Chelsea: Now is the worst time to take over club says Pat Nevin
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Football and its influence on the wider British public has been eternally debated, the Beautiful Game and excess going together like Pep Guardiola and trophies.
Now, the sport’s relationship with controversy will again be thrust into the public eye, as the contested World Cup 2022 kicks off in Qatar, accompanied by a soundtrack of complaints from human rights activists and LGBTQ+ supporters.
Demands the tournament, which was surprisingly awarded to the Middle Eastern nation in 2010, be moved or axed altogether have grown as the tournament’s opening fixture edges closer, including the likes of ex-Manchester United forward Eric Cantona, who called for a boycott of the 32 team competition.
But back in Britain, football’s own influence over society can be questioned, as a number of high-profile players have run-ins with the law. So is Britain’s most popular (and lucrative) sport in danger of having its reputation ripped apart?
“When people keep on telling you how fabulous you are, it’s easy to start believing it.” That’s the verdict of former Professional Football Association (PFA) chair and Chelsea Football Club legend Pat Nevin. And it’s easy to see why. For a sport so passionately admired by the British working classes and beyond for the best part of a century-and-a-half, its popularity has helped make teenage prodigies – with barely a handful of appearances for their parent clubs – millionaires, and with it celebrities in their own rights.
Over the years, promising talents and established stars have become embroiled with alleged criminal activity, standing trial for their actions and spending time locked behind bars as they await for their version of events to be heard. How, then, have their lives reached such damaging lows, when such high praise was lavished on them when starring in the Premier League or at a World Cup?
Nevin, who earned 28 caps for Scotland’s national side during an illustrious career through the Eighties and Nineties, believes this unforgiving culture within British football – a culture that can make a player a hero or villain within the blink of an eye, or the whisker of a post – is indicative of wider systemic problems in society.
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Nevin told Express.co.uk in respect of various alleged activities over the years: “That’s not acceptable in any way whatsoever. The players have no one else to blame at all… However, I think we need to look at our wider culture.”
The broadcaster, a stalwart of BBC Radio 5 Live’s football coverage, derided how footballers earn “celebrity status… because they can kick a ball”, and that ultimately as a nation “we need to educate our populace to not treat stars differently”.
The analyst, who released his autobiography The Accidental Footballer in 2021, said: “The celebrity culture that we have, I think a lot of it – and it’s not just football, I think it’s the media, it’s everyone – needs to question themselves, when they build [a player] massively up, and then look shocked and amazed that people misbehave.
“Part of the reason is, we have built those people up as quickly as they have achieved anything. But they’ve also put into the public’s mind that celebrity is everything. And it’s maybe not a surprise that you get some really serious misbehaviour, when you develop this two-tier system [between celebrity and the public].”
Football, often dubbed the Beautiful Game, experienced an incredible boom in popularity during the Fifties and Sixties, with England’s World Cup win in 1966, and European Cup victories for Celtic and Manchester United in 1967 and 1968 respectively, helping cement its place within the public’s eye, and placing the country on a global stage.
And with that standing came money. Lots of it.
After English football returned to the European fold after the 1990 World Cup, the Premier League was born, a watershed moment many attribute as the period when the financial clout of those involved in England’s top tier of competition were given the remarkable rewards for achieving on the pitch.
With that intense level of interest, the players became the central figures to the drama, and their lives outside the game were placed even more firmly under the microscope by those besotted with the sport.
Among those stars to have fallen foul to the excesses of the game include former Premier League player Jermaine Pennant, who, at the age of 22, and on Arsenal Football Club’s books, was sentenced to 90 days imprisonment after pleading guilty to drink-driving and driving while disqualified in 2005.
He recalled how he had become a “ticking time bomb waiting to explode” when discussing that period of his life with Sky Sports four years ago. At the time he was playing on-loan for Birmingham City. He recalled how “not playing” football “added to the damage” he was experiencing.
The ex-Liverpool attacker added: “I didn’t have a clue, I was in shock, it didn’t sink in until after about a week when I was inside that, ‘Oh my god, I’m in prison – what have I done with my life? What have I done with my career?'”
Gary Bloom, a clinical sports psychotherapist and author of Keeping Your Head in the Game, described working with some of the game’s highest-profile stars in his career, and how he helps them attempt to move away from the perceived murky world of football.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, Bloom said it was “easy for footballers to fall into that maladaptive way of thinking… when your life dictates it”. He recalled how some players would have so much money they’d “just push their bill at their agent”, regardless of whatever was being purchased, or how the money was being used.
“Once you start detaching from reality, where does that end,” Bloom said. “You need somebody to say, ‘Hang on. That ain’t right. He can’t do that. That’s not fair’. And if there’s nobody in your life, who you’re going to allow in who’s going to do that, we all need that.”
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He continued: “We all have to obey laws that the police or whoever, or our parents or our loved ones or our partners lay down and who say, ‘Sorry, you can’t do that.’ But if that has never been imposed on that individual, and nobody’s ever said no to them, how are they going to know how to behave?”
Bloom, who also worked as a football commentator before beginning his career helping footballers with their health, believed a lot of the issues spawned from players who are from “less united homes”. This, in turn, saw those players “struggling to grasp fame and elements of it they never knew existed… having fame placed on their shoulders from 17 or 18 can change any person”.
But while Bloom argued that players were now, more than ever, in tune with their bodies, refusing to drink to excess as their counterparts 30 or 40 years ago did, social media was the biggest struggle those in the spotlight now faced.
“The cultures have changed dramatically,” he said. “But some of the stresses and strains, I think, I would argue have got even worse because of social media. And remember, some of these players are looking for a certain number of followers on social media to be able to get certain deals with sportswear manufacturers, who want certain numbers of followers on your Instagram or Twitter page.
“They are chasing a drug that ultimately is poison. And those followers they are chasing, they are just writing s**t on the internet about things and they will get very upset.”
So has football let itself get to a point where its footballers, hailed as aspirational figures children across the globe admire and want to replicate, feel they are above the law? Nevin doesn’t think so.
The 59-year-old described his experience of getting into football from “a different direction” to his contemporaries, “doing a degree and coming from a different kind of background and attitude”. But when it came to his teammates “they were just a very normal cross-section of young men”.
Nevin, who also played for Everton Football Club, continued: “They were never more than that. So you’ll have your good guys, your bad guys, you will have your egotists – you will have the whole cross-section. And in the midst of that, like in all parts of society, you will have people who will be lawbreakers, or abuse their position.
“And the reason why it jumps out more in football is that if you’ve got £150,000 a week, it’s a bit easier to abuse your position. That’s it. It’s not that they are different from anyone else. They are not.”
He added: “They are a perfectly normal cross-section who have been given this huge wodge of cash, and they’ve been told since quite a young age, quite a lot of them, how fabulous they are. And when people keep on telling you how fabulous you are, it’s easy to start believing it.”
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