Olly Ricketts concludes that the only way to produce a consistently competitive English football team is to kill – or at least ban – Phil Collins.
A few months ago I read an illuminating interview with former snooker world champion Steve Davis. The article was not in Snooker Scene (yes, I did have to look that up) but on the respected alternative music website thequietus.com. In it, Davis talked a little about being a successful sportsman in the 1980s, and a lot – an awful, awful lot – about his love for the experimental French prog rock group Magma. It transpires that Davis has an encyclopaedic knowledge of leftfield psychedelia and soul music, with a record collection to match. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Davis’ music taste shows that snooker players are a more esoteric bunch than footballers, particularly given that Davis admits in the interview that his fellow professionals do not exactly share his love of thirty five minute bongo solos. It did, however, lead to me pondering how many footballers are willing to embrace such idiosyncrasies.
Music-wise, footballers are, and always have been, innately predictable. In the 1980s, the only thing more certain than a First Division footballer (bar the C86 loving Pat Nevin) declaring that Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required was their favourite album, was for them to answer that if they could have one wish it would be “to be a fly on the wall in Maria Whittaker’s bedroom”. Steven Gerrard aside, footballers have largely moved on from Phil Collins to either generic R’n’B and commercial rap or hoary old dad rock, but the predictability remains.
Even then, if daringly combined with a haircut reflecting this taste they are seen as something of a radical. It seems a legal requirement, for example, for any interviewer to focus on Leighton Baines’ haircut and music taste to the exclusion of all other lines of questioning, despite said taste amounting to little beyond the most commercially successful indie bands of the day. Baines at one point even had a music blog on the official Everton website. I know in great detail just how much Leighton likes Arctic Monkeys and Oasis, and yet no interviewer has ever asked him the truly pertinent question: “How can a face look like the 1950s?” Similarly, I have yet to see Danny Welbeck asked how his smile manages to provide a complete visual representation of the 1980s, but I digress.
Joey Barton was recently asked by Football Focus for a special live edition held in the infamous Salford Lad’s Club about his oft-expressed love for The Smiths. I don’t doubt that Barton’s love for the group and his admiration for Morrissey’s lyrics is utterly sincere. But combined with a penchant for quoting Nietzsche at inopportune moments, it is difficult not to view him as a frustrated sixth form philosophy student rather than a genuine radical. Barton’s recent lobbying via Twitter for his followers to sign various petitions relating to the Hillsborough Disaster was undeniably admirable and just, but only in England could this see him identified as uniquely politically articulate. After all, it’s hardly akin to Javier Zanetti persuading Inter Milan to donate funds to Mexico’s Zapatista rebels, or Cristiano Lucarelli, who, upon signing for Shaktar Donetsk in 2007, used the majority of his signing-on fee to set up a left-wing newspaper and fund community projects in his home town of Livorno, is it? But then, England is a country in which rumours relating to Graeme Le Saux’s sexuality circulated for years, seemingly justified by little more than the fact that Le Saux chose to read The Guardian over The Sun, so perhaps it’s not altogether surprising.
That Barton, Baines and Le Saux stand out so conspicuously only serves to illustrate that footballers are, by and large, a conservative (with both small and capital ‘c’) bunch. Steve Davis falls into the latter category, for the record. Even those footballers considered more cerebral than the majority, such as Frank “I got an A* in Latin GCSE, but I don’t like to talk about it” Lampard, tend to have both conservative tastes and beliefs. It is as if anything else would see them stick out too much from the rest of the dressing room. And we can’t have that. Certainly, it appears to be frowned upon for English players to pick up any cultural habits from their foreign team-mates; it’s a challenge indeed to find an answer to the question “which team-mate has the worst taste in music?” that doesn’t involve “weird foreign stuff”.
Any deviation from what is expected from an English lad, no matter how minor, is magnified to the point of being a person’s defining characteristic. In what other country would it be newsworthy that a manager (Roy Hodgson) liked to read novels rather than sports biographies, or that a player (Stuart Pearce) liked to listen to punk music, despite some of his political beliefs suggesting that he didn’t really listen to it properly?
No matter how much the media might try and persuade otherwise, football is predominantly a reflection of society and its beliefs, rather than the shaper of public opinions and attitudes. Is it that much of a stretch, therefore, to suggest that England’s conservative, laddish culture, with its derision for anything different, could be a contributing factor to our consistent inability to produce genuine flair players? The qualities of players such as Glenn Hoddle and Matt Le Tissier were seemingly respected more in mainland Europe and South America than they were here, where the media instead often centred on their lack of work rate; in effect their fundamental difference from the English norm. Those of us that are infuriated at English football’s continued reliance on blood and thunder over individual skill usually cite this as evidence that our coaching system is fundamentally flawed, as if football coaching somehow exists in a vacuum. If our culture celebrated individuality more, perhaps it would be reflected in the coaches, managers and footballers that we produce. Perhaps then we would be willing to embrace and incorporate change and outside ideas. And just think how good Steven Gerrard could be if he didn’t have Phil Collins dragging him down..