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Friday, 3 June 2011

Role Models in Football?

I spent today at Grassroots Live at the NEC in Birmingham – only the 2nd time I’ve been and the first time I’ve actually attended some of the Q&A sessions.  I enjoyed my day, helped by having the company of my friend and colleague Joseph.

The two sessions I decided to grace with my presence with, on paper, might conceivably be linked.  In reality, this wasn’t the case.  The descriptions for these sessions were ‘Do our role models have a responsibility to the grassroots game?’ and ‘What should youth football look like in five to ten years time? What formats of the game do we need? How do we put in place a child-centred competition pathway without imposing adult-values on those of children? I want to talk about the second in some detail, so will write about that tomorrow.

The role models session was hosted by local BRMB sports presenter, Tom Ross.  Tom frequents the stands at Villa Park and St Andrews and has a lot to say about football in the Midlands.  It shouldn’t then be a surprise that his guest has played a bit of football in the area, the recently retired Welsh international, Robbie Savage.

Savage got off to a good start by acknowledging that professional football players are role models for young players, particularly at grassroots level – it got progressively worse from there (in my humble opinion!).  Savage himself is a pretty good example of what can be achieved with a good work ethic and staying out of trouble off the pitch – having been released by Manchester United at 19, after being told he wasn’t good enough by the great Sir Alex Ferguson, he signed for Division 2 side Crewe Alexandra.  He soon moved to the Premiership with Leicester City and spent several seasons in the top tier of English football with Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers, before ending his career with Championship side Derby County.  All in all, he played over 600 league games as well as 39 games for his country.  Not bad for a player who, by his own admission, did not have that much ability.

Savage spoke about his desire to play football and how managers (namely Martin O’Neill) told him that his place in the team was mostly down to his ‘big heart’.  But where does desire turn into over-exuberance, or even a ‘win at all costs’ mentality?  Savage accepted that his 158 yellow cards (from the horse’s mouth) were perhaps not such a good example to younger players, but made no apologies for doing whatever was necessary to win the game.

There was quite a bit of discussion around respect for referees – Tom Ross suggesting that referees should not be announced until just before a game, to prevent the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson making comments.  Savage was quick to defend players who dive, claim for throws, corners etc and even being somewhat aggressive towards the referee, but also pointed out that referees must be better at making correct decisions in order for players to fully respect them.  Incidents of blatant cheating were brought up (Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ and Henry’s more recent example of how a hand can be a useful method of scoring), with Savage suggesting that they were justified based on the outcome.  Worryingly, when asked, about 50% of the audience also agreed that winning at all costs is acceptable in football!?  I guess I risk offending half of the readers of this (including my companion for the day who rose his hand tentatively in agreement with Mr Savage), but frankly I find this disgusting.

There are two main reasons for this – one on an ideological (perhaps ethical) level and one on a footballing level.

I love football – not for the winning (Villa tend to let me down on that front), not for the money (because none of it comes to me) but for the enjoyment of the game, the enjoyment of playing with friends and the challenge of trying to be better.  Football, in its purest form has elements of problem-solving, teamwork, effective communication, a sense of belonging and worth, not to mention all the physiological benefits.  The sense of achievement when you win is totally diminished if it is accomplished through breaking the rules.  A sense of injustice overrides any feelings of pride in a good performance, even in defeat, when cheating is involved.  At professional levels, there is more at stake than achievement or pride – unfortunately these seem to be less and less of a motivation.  Instead, money and pressure from ambitious owners and fans, develops a culture of winning no matter what and results in players diving in the box, surrounding referees and using illegal parts of the body.  The real problem is how ingrained this attitude is – Robbie Savage didn’t see it as a problem (I think some of those in the audience would at least agree that it isn’t a desirable situation) and I suspect many professional footballers wouldn’t think twice about conning a referee.  At grassroots level this is devastating, and brings me on to my second point.

If a player has to cheat in order to gain an advantage, this only emphasises a lack of ability.  Maradona was forced to use his hand because he simply wasn’t tall enough to use his head, players dive because they have lost the ball, or because they aren’t good enough to beat the defender.  If players and coaches can’t acknowledge their deficiencies, how can they improve?  Maradona was a player of the highest quality, and a lack of height was probably very useful at times, but at grassroots level, cheating to gain an advantage will only prevent players from improving – why do they need to if they can win by cheating.  If players at grassroots level are learning to win at all costs, they will grow up, in footballing terms, with the wrong attitude and some serious issues in their footballing ability.

What can be done?  Well Nick Levett’s session addressed some of these issues (see next blog post) but there has to be a serious intervention from the top – RESPECT has been taken seriously, coaches must stamp out cheating in their players and players must take responsibility for their actions.  Unfortunately I don’t think that the current culture within the professional game will not allow change quickly (if at all).  Maybe the best we can hope for is a new generation of players who have a different outlook on football, or maybe a painful period for football in this country, with the promise of a brighter future at the end.

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