Is it better to be boring or hated? This is the question Premier League footballers must ask themselves.
For many it may be an easy choice, the tedium is surely more bearable than the level of vitriol that modern footballers are increasingly subjected to. But the decision is not the point, what matters is the unfairness of being forced to choose between these two evils.
In reality, such is the level of media training that young players go through, this is not a choice that is actively considered. Football clubs have their players so well drilled when it comes to talking to journalists, that they barely even have to think at all. Triggers are picked up and met with pre-prepared answers; clichés are well rehearsed and easily roll off the tongue.
However, stray from the script even slightly and the result is often ridicule. It’s not surprising that clubs put so much effort into protecting their players from criticism and the players are so willing to toe the line. Damned if they do, and damned if they don’t: this is the situation that all Premier League players find themselves in when dealing with the media.
Manchester United‘s Tom Cleverley was the most recent player with the audacity to say something interesting. In an interview with Oliver Holt, the Englishman was being asked how he deals with all the abuse he receives online. Cleverley could have easily listed off the usual clichés and talked of ‘water rolling off ducks backs’ and taking various things ‘on the chin’. Instead, the young midfielder attempted to actually answer the question at hand.
In attempting to justify his style of play, Cleverley sought comparisons from La Liga. He noted that possession was held in greater esteem by football fans in Spain, even if it means just passing the ball sideways. Cleverley was quick to accept that such work is always going to go relatively unheralded when compared to crunching tackles or 30-yard screamers that we’ve come to expect from midfielders in the Premier League.
The reaction to Tom Cleverley’s comments was one of indignation: ‘Does he really think of himself as the English Xavi?’. While this is clearly an unfair extrapolation from the young midfielder’s words, this is besides the point. And neither is this about how good Tom Cleverley’s ball retention actually is, or the difference he makes to the Manchester United team. The problem is that Cleverley couldn’t win no matter what he said. He could either be seen as boring or cocky, but nothing more positive than this. So who could really blame him if just trots out the classic ‘fans are entitled to voice their opinions’ the next time this kind of questioning is put to him?
The irony of journalists protesting the tedium of such clichés is that they created the need for media training in the first place. In an effort to sell more newspapers, it became common practice to twist quotes into more attractive stories. And the increased pace of the news-cycle and competitiveness online has only increased this trend. In reaction to this practice, clubs have sought to protect their players by arming them with safe responses to various lines of questioning.
However, the real problem of such set responses is not that they’re boring, but that they’re false. Almost everything a player will say in a post-match interview can be immediately disregarded as empty words. No one really believes that players are saying what they’re thinking, and players no longer believe in what they’re actually saying. In the mega rich world of the Premier League where the alienation between fans and the teams they support is only on the rise, such falsehoods can only increase feelings of disconnection.
After scoring England’s only goal in their recent win over Denmark, Daniel Sturridge was asked how he felt about the win. The striker was at pains to insist he took no personal happiness from scoring, that it was all – and only – about the team. Imagining that Sturridge took no personal pleasure from scoring the winning goal at Wembley is clearly ludicrous. But such is the position that players find themselves in that it’s better for them to lie then tell the truth.