Unique, damaging, hypercritical: English football is too serious for its own good

(Image courtesy of Getty Images)

The backlash of the recent Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood incident is yet another indicator of the pitfalls of English footballing culture…

When I first saw the news regarding Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood’s misdemeanour last week, I feared the worst. Their dismissal from the squad was about as inevitable as the moral battering they received and will likely continue receiving for the majority of the season ahead.

Disclaimer: the actions of both men were negligent and indefensible. This is not a defence of their behaviour in this case —breaking COVID lockdown rules by inviting two women into the England team hotel in Iceland last week —rather a look at the characteristic way in which the English football collective responded to it. Regardless of disputes about the gravity of their mistake, there is a distinct way in which players in England are held up to a higher (often unreasonably high) standard than others. There is seemingly a willingness to tear down our best footballers that is hardwired into the brains of the nation. We’ve been here before…

On the face of it, the way Gareth Southgate reacted to the Foden & Greenwood incident — from which we are yet to see if the punishment will be extended to club level — was hardly shocking. But it reflected a larger thematic problem within the English football world: media, pundits and supporters alike.

Most footballers and sportspeople across the globe are there to be shot at. They are public figures, role models and sources of envy for millions of people worldwide. But there is something uniquely sinister about the manner in which English footballers are targeted and how (apparently?) they are expected to function robotically and give us no glimpse into the genuine, everyday side of their character. When they do provide us this insight for good, they are rightly praised. Conversely, when an English footballer (particularly of significant potential ability and tender years) makes an error of judgement, they are invariably crucified.

Plainly, the coverage of the English national team goes some way to explaining the failure of a succession of generations, not long after they had each been tagged by varying shades of gold. After all, they are young men. If you were being generous you would suggest that Southgate’s hand was forced and he had to hand out a punishment of a severity befitting the current social climate. But this isn’t a one-off; in this case, using ‘bubble’ restrictions forced into play by the pandemic doesn’t excuse the vilification.

As Gary Neville put it, the immediacy of the chastisement left a rather uncomfortable feeling. As a member of the last ‘golden generation’ made up of such an array of genuinely world class players, Neville is arguably better placed than most to warn of the potential damage excessive criticism may do these two young talents moving forward. 

Foden and Greenwood were essentially victimised. Again, there is surely no reasonable defence of their actions in isolation, but there can at least be questions asked of the response they solicited. A question perhaps along the lines of: ‘Have we not been ignoring the haemorrhage in our game that is public deconstruction of a player’s personality for too long, now? or ‘Is this really the best thing to do here?’

To re-emphasize, this is not a new theme. In my lifetime, there have been countless examples of false dawns in terms of early promise shown by a player versus a later inability to meet expectation, but of late the downfall of Jack Wilshere has struck a particular chord. Wilshere had all the talent — that unadulterated, raw, driven talent to take on the very best in the world at such a young age (think Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona in the Champions League in 2011) — to be England’s most exciting heartbeat figure of the side since Wayne Rooney. Wilshere is now suffering with yet another ankle injury, side-lining him for the start of the new domestic season with West Ham, where it’s safe to say his career has taken a gradual turn for the worse.

Before Rooney and his contemporaries; infamously, one of the most naturally gifted footballers this country has ever produced, Paul Gascoigne, was subjected to the vicious claws of the English media and a distinctly toxic culture regarding the national team.

But it is not a phenomenon limited to the international stage and a wait for a tournament victory that has now stretched past the half-century mark. There is a deep-rooted, overarching problem with the way in which footballers are viewed in England. As an organism, English football is too serious and repressive ; comparing the perception of our stars with those of other sports can be very revealing.

I can hardly claim to be an expert when it comes to American sport, but even a loose understanding acts as an entryway into the characters behind the bright lights of the Stateside sporting entertainment. From what I can gather, it is common knowledge that these celebrity athletes get up to some things they shouldn’t, but it isn’t sought out for public exposure as if it is some sort of victory. At least, having lived at university in the US for the past three years, it doesn’t feel that way, which exists in stark contrast to the tangible feeling towards players in England that is cultivated by the low-level coverage by some outlets on incidents such as the Foden & Greenwood one.

They have the licence (within reason) to say what they want and feel more freedom to ‘trash talk’, to very briefly adopt a phrase. American sporting culture is certainly more flamboyant, but it also allows increased freedom for its athletes. It is difficult to imagine a scenario occurring on English shores like the one that played out with NBA players joining in the online humiliation directed at LA Clippers players on Tuesday night. While it does happen with some footballers, they are rarer occasions and stick out as outliers in the bigger picture once you zoom out.

Generally, American athletes across the board are viewed differently to their English counterparts. Whether it be the funny guy, the maverick or the plain quirky individual, for athletes here, the carving out of an image is just as important as performances on the court or field of play. As such, the biggest names in the American sporting landscape are respected and there is a better mutual relationship that feed down from the players to the media to the fans.

In a lot of cases, fans are willing to let it go (with the on-pitch success of the club and its players priority number one) but the culture of tabloid media in this country is a part of its history. To the detriment of the promising young footballer who has dared to make his money through talent, hard work and exceptional competition, English people will continue to buy a genre of ‘newspapers’ that are eager to bring their stars to some vicious sort of hate-fuelled retribution for becoming celebrity figures rather than support them in moments of naïve judgement.

In no way are the actions of Foden and Greenwood, in isolation, acceptable. However, the outcry and mass condemnation of two young — the former 20 years old, the latter 18 — footballers is indicative of the historic psyche. If truth be told, it was perpetuated further in this case by Southgate commenting on the dismissal of the two from the squad following the poor performance against Denmark that followed.

Ironically, having hung out his players to dry — to use a typically English football cliché — the England manager swiftly vowed to support them: “I think I’m very conscious that these two boys are going to walk into something that’s going to be very intense, and very difficult for them at their age to deal with,” Southgate said. “Whether people like it or not I’ve got to try and support them and I’ve got to try and not add to how difficult their situation is going to be. That said, I will be very clear with them on my feelings and how they need to respond.” 

Undoubtedly, they will respond, and in the best possible fashion: on the pitch.

But how does English football change? For all his faults, it can be said that Gareth Southgate has the national team in a much more positive place than it was throughout the debacle-heavy era before he made the step-up from the Under-21 manager’s position. Progress has been made. The depth of talent in the England ranks, from first team down through the age groups, is incredible, and players such as Foden and Greenwood will likely shrug this off and have outstanding seasons for their clubs, because they are potentially world-class footballers who we are lucky to have.

As football — along with all industries during this surreal period — is being forced to adapt, it is time for the people within it to do so too. The players and coaches , the media, but most importantly the fans, who have been rightly been talked about as the biggest loss to football matches in this COVID world.

Trust has always been a fundamental issue in the relationship between English footballers and those outside their circle. It is all the more ironic, then, when you consider how a big part of the original feel-good factor regarding Southgate and his new-look squad the adoption of American sport-style open media days was. In the lead up the 2018 World Cup in Russia, every one of the England squad was made available to speak to members of the press, as never-before-seen levels of accessibility to the players, open dialogue and camaraderie birthed a fresh feeling regarding the national side.

Southgate has embraced aspects of the American sporting culture and worked as a pundit on UK coverage of Super Bowl LIII (above), but there is still much work to be done in terms of English football’s negative and hereditary intensity. (Image courtesy of BBC One).

During an extensive period of preparation for the World Cup, Southgate studied American football in particular, explaining how his staff “were looking at some of the NFL coaching techniques, the work of specialist coaches in particular. We looked at their media day, how they interact with the media, that was really important for us in the summer.”

The result was a cosy, considerably less frosty, two-way development of trust and pre-existing barriers which was relayed to fans back home. It worked initially, as results and progress were positive in the immediate aftermath during that tournament, but have once more tailed off in gradual decline since.

Onto the future. With Euro 2020 to be played out following the new domestic season, now is the perfect time for English football as a whole to move with the times; continue to positively learn from the sporting scene across the Atlantic, and to give its newest generation of potential world-beaters a chance to develop, flourish and dominate together. Preferably away from the coverage that such stupid albeit not irredeemably outrageous actions are constantly greeted with.

The current crop are unquestionably good enough. Good enough to perform as a very successful England side, whatever that may look like. Too potentially brilliant, in fact, to be hindered by the quintessentially English concoction of fear, naivety and unfulfilled promise. It’s time for English football to take itself less seriously.

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