The end of the domestic football season can be a tough time for anybody that works in the game. As contracts expire, many players are left with their livelihoods hanging by a thread and, for the adulation afforded to Paul Scholes upon his recent retirement, there will be dozens upon dozens that slide from view, seldom thought of by anyone apart from their nearest and dearest. For managers, meanwhile, the russian roulette nature of their employment is placed sharply into focus by the glinting of the guillotine blade that hangs in the air. What were expectations of their clubs owners? Did they meet them? It often feels as if there is no other profession in which the livelihoods of many are dependent on the whims and indulgences of others.
In an outstanding recent review of Simon Kuper’s new book, “The Football Men”, the website Twisted Blood hit upon a fundamental truth at the heart of professional sport – the schism between the professional sportsman and the supporter. The one thing that can almost be guaranteed in modern sport is that loyalty is a one-way street, and a culture of loyalty has been built into a sophisticated framework that envelops the whole of modern football. Loyalty, we are told, is everything if you are a supporter. Yet those that benefit fiscally from the game – the players, the managers, in recent times even the owners and chairmen – shift from club to club as and when their needs and desires will be most readily appreciated.
There is, in many senses, nothing wrong with this. We are mostly adults, and by the time we are entitled to vote, drink alcohol or serve in the army, we should be mature enough to accept that this is the way of things. Indeed, this manifests itself in the derision with which “badge-kissers” often seem to be treated (consider, for example, the way in which Robbie Keane has come to be perceived in popular discourse, as he jumped from “favourite club” to “favourite club – more than one commenter has womdered aloud what the teenage Robbie’s bedroom wall must have looked like, with Celtic, Spurs and Liverpool posters all jostling for attention), but the culture of maintaining a facade of loyalty remains.
It remains very seldom that, when being interviewed about his departure from one club to another, that a player will say, “Well, you know, they offered me more more money than I could ever realistically know what to do with and a car covered in diamonds”. It is considerably more likely that they will mutter about, “seeking a new challenge” before sloping off, with pounds signs in their eyes to look at baby Bentleys and ivory-coated back-scratchers. Even if we have given up on the notion of players having loyalty to a particular club, said players are still expected to justify their departure footballing reasons. There are exceptions to this, of course, and psychologists could perhaps make much of the decision of, say, Matthew Le Tissier to stay at Southampton for the whole of his career then greater riches may have lain elsewhere.
If, however, we view the relationship between the football industry – that is to say the players, staff, and others that are producers within the game – and its consumers – the television subscription holders and the supporters – as one of supply and demand, then the promotion of loyalty as being sacrosanct on the the part of supporters becomes very much one of protecting vested interests. If supporters did act like consumers, this model would likely fray at the edges, to say the least. No-one would pay the prices that were being charged to watch, say, West Ham United play this season. Those in the middle of a relegation battle would not be thrilled with a drab, one goal victory towards the end of the season.
No-one, however, is going to suggest that supporters merely ”behaving like consumers” would be in any way desirable, though. Football, although it has been commoditised almost beyond recognition, retains a sense of otherness, which is part of its appeal to so many of us. It is not, and never will be, merely the equivalent to a trip to the supermarket. Still, however, the gap between the perception of those within and outside of the game remains. The overwhelming majority of those within professional football are exactly that: professionals. It is their job, and it is far from being a job for life. As such, if wages are out of control then blaming the players is pointless. If clubs are desperate for success and paying higher wages will give them a better chance of managing this, then they will.
This, however, is not the point to be made this evening. Tonight, there are probably many people chortling at Mark Hughes, after his resignation from the Fulham manager’s job wasn’t met with the offer of a job from Aston Villa. It has been suggested that this is at least in part due to the Paul Faulkner, the Villa chief executive, having a strong relationship with his counterpart at Fulham, Alistair Mackintosh, and partly related to Villa’s reluctance to get involved with Hughes on account of the manner of his departure from Craven Cottage. It has also been suggested that the mirth is at least partly due to the nature of Hughes’ departure from the Wales and Blackburn Rovers jobs, where he resigned his positions to take a better offer. Loyalty in the football industry, however is mostly a one-way street. Only the facade of it exists on the part of the suppliers, and only loyalty exists on the part of the consumers. Wayne Rooney went from being a hero to a pariah and back to being a (slightly more suspiciously viewed) hero in the space of months through the medium of playing for Manchester United, wanting a transfer for more money and signing a new contract. Mark Hughes may well end up being somebody’s hero one day, and the events of the last few days will be forgotten.
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