The Problem With “Heart” and “Passion”

by | Jan 3, 2019

In professional football, many things have changed over the last twenty or thirty years. Facilities and equipment have changed beyond recognition, and the levels of technical ability of players have improved in line with this. Clubs are now small corporations, paying wage bills that run to eight or nine digits. These institutions are now holistic bodies, employing a range of professionals across a wealth of different areas, from sports science to public relations. Players are valuable commodities, valued at millions of pounds each (if not out of contract), paid thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands a week for their services. Their well-being, both physical and psychological, is paramount to the overall health of any club.

The coaching staff is broad and is likely to have specialists in different areas, including analysts, statisticians, physiotherapists and nutritionists. Everything is monitored and recorded. Matches are watched over and over. Data is important. The head coach – or, as we continue to call them with abandon, the “manager” – takes overall responsibility the side of matters which culminates on a piece of grass at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. In terms of tactical decisions, some degree of collaboration with the other staff is probably more commonplace than it used to be, but the head coach remains the sole authority over anything significant. Above him will be the chief executive, whose overall responsibility is for the overall day-to-day-running of the club as a business.

Football in the twenty-first century is ever-increasingly scientific, more business-like, and ultimately more collaborative. Yet even now, in the twenty-first century game, a disproportionate amount of stock remains placed in “heart” and “passion.” And the idea that, somehow or other, a professional sportsperson can summon up a higher level of some inner state and use this to propel their team to victory feels like a peculiarly British one. The fist-pumping, face-reddened professional footballer, preferably with blood gaping from an open wound as a visual demonstration of his physical exertion, remains a familiar trope on these shores, though. And it remains a big part of the culture of the game, in this country. It’s in the roar of a crowd to “push harder.” It’s in acres of newspaper coverage, in which losing a football match seems all-too-often to be considered a negative character trait, of some sort. It’s in the approval of pundits, many of whom value running around and shouting to be an inherently positive character trait, even if it doesn’t necessarily make any appreciable difference to events on the pitch.

It’s easy to see where the roots of this enduring belief came from. Muscular Christianity is characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline and self-sacrifice. As David Newsome put it in his 1961 study of Victorian education Godliness and Good Learning, “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, un-English, and excessively intellectual.” It grew rapidly in popularity in English public schools in the 1850s, the book with which it is most associated, Tom Brown’s Schoolboys (which was set at Rugby public school), being published in 1857. The Football Association itself was formed by former pupils of public schools, in 1863. William McGregor, founder of the Football League, was a committed and teetotal Christian.

That many without experience of the professional game should fall back upon it in times of trouble probably shouldn’t be that surprising. “Heart” and “passion” are almost entirely nebulous, and their definitions can be stretched to fit any chosen narrative, whether heroic, tragic, or racist. For the journalist looking for an easy out, it can be stretched and moulded like clay to fit anything you like. The fan, meanwhile, has been fed this narrative for the entirety of his or her life. From the childhood adventures of Roy Race – who taught us that hammering the ball into the top corner of a goal at an opportune moment will usually be enough to win a match – to the constant media drone on the subject, small wonder that a sizeable number of supporters instinctively lean towards the “not trying” criticism following a bad result, even though we should rationally know that this would be incredibly unlikely to realistically be the case, even if it may look on surface level as though it must.

These levels of professionalism fall off pretty sharply from the top down, of course. Not all professionally clubs exist with the same number of staff, but there’s no question that bigger clubs have a better infrastructure to build a more successful club. All of this is why we look at a club like Sunderland, or Aston Villa, or Nottingham Forest, or Leeds United, or Sheffield Wednesday, and feel a degree of cognitive dissonance at the fact that they fell from the Premier League and have, in many cases, laboured to get back while other clubs have overtaken them.

But where a club rots, it tends to do so from the top down, a malaise which may only be slight, but which can make the difference between winning a game at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. This where the nearest thing to “heart” can be found. If the players are confused by a manager’s instructions, or if they find them stupid. If the players have been demotivated by bad man-management from the club’s senior management or through feelings of job insecurity. The head-state of a professional footballer can be a complex place to navigate. “Heart” and “passion” are clearly not superpowers that can be summoned at will.

To be clear, I’m not saying that trying doesn’t matter, here. No matter how much more chess-like elite professional football has become in recent years, it would be absurd to suggest that physical exertion on the part of players has no role whatsoever to play in determining the success or otherwise of a team’s performances. It’s more that, especially in an environment as professionally run and worth as much money as modern football is these days, we should be able to take effort for granted, and that the sheer volume of metrics used to analyse performances means that there is little hiding place for players who don’t pull their weight on the pitch.

Yet the trope persists, and it seems to be deeply embedded into us. Perhaps a reasonable comparison to make is with horoscopes. We all know pretty much that there is no scientific evidence which proves that the date and time of our birth will influence anything like the detail of our daily lives, but with horoscopes being written in such a way that they’re so vague that they could apply to anybody under any circumstances, there’s something that people find comforting in reading them. So it is with football. Were there a magic bullet to end losing football matches (short of throwing a billion pounds at the team), clubs would be climbing over each other to implement it. The reasons for underwhelming performance by a football club, however, are usually complex, manifold, and not easy to quickly fix, and in comparison with this fetishising the abstract has an obvious appeal.

What is frustrating, however, is when it is invoked by people who are paid to know better. Perhaps the pundits who do so don’t understand or can’t quite articulate how a football club hangs together in the limited space before, during and after matches. Reaching for it, however, now causes more raised eyebrows than ever before, even though we live in an era during which people are apparently more swayed by promises of quick and easy fixes than we ever have before.  The recent experience of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United may be demonstrating that the replacement of a particularly toxic individual can suddenly and dramatically change the fortunes of a team on the pitch, but the truth of the matter is that football clubs at all levels are more sophisticated in their methods than they ever have been before. It’s time that we all shifted our perceptions of how twenty-first century professional football works away from facile explanations which hark back to a past which may never have even existed in the first place.