years before, shoots at any and every aircraft passing overhead, because that’s what he had been told to do. Chumley-Dearlove was a bit like that. Somebody had told him that he was a defender, and that defenders tackle. So that was all he ever did.

He could have the ball at his feet in front of an open goal, the entire opposition could be stricken with cramp and unable to move, and he wouldn’t even think of going near the ball because there was nobody behind it to tackle.

One would have thought that there would have been fraternity of some description between us; a sort of Of Mice and Men in a footballing context, with George and Lennie as the tubby fullbacks. But when he finally scored – it went in off his ear when he was looking the other way, scouring the skies for Messerschmitts – my ambivalence towards him fell victim to full-blooded hate. And now, a decade later, it hasn’t subsided one iota.

If such intensity of feeling is possible at a level where players pay to play, what must it be like in the Premier League, where there is no such thing as bad publicity, where media-friendly behaviour, be it for the right or wrong reasons, is the passport to being indelibly etched in the memory of large portions of the population?

How must somebody like Steve Bruce feel?He’s chucked himself around in the mud for ten years, getting injured, booked and laughed at, so that people like Giggs can show off. And where has it got him? Giggs will forever be the man who made defenders look stupid at will, Bruce will forever be the defender who was made to look stupid, whether he wanted to be or not.

Giggs will eventually become a superlative in its own right, Bruce will only be used in sentences that end “. . . and the other is Jimmy Greenhoff, although he did play for the Under-23s”. So if Steve Bruce is ever driven away in the back of a police van for jumping up and down in golfing shoes upon a poster of Ryan Giggs in Manchester City Centre, it really won’t be his fault.

But it is Martin Peters, and possibly only Martin Peters, who can deliver the definitive truth on the whole matter of liking and disliking. And in this jubilee-year-of-sorts, it seems as good a time as any for Martin Peters to be plied with drink and then made to answer the following question on live television: “Are you eternally grateful to Geoff Hurst for the part he played in your winning a World Cup medal, or do you hate his guts for rendering you meaningful to the younger generations only as the subject of a Trivial Pursuit question about ‘the other goal’, which is answered with the words ‘Roger Hunt’ by a mystifyingly high number of people anyway?”

Go on, Martin, tell the truth, you know you want to.

From WSC 115 September 1996. What was happening this month

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