When Gary Neville responded to an FA charge for an impassioned celebration at Old Trafford in 2006 by sarcastically declaring all footballers should become robots, he probably didn’t know his words would be looked back upon as a prophecy years down the line.
The Manchester United legend has shown how shrewd, smart and thoughtful he is since hanging up his boots and becoming a Sky Sports pundit, but it’s unlikely he envisaged the sanitised, uber-clean footballing climate of 2017 when asked to explain why he’d reacted so ferociously to Rio Ferdinand’s late winner against Liverpool.
The Premier League has produced many negative side-effects but perhaps the most frustrating is how far it has pushed footballers and the fan bases that once created them apart. Local lads turned good are now an exceptionally rare breed and the sheer wealth of the game has allowed footballers to retreat to their mansions, filled with ultra-materialistic distractions, to escape the ever-hyperbolic criticism that comes their way.
There’s a curious paradox of social media connecting us with more people at a greater velocity than ever before, yet creating an increasing feeling of alienation. We’ve traded pub gatherings for Whatsapp, kickabouts in the park for hours spent on Ultimate Team. Of course, that doesn’t just apply to football, but it adds to the context of this discussion.
In theory, Twitter should be a fantastic tool to break down that increasing barrier between footballer and fan; in practice, what we get more often than not are agent-approved, generic posts conjured up by a PR company the footballer involved has never had any genuine contact with.
Yet, there is an obvious reason for that – the reactions to incidents like Neville’s, which have corroded the personalities footballers once had. Nobody wants to return to an era in which half of the Premier League suffered from alcohol abuse and mental health problems ushered under the rug.
But at the same time, the level of scrutiny – not only from the FA but also the wider world – has forced footballers to become painfully professional, almost emotionless beings lacking that once intoxicating allure of flawed heroes.
That is, without a doubt, a sweeping generalisation. There are obvious exceptions to the rule – Jermain Defoe’s touching relationship with Bradley Lowery being one of them. But footballers have become so concerned by inadvertently creating controversy that personal contact with the fans feels like it’s reached an all-time low, fearing one flippant comment or astutely-angled photograph could lead to enormous ramifications. It’s much safer for them to simply stay out of the public eye and keep opinions too themselves as much as possible.
It’s evident in any given press conference or interview as well. During the early days of Sky Sports, they were pressure cauldrons that could force any number of unexpected outcomes. Nowadays, however, players are media-trained to an unprecedented level and always, no matter what issue they’re asked to comment on, toe the party line to the letter. There’s no individuality, personality or genuine honesty anymore – just an endless string of cliches we’ve all heard before in the hope the interviewer will eventually leave them alone.
The underlying theme is that footballers aren’t allowed to be human anymore because there is simply too much at stake, but that emotive quality is once what made football, especially here in England, so special. Kevin Keegan’s infamous rant, Paolo Di Canio’s combination of class and crass and Jose Mourinho’s declaration of being ‘the Special One’ are up there with the greatest moments in Premier League history, but it’s hard to imagine any of them taking place today – at least, not without an incredibly unwelcome backlash that could affect anything from sponsorship deals to their futures at their respective clubs.
It’s not so much a case of political correctness going mad, as it is the pressures of the game becoming so severe that nobody wants to make a mistake. Whilst that may benefit the increasingly corporate direction the beautiful game is taking, it also makes football a much harder sport to connect with. It’s far from being a working man’s game anymore – the men who work in it earn thousands of pounds before they’ve finished eating their breakfast.
As much as we have the FA to blame for punishing players like Neville for showing nothing but the passion any fan would demand from their fellow supporters, we also have ourselves. We’re the ones who’ve made Twitter an inhospitable environment for anybody with an earnest opinion, we’re the ones who jump on any indiscretion a footballer makes and we’re the ones who lap up the staggering level of scrutiny that accompany it.
If we gave footballers the space and freedom to be humans, if we avoided the media circus and praised honesty and personality for better or worse, perhaps we can reverse the tide of sanitisation – and perhaps footballers won’t have to act like robots anymore.