Letting daylight in upon magic

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Alf Ramsey was a famously private and undemonstrative man. Rich Woodward wonders if we know a little too much about our heroes.

I’ve had relatively few brushes with professional footballers in my life. The first was Town goalkeeper Craig Forrest at primary school. The Blue’s towering stopper came to give out prizes at an end of term assembly. After doling out trophies and certificates, Forrest stayed to sign autographs for practically every child in the school. When my turn came, I politely thanked him for signing my scrap of paper, to which he replied “you’re welcome” in a rich Canadian baritone. My first autograph; my first Town hero!

In the intervening years the only real exposure to what sporting professionals were like was through local and national media. An interview in a magazine or paper; a sporting documentary or appearance on TV. That was as close as I got. That was as close as most of us got. An invisible bubble of separation and control, perpetuating the mystique and aura around the game. It afforded the pros some privacy, and reverence.

That’s not to say that all was well on Planet Football. Footballers got into trouble with the police and this would make the press eventually. But an arrest would typically be the first you heard of it, and the player in question would be face the consequences, with the support of the club, behind closed doors.

Fast forward to 2013. The age of social media, camera phones, desperate tabloids – stories regarding the actions and behaviours of celebrities, politicians, professional sports folk have never been so ubiquitous. Us ‘muggles’ are now behind the scenes with our heroes; we’re in on the pranks and banter; we get opinions straight from the horse’s mouth. We have access like never before – even the illusion of direct contact is there through messaging or Tweeting even if there is seldom ever a reply back.

But along with the good of breaking down barriers, this medium has too often exposed the bad. For the past year its been sadly too frequent an occurrence to see evidence of ‘A. Footballer’ going too far on a night out; ‘A. Footballer’ insulting supporters online; ‘A. Footballer’ getting arrested for public disorder. These stories often have their catalyst outside of football’s ‘bubble’ of protection, or at least grow from there. The general population have the power now, and through social media they can proliferate the story, with or without agenda.

That those in the public eye are under such scrutiny should be a challenge and a concern to football. But as always it seems to be a topic ‘the game’ is too slow to realise or perhaps not seeking responsibility for fixing. The fact that footballers are closing Twitter accounts or are being hauled in front of the media, or worse a crowded courtroom, for non-footballing reasons should be ringing alarm bells.

In a new world of public accountability and scrutiny – whether for MPs expenses or the media when it comes to hacking phones – why should football operate any differently? If supporters truly are ‘customers’ to football clubs, surely they have a right as a ‘stakeholder’ to query what its employees are up to, even if it is on social media? Regardless of whether this comes across as sanctimonious, society has largely moved beyond ambivalence to what those in privileged positions get up to. Football needs to respect that fact, preferably before another scandal unfolds.

Football clubs instigating internal investigations with no obvious culmination to those on the outside, or dealing with things privately to protect the players involved, is understandable. But it might be argued to be brushing serious human or personal (or personnel) issues under the carpet, serving no purpose aside from allowing business as usual. Important life lessons and realities are not dispensed and nothing changes. Football moves on, society evolves and the same patterns repeat.

If football was to stare down it’s failings and attempt to challenge and rectify them, I think society would be more likely to embrace the game which is quickly losing the love of the masses. Governing bodies and professional clubs should ask themselves whether standing by as their millionaire employees perpetuate negative and potentially damaging traits is negligent, regardless of who brings it to their attention. Should football open up to its flaws, it might find that an environment is fostered where the critical issues of depression, homophobia, sexism and racism are not only better acknowledged, but actually addressed by its professionals and the supporters that so revere them. Who knows, footballers could actually be role models – rather than names in tomorrow’s headlines or court proceedings.

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