Footballers keep doing things that bother Matt Nation, but in the long term they'll thank him for pointing it out

In an attempt to outline just how difficult it is to be a footballer, Brian Clough once drew parallels between the respective lots of a cameraman and a centre forward. The cameraman, he reckoned, could spend an age perfecting his angles, positions and profiles, but then see the whole lot disappear down the toilet as a result of somebody deliberately knocking everything over just as he reaches for his clapperboard. Similarly, Cloughie’s number nine could spend an equal amount of time perfecting his shooting position (particularly if the number nine in question is Justin Fashanu) and then be brought down in one fell swoop by a carefully-aimed kick to the Achilles tendon.

Even if one takes into consideration the fact that Brian Clough was acting while his mind was in a state of Mike Yarwood-inspired self-parody, the comparison is rubbish. Cameramen are cameramen, footballers are footballers and each group has its own set of trials and tribulations to contend with. Nonetheless, Cloughie’s fear of an increase in physical contact in the game is not entirely unfounded.

It has undoubtedly been going on for years, but recent saturation coverage of football has highlighted just how rife gratuitous bottom-patting has become. It rears its somewhat dubious head at any given opportunity: goals, greeting a former team-mate when warming up before kick-off, gestures of appeasement after attempting to break an opponent’s ankle are all accompanied by the sight of players mauling each other like a couple of teenage undergraduates at the Freshers’ Ball.

While the extent of this coquetting is nowhere near as great as to justify football matches being banished to midnight slots on satellite television, it can, at best, be a tad unsettling. At its worst, it can cause lasting damage. My girlfriend once saw bottom-patting involving Tony Cascarino and Ian Dawes, both of whom possessed a backside which would have struggled to pass through the entrance to a bus depot without requiring the use of a crowbar and a generous helping of lubricant; her subsequent look of disgust had to be surgically removed.

Bottom-patting is merely the tip of the iceberg. The dreadfully patronizing ‘tousling of the hair’ is almost as commonplace; the ‘joke with the goalkeeper while awaiting a corner kick’ is gaining in momentum; and the appalling habit of players winking at the referee, raising one corner of their mouth and making a clicking noise has simply got to stop.

I fear that we are on the way to emulating the nadir of 1981, when Peter Withe and Billy Bonds squared up to each other during a televised match and then, in an act of Nobel Peace Prize-winning proportions, embraced and treated the crowd to a short, bastardised version of the Viennese Waltz. It was so embarrassing that I had to apologise to myself for having watched it.

Bien pensants may protest that any of the behaviour mentioned thus far is infinitely preferable to administering a punch on the nose, and they are probably right (although, to tell the truth, I would have preferred to see Billy Bonds and Peter Withe having a pop at each other rather than making their children the butt of playground ridicule). However, the long-term future of our players must be our primary consideration. When age or injury forces them to stop hunting with the hounds, a great many players will be forced to run headlong with the hares into ‘normal’ jobs. The role models will suddenly find that it is they themselves who are in need of a guiding hand because it is then that the trouble will start.

There are many offices, for example, in which people work side-by-side for years, maybe decades, without ever getting beyond the phatic communicative level of basic politeness. If my colleagues and I had carried out a particularly nifty piece of filing (our equivalent to a sixty-yard chip-cum-shot from inside the centre circle) and were unwittingly to use each other’s first name at the height of our delirium, we would be sacked for gross impropriety. If we patted each other on the arse, we would have our hands cut off before the palms had stopped glowing.

It is an irrefutable fact that if you ruffle your average charge hand’s hair, you only stand a chance of survival by moving to a secret address at least 200 miles away and then never leaving it again. And the winking-and-clicking-noise merely creates the impression that the perpetrator is a bit of a simpleton.

Even if a footballer becomes a players’ agent or gets his foot in the door of sports management, there is no bypassing the fact that ‘normal’ working people take themselves more seriously. And the learning process for our players cannot begin too soon. So, lads, remember: instead of patting rivals on the bottom, you write obscenities about them on the bog door; instead of consoling your opponent when they lose, you derive bug-eyed, mouth-foaming pleasure from their misfortune; instead of accepting adversaries’ gestures of appeasement, you delete important information from their computer files; instead of carrying out blood feuds against those who do you an injustice, you denounce them in pompous terms to the person in charge (“Mr Elleray, I feel that Mr Ruddock’s latest indiscretion is a blight on our profession and demand that appropriate action be taken”).

It’s an adult world which we inhabit, make no mistake about that. And a world in which bottom-patting, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko (and, quite possibly, Brian Clough as well), is for wimps.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month

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