by Peter Simpson
I don’t remember a time when footballers were within reach. I don’t reminisce about a time when a footballer was ‘one of us’ or remember a time when you’d see your team’s star player in his local butcher’s or propping up a bar next to your dad and his mates. My dad remembers regularly seeing Alan Hansen having a pint in The Pinewoods in Formby. To me, footballers have always been distant, untouchable celebrities possessing a talent and aura that commands adulation from millions around the globe (perhaps similar to the way your great grandma thought of Rudolph Valentino). I don’t expect players to live in the real world or to identify with us.
Before the days of Sky TV, luxury corporate boxes and prawn sandwiches, a football match was not necessarily the first port of call to spy the rich and glamorous; but things began to change with the introduction of the Premier League. As football became fashionable and throughout the 1990s hosts of famous non-football personalities flocked to the games – just to be seen at the games. Football, at times, began to resemble the Monaco Grand Prix.
In previous decades footballers went abroad to earn big money contracts, and in the late 80s to the early 90s, Italy was the league to play in; but the advent of the Premier League and the injection of cash and attention supplied by Sky would turn England into the country that would provide the wealth, glamour, and professional status for which the European leagues were previously known. The Premier League would become a home for many football celebrities.
Of course, the celebrity footballer was not a new phenomenon to the English game. Think back to George Best, Kevin Keegan, and Larry Lloyd (guess which one I’m joking about), these were players who can most definitely be called celebrities; yet they had the talent and charisma to justify their status and the money which was thrown at them from football and endorsements. A problem that arose when the Premier League and Sky’s money entered the game was that every footballer became a celebrity – no matter how mediocre their talent. Players seemed to be of the opinion that their wealth proved their ability and their behaviour emitted the belief that they were superior to those who played the game before them. Or did increased media attention simply reveal an aspect of professional football culture that had been prevalent for years?
I’m sure every fan of every club can point to a period of time in their own club’s history and say ‘That’s when they began to change.’ At the time I knew no different and their behaviour seemed normal to me, but looking back as an adult I would point to the Roy Evans-managed Liverpool team and say ‘That’s when they changed.’ That mid-90s period was the transition from old-school football to the game we recognise today.
For decades Liverpool had seamlessly transitioned from winning team to winning team thanks to a consistent philosophy of how the club should conduct itself on and off the pitch, but with a progressive attitude towards tactics and training that was fundamental to their success. Consecutive managers had kept hold of what made their predecessors successful and added their own ideas to efficiently transition to a new period of winning; but that philosophy was broken when Graeme Souness took over as manager and bulldozed everything in an attempt to rapidly exert a more continental influence over the club.
You could argue that Souness was ahead of his time because the diet and training methods he introduced became the standard for every top team in England in the latter part of the decade, as more foreign players and managers – in particular Arsène Wenger – pitched up in the Premier League; however, the speed with which Souness knocked everything down resulted in the collapse of Liverpool’s winning formula and the ability to seamlessly transition. Souness left Liverpool in a state from which it has yet to fully recover.
Roy Evans had a rebuilding job on his hands. Evans had been at Liverpool since 1965, and his appointment as manager fulfilled the prediction of then chairman John Smith when Evans was added to the backroom staff at Liverpool in 1974: ‘We have not made an appointment for the present but for the future. One day Roy Evans will be our manager.’ Evans was an appointment in the tradition of Liverpool – he was from within and knew the club from top to bottom. A few years before and perhaps he would have been an ideal appointment. It is arguable that by the time Roy Evans became manager in 1994 the game – and footballers – at the top level had begun to move into a world for which a man of his character was not suited.
Amongst Liverpool fans Roy Evans is remembered as a thoroughly decent man who provided his audience with exhilarating football and turned Liverpool back into title contenders – a fact which is often forgotten by those not associated with Liverpool. Unfortunately, for most people outside of Liverpool, Roy Evans is remembered for being unable to control his group of players – the group known as ‘The Spice Boys’. That was, of course, the moniker bestowed upon the younger players in the team who were synonymous with the celebrity lifestyle that was now part and parcel of being a Premiership footballer.
Players such as Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, Jason McAteer, David James and Stan Collymore symbolised the new breed of footballing millionaire. They were young, rich, flash, and at times seemed to care more about appearing in adverts and on catwalks than attending training and preparing for a match. As mentioned before, the Premier League and Sky TV increased interest in the game enormously so that it became fashionable – and these players were the first bunch who had the benefits of massively increased wages; but they were also the first who had to deal with such an incredible degree of media attention and scrutiny.
In the early days of the Premier League, before the continental lifestyle had been fully assimilated there was still, very much, a drinking culture within the game. Perhaps it was really not that much different to how players in previous decades would behave when they were not on the pitch – but amplified a little; and in the lad culture of the 90s what else would good looking young men with plenty of money do but go out partying and wear cream Armani suits? Some of them have claimed that other players at other clubs during the same period behaved no differently, but Liverpool players were highlighted and made an example of because this was a formerly successful club not regularly winning trophies.
That may very well be true. But then again it may not. Would people have minded Stan Collymore refusing to turn up for training if there was more silverware in the cabinet? Would people have not found Fowler and McManaman’s laddish Loaded interviews so unpalatable had they paraded more trophies on double-decker bus tours? What about Jamie Redknapp’s comments that negativity was aimed towards him due to jealousy of his looks?
These players came across as boorish and immature. They weren’t a credit to their club or their profession. But is that fair? This was a new generation having to deal with a level of attention that previous generations did not, as the increased coverage of the game raised the interest in the performers who were appearing on TV screens every week. Their indiscretions caught on camera and published in the newspapers left them open to criticism and debate about the low moral fibre of that day’s youth; but how difficult must it have been to be forced to be mature in front of cameras and TV audiences?
It could be argued that in the past players were allowed to commit their youthful indiscretions off-field and mature out of the glare of camera flashes without scrutiny and the pontificating of those looking down from their moral high ground. Or maybe the amount of money they were paid created crass super-brats who cared little for anything other than their own satisfaction? It may just be that simple – but I doubt it.
Whatever the reason, that group of Liverpool players captured the culture of the time and are remembered more for their playboy image and ill-discipline than their talents on the field. It couldn’t be allowed to happen again, and when Gerard Houllier took over as manager – after the unsuccessful Evans-Houllier co-manager reign – instilling discipline became a priority. But what also happened throughout Premier League clubs was a seizing of control of footballers’ actions and comments. They needed to be protected from themselves. Limit controversial comments in interviews. Do not draw attention to yourself or the club off the field.
A consequence of these measures was the disassociation of footballers and fans, as players were media trained to within an inch of their lives. An army of sound-alike soldiers were trotted out before the press after every game to repeat the mantra of it being a team game and giving 110%. We have become so used to this that any footballer who dares to say anything slightly self-congratulatory is lambasted as an egotistical disgrace. Footballers began to grow into people we did not recognise and often came across as having no real love or – to use a very over-valued word in English football – passion for the club as they limited their interviews to a select few sentences and withdrew, rarely interacting with fans beyond staged publicity events.
Footballers changed, and the bubble that surrounded their lives protected them from any real contact with fans. Clubs began to baby footballers and take control of their lives so that they wanted for nothing and did not have to grow up. Who didn’t scoff slightly when they found out that Manchester United’s 24-hour helpline for players was used for emergencies such as needing a leg sawn off a chair or having a hoover bag changed?
Nowadays kids are recruited out of school, brought up in the bubble and supplied with extraordinary amounts of cash from an immature age. Money and celebrity is what they know. You cannot always look at a footballer as a normal person. They don’t comprehend things the way we do. Ashley Cole nearly swerved off the road when he found out Arsenal were only going to offer him £55,000 a week. Of course he did! In his world that reaction makes sense.
Many Liverpool footballers who played during the 80s said that they were aware of the hardships the people of the city had to endure, and they wanted to play and win for them. It is doubtful today that players are that aware of what is going on in their club’s community unless they are informed by the club’s press officer and asked to recite a few careful lines that will go over well. That bubble players reside in has arguably protected them from overly destructive scrutiny, but has also resulted in them not being held accountable to their fans in a way in which they once were and left many of them in a state of arrested development with a large sense of entitlement.
I’ve painted quite a bleak picture about the effect the explosion of celebrity in football (personified by ‘The Spice Boys’) in the 90s had on the game and the connection of fans and players – but it’s not all bad. Football is still the most beautiful of games and the money available in England has managed to attract some of the most entertaining players in the world.
Nevertheless, fans have had to adapt their perceptions and accept that the game has moved on and the price of entertainment is a disconnection of fans and players. I do feel a bit sad that I was never able to feel as close to my players as previous generations were. Real interaction between fans and players was lost thanks to the prevalence of celebrity footballers…..until Twitter came along that is. But that’s an article for another decade.