Where have all the characters gone in football?

The modern game is a global, money-making machine, but it lacks the heroes and villains that we grew up with. When I was a lad, all the way back in the mid 90’s, I found myself in a fantastic era for characters in football. Of course I didn’t realise it at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight can appreciate how much they added to the game. There was Tony Adams, battling alcoholism whilst leading Arsenal to league titles. There was Paul Gascoigne, showing his belly to the fans and applauding them and there was Vinnie Jones, doing all sorts of terrible things to people. There was also a wave of continental flair and unpredictability arriving in the premiership. Eric Cantona, Paolo Di Canio and David Ginola playing side by side with the great British entertainers. Now, a decade or so on, it all seems a bit flat in comparison.

Of course, English football has changed. The wages are astronomical, the pressures and expectations immense and the media scrutiny constant. The players are surrounded by PR people and agents, they are prepped, one dimensional and generally kept at arms length from the public. In interviews they answer with stock phrases and occasionally one of them will appear in heat magazine on a beach somewhere. They are raised and nurtured to success under a mantra of professionalism, professionalism, professionalism: (whilst some fail to adhere to this off the pitch, stumbling out of a nightclub once is not enough to make someone interesting) it is a philosophy that leaves little room for the antics of their predecessors, both on and off the pitch.

The stakes are certainly too high now to tolerate the fantastic showboating of Jay-Jay Okocha or the young Joe Cole. The closest we come now is stepovers, in their hundreds, but where are the Pele flicks and the nutmegs, the beating a man 2 or 3 times just because you can? Nowadays it seems it’s just Cristiano Ronaldo left, but there seems less joy in the way he does it. His tricks are less enjoyment and expression, more just showing off. We can see from Mancini’s reaction to Mario Balotelli’s dismal backheel that tricks do not go down well any more.

Characters in the premiership are thin on the ground right now. There are Balotelli and Joey Barton and while both are certainly unpredictable and great at making headlines, there is a strong element of the unpleasant to their behaviour. It would be a great shame if the entertainers were just replaced by the people with the shortest fuse. The relegation of Jimmy Bullard to the Championship may have meant saying goodbye to the only real entertainer of recent years.

It would be unbelievably refreshing to see a player expose some of his personality, to let himself off the leash without it being because he’s angry. The head down, headphones in, nothing to see here, emotionless walk to the changing room sums it all up really. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to change much in the near future.