Players and their jabs – do they not have some obligation?

THIS TIME around, Jürgen Klopp has a point, with all that’s going on, the fixture list is less than sympathetic to footballers as they cope with the latest wave of the pandemic. While most of Britain is being told to work at home, avoid certain places and keep those masks on, players run the risk of infection every time they run out on the pitch. Football is a combat sport to some extent, so isolation while on duty is impossible.

However, there’s a degree of contradiction given the low level of vaccination among players in England. If players and managers are that worried about their well being, then why has the Premier League got the lowest level of vaccination among the top leagues in Europe. Fair play to Klopp for saying, publicly that an unvaccinated player is no use to him. In Britain, the attitude towards vaccination suggests many things, not least that other countries do not want Brits arriving at airports at the moment.

But compare the vaccination rate of the Premier (68%) at the last count compared to Serie A (98%), Ligue 1 (95%), Bundesliga (94%) and La Liga (90%) – it is really quite shameful and very irresponsible. Fans are told to take their lateral flow tests and behave responsibly, showing evidence of a clean bill of health and double vaccinations, so why don’t players also tow the line? The next batch of figures are due any moment now, so we will see if the trend has changed.

Recently, I was on a coach going to an away match with my local step three non-league club and we were told to wear masks while we were in our seats. The officials and fans on the coach adhered to the rules, but the players were without masks. This was, in my view, a kick in the teeth to the people playing ball.

Some might argue that it’s a generational thing, that older folk will wear masks as they are more vulnerable, but the unmasked are also capable of infecting others. The masks may not be 100% reliable, but they stop other picking up your droplets.

From the clubs’ perspective, surely they would insist on their players being vaccinated? These young men are in a team game, changing together, showering alongside each other, celebrating together. If nothing else, would they not want to protect themselves to limit the damage done by the virus? And if they are the role models they claim to be and community-minded characters that support worthy causes, how can they shy away from vaccinations?

Football has developed a taste for making very visible demonstrations of its social conscience, the covid vaccination programme is more relevant than many of campaigns that players attach themselves to. At the moment, the low rate of adherence does not indicate a caring, sharing body of people, does it?

The clubs have decided to push ahead with the Christmas programme, despite some rumblings that they were concerned. So for all the mumbling about unacceptable fixtures, to quote the typical post-match manager, “we go again… and again”. If the current rate of infection continues, nobody will be going again for a while.

England’s league champions – passing the baton

HOW OFTEN have you heard someone explain away a poor title defence with a comment like, “They needed to turn things over….they needed to rebuild”? It is true that nothing lasts forever in football and sometimes, a title winning team burns itself out in lifting the big prize. A manager gets the best out of a group of players and then they’re done. That’s unlikely to happen to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, especially in the age of massive imbalance within leagues.

The fact is, a title winning team does not last forever, but the core of a talented young team can extend its influence for a considerable period.

It may be getting harder to do that, largely because managers come and go so quickly that no longevity is built into the system. Teams are rarely nurtured but generally purchased, and in an age of inflated investment, TV money and impatient boards, nobody can wait for that youngster to develop into a rare gem. Usually, it’s a team for a job and when that job is done, or the manager goes, whichever is the sooner, the team changes.

Champions Defence Finished
Manchester City 1937-38 21st – R
Leeds United 1992-93 17th
Everton 1928-29 18th
Ipswich Town 1962-63 17th
Chelsea 1955-56 16th
Sheffield United 1898-99 16th
Aston Villa 1900-01 15th
Liverpool 1906-07 15th
Everton 1970-71 14th
West Bromwich 1920-21 14th
Manchester City 1968-69 13th
Manchester Utd 1908-09 13th
Arsenal
Leicester C
1953-54
2016-17
12th

 

Some teams buck the trend and go on for years. Manchester United were fortunate to have a generation of players that did just that – the Class of ’92 and all that. In fact, United’s 1998-99 treble winners managed to squeeze some 66 years out of the title winners beyond 1999. In that team there were three lads that went on for 39 of those 66 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.

United’s neighbours, City, accrued 70 years out of the regular line-up that won the Football League championship in 1968. The last man to leave the party was Colin Bell, who retired in 1979. Long-running sagas are fine if the team is young, which City’s was – with the exception of Tony Book, who was 33 when the title was won. But there wasn’t the quality to maintain the league success of 1968, although City did have a golden period between 68 and 70 where they lifted four trophies. But they were rarely title contenders, with the exception of 1971-72.

Coventry City goalkeeper Bill Glazier misses the ball under pressure from Manchester City’s Tommy Booth – 1968-69.

Conversely, some teams break up quickly. Blackburn Rovers’ hired guns of 1995 lasted a combined 29 years after their title win, while Arsenal’s “Invincibles” went on for 30. Nottingham Forest’s 1978 champions lasted 32 years between them, with their front line of Woodcock and Withe disappearing within a season. Forest’s line-up was certainly a team with a purpose and despite adding bigger names than those that shocked the system, they could never recapture the magic of 1977-78. To quote Monty Python’s Spanish inquisitors, Brian Clough had “surprise” as a weapon.

The break-up of a title team, though, is invariably a slow process and it takes skill to do it gradually while maintaining momentum. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the few managers to turn change to an advantage, and in Liverpool’s glory years, transition became an art form. Some managers struggle to replace much beloved players who have brought major success to a club. Sir Matt Busby and his successors found it hard to rebuild his last great United team in the late 1960s.

Player Deb. Last
season
Departure
and age
Noble 1962 1966-67 1967 (23)
Foulkes 1952 1967-68 1968 (35)
Stiles 1961 1968-69 1970 (27)
Crerand 1963 1970-71 1971 (32)
Aston 1965 1969-70 1972 (25)
Dunne 1960 1972-73 1973 (32)
Best 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Charlton 1956 1972-73 1973 (35)
Sadler 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Law 1962 1971-72 1973 (33)
Stepney 1966 1977-78 1978 (35)

Alan Gowling and Carlo Sartori, were never going to match up to the likes of Denis Law. From Busby to the early stages of Tommy Docherty, United relied on old-stagers like Stepney, Dunne, Crerand, Charlton and Law, some popularist purchases like Ted MacDougall and Ian Storey-Moore, and a succession of defenders and half-backs that failed to live up to past occupants of the shirt. Put bluntly, United’s decline in the 1970s was largely due to poor succession planning, hampered by a period on instability following the exit of an iconic manager. Seven years after winning the title (and six after being crowned European champions) United were – to the horror of the football establishment – relegated.

Boom to bust – the post-war champions and the years from title to relegation

Yrs Team & title year Down
2 Ipswich Town (61-62) 1962-64
4 Blackburn Rovers (94-95) 1998-99
5 Derby County (74-75) 1979-80
6 Wolves (58-59) 1964-65
6 Aston Villa (80-81) 1986-87
7 Chelsea (54-55) 1961-62
7 Liverpool (46-47) 1953-54
7 Manchester United (66-67) 1973-74
8 Leeds United (81-82) 1981-82
9 Portsmouth (49-50) 1958-59
11 Burnley (59-60) 1970-71
12 Leeds United (91-92) 2003-04
15 Nottingham Forest (77-78) 1992-93
15 Manchester City (67-68) 1982-83
16 Tottenham (60-61) 1976-77

Take Tottenham Hotspur’s 1960-61 double winners as an example of the replacement process in action, and in some cases, how succession becomes a problem. In the case of Bill Nicholson and Tottenham, rebuilding was very difficult, which underlined the exceptional nature of the team he was trying to rebuild. Nicholson never achieved his holy grail, although he enjoyed an “Indian Summer” in the early 1970s before leaving the dugout. His constant search for a team to pass the baton onto never really succeeded.

Example 1: How Spurs’ 1960-61 double team was replaced

1960-61: Tottenham win the League and Cup double
1961-62: Jimmy Greaves is signed mid-season
1962-63: Les Allen
1963-64: Bobby Smith, Danny Blanchflower, John White*, Peter Baker
1964-65: Terry Dyson, Ron Henry
1965-66: Bill Brown, Maurice Norman
1966-67
1967-68: Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones

*Died after being struck by lightning

The Spurs team that won the double in 1961

Nicholson made a number of signings to replenish his triumphant squad. Some were seen as direct replacements for the key members of the double team, Blanchflower and Mackay. Both Alan Mullery and Terry Venables, costing £72,500 and £80,000 respectively, were considered ideal successors, the latter failing to win over the Spurs crowd, the former eventually forging his own reputation. For the rest of the 1960s, Nicholson tried to rekindle the spirit of 1961, but players like Frank Saul, Jimmy Robertson (admittedly both Wembley winners in 1967), could never replace the men who had worn the white shirt before them. By 1963-64, Spurs were in relative decline from the 1960-63 period when they won four trophies.

Example 2: Chelsea’s 2004-05 title winners and the years they were replaced/departed

2005-06: Mateja Kežman, Thiago
2006-07: Glen Johnson, Damien Duff, William Gallas, Eidur Gudjohnsen
2007-08: Arjen Robben
2008-09: Claude Makalele
2009-10: Wayne Bridge
2010-11: Joe Cole, Ricardo Carvalho
2011-12:
2012-13: Didier Drogba*
2013-14: Paulo Ferreira
2014-15: Frank Lampard
2014-15:
2015-16: Petr Cech
2016-17:
2017-18: John Terry

*Returned

Despite Chelsea’s reputation for being a revolving door in terms of players and management, the team that won the title in 2005 and 2006 relied on a core of stalwarts: Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba. Others came and went, but between these four players, Chelsea benefitted from a further 31 seasons of service after the first Premier victory.

The five-year records of selected champions (two years either side of their title)

  -2 -1 0 +1 +2 Av.
1896-97 Aston Villa 3 1 1 6 1 2.4
1925-26 Huddersfield 1 1 1 2 2 1.4
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1948-49 Portsmouth 12 8 1 1 7 5.8
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1951-52 Man.Utd 4 2 1 9 4 4
1955-56 Man.Utd 4 5 1 1 9 4
1958-59 Wolves 6 1 1 2 3 2.6
1960-61 Tottenham 18 3 1 3 2 5.4
1965-66 Liverpool 1 7 1 5 3 3.4
1966-67 Man.Utd 1 4 1 2 11 3.8
1968-69 Leeds United 4 4 1 2 2 2.8
1969-70 Everton 5 3 1 14 15 7.7
1970-71 Arsenal 4 12 1 5 2 4.8
1973-74 Leeds United 2 3 1 9 5 4
1974-75 Derby Co. 7 3 1 4 15 6
1978-79 Liverpool 1 2 1 1 5 2
1983-84 Liverpool 1 1 1 2 1 1.2
1984-85 Everton 7 7 1 2 1 3.6
1990-91 Arsenal 1 4 1 4 10 4
1993-94 Man.Utd 2 1 1 2 1 1.4
1998-99 Man.Utd 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
2003-04 Arsenal 1 2 1 2 4 2
2016-17 Chelsea 1 10 1 5 3 4
2017-18 Man.City 5 3 1 1 2 2.4

Arsenal’s Tony Adams (r) shoots for goal as Everton’s Craig Short (l) looks on – 1997-98

The above table shows the records of selected championship teams down the years. Going on the assumption that it takes two years to build a credible challenge (in old money, that time span would not be afforded to today’s managers!), and that a team stays together for two years after, we’ve given each champion a five-year period to prove its worth. There’s little doubt that the three highlighted teams represent the most successful (there may another Liverpool side in there somewhere), and given no team has won the title for four consecutive years, the most any team can have in any five year period is four championships. Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester United in the 1990s – their records are unmatched.

@gameofthepeople

Football’s mind games – therapy for mental health

MENTAL HEALTH is very much in the news at present, everyone seems to have suffered from problems at some point in their life. Mental Health has been misdiagnosed as a “cover all” for anything that touches the mind, be it depression, anxiety, paranoia, stress and a whole vast range of other conditions.

I have been receiving something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to deal with a series of panic attacks that were a hangover of a health scare I had in Tokyo at the back end of last year. Just over a decade ago, with the global financial crisis in its early stages, I suffered from something called Amnesiatic Fugue, which may sound like a prog rock track by Yes, but was basically a stress-induced problem. As a financial writer, I covered so many aspects of the crisis that I knew too much and what the implications of a breakdown of society might be – hence, I went into my own self-induced meltdown.

Football, while causing folk, rather foolishly, to get over-stressed at times, acts as a distraction for people going through mental anguish. I recall a former colleague, who had seen his wife leave him over a Christmas period, consoling himself with the fact that Queens Park Rangers were at home on Boxing Day and that “She might have let me down, but the Superhoops will not, they are always there for me.”

This may sound like scant consolation, but it’s a case of “whatever turns you on”. If my old workmate was happier because he was able to attend a football match and that, during that two-hour spell inside Loftus Road, he felt insulated from some of the problems going on in his life, then the game was performing a very valuable service.

Many wives, one club

For most fans, there is only one club that truly grabs their affection. They may flirt with others, may have daliances with another club at some point in a life of football addiction, but it is rare that a fan really switches clubs. “You can have a number of wives, but only one club,” is a comment often heard, which not only encapsulates the sentiment of blind loyalty, but also reminds us that football’s heritage is very much male, testosterone-driven and lubricated by the elixir of the terrace, lager.

Football has never had much in the way of empathy and the environment would never acknowledge anyone could possibly have “issues”, although one of the old terrace chants was “let’s go mental”. Rabid hooligans have often been described as “nutters”, “loonies” or a “maniac” but rarely has anyone suggested that some may actually be habitually aggressive because of mental illness.

Football has often provided a place where the disaffected or the disenfranchised can find belonging. The solo fan, perhaps what many would call a “loner”, can find association and “belonging” at a football club. Every weekend, he or she becomes part of a loosely-connected family where everyone has the club as the common bond. This is very prevalent in non-league football, the club providing a local escape for people who may not have a huge social network. When I moved to Hitchin in 1987, I did not know anyone other than my wife. I went along to my local club, got involved and suddenly, I knew lots of people in a place that was around 50 miles from my home town.

A football club, although patronised by football-mad people, also comprises a cross-section of society and that includes people who have health problems. I recall back in 2008 and my “lost afternoon” when I walked out of the office and carried on walking from the City of London to Borough High Street, one of the things the doctor told me to do was go for walks and take in fresh air, one of the best therapies for people suffering from stress. For me, that meant keep going to football to take my mind off the things that were worrying me.

Football, while being a far from perfect industry and an example of the excesses of modern life, can help people who are going through turmoil. Some clubs have recognised this and included mental health in their portfolio of corporate social responsibility activities. We must, however, be careful not to let this condition/illness be abused and used as a get-out clause for behavioural lapses. For example, a friend of mine had to attend jury service for two weeks and every single defendant appealed on the grounds of “mental health issues”.

Record numbers

A quite high number of footballers have experienced problems, perhaps due to the high expectation placed on by the public. Certainly, young players who have set their heart on becoming a pro can go through a lot of mixed emotions when the dream fails to materialise. What does an 18 year-old who has sacrificed most other aspects of a young life and education, do when he’s released by a club? Non-league and a low-paid, unremarkable career?

But what of those that do make it? How would players like George Best and Paul Gascoigne have turned out if they had been able to cope with the pressure of fame? If the illness was recognised years ago, how many former pros could have avoided alcoholism, depression and poverty?

True, modern players at the top level  are exceptionally and ludicrously highly-paid individuals and sometimes, their behaviour does let them down. Money cannot compensate for mental stability, no matter how much we think that earning £ 150,000 per week means you can put up with anything. A person with a lot of money still has the same type of physiology and psyche as a player earning £ 300 per week.

The good thing is, the subject has moved from being the huge taboo it was and people going through mind matters are no longer considered weak, feeble and the subject of whispered comments and shoulder nudges. Football, as a mass spectator sport, is a good forum to deliver these important messages. The fact is, we are all vulnerable to the peaks and troughs of the mind – 10% of the UK population is suffering from depression at any one time. It makes you wonder, how many people inside Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or the Emirates are dealing with demons while watching their favourite team?

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA