There are many conceits in English football, but the most important one is that you have to be hard. It’s important because unlike many of our footballing traditions, this one has some foundation in reality. England is cold a lot. If you’re going run around on a frozen field for 90 minutes on a Sunday morning chasing a man who may or may not have spent the previous night in the local police station, you can’t cry when he kicks you. That’s human survival.
It’s also a form of hazing. So many elite European players have failed miserably to shine under the floodlights in England that their career can be ruined by their failure to ‘do it on a wet, windy night in Stoke’ (or equivalent colonial outpost). AC Milan’s Kaka & Ronaldinho went to Portsmouth for the Europa League once and their careers never recovered from the shock.
Whether it was the increased television exposure afforded by the launch of the Premier League, Sky’s breakaway deal with clubs formerly competing in Division One, or the vast inflation of wages, there’s been a huge change in footballers over the past twenty odd years. They’ve started shaving, for one. Some even carry man bags, drive nice cars, have relationships with their kids and, controversially, don’t respond to being screamed at or having things thrown at them. Some even have the temerity to expect to be treated like a human being.
Some in football find this difficult to unpack. On the 18th December, Jose Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United, ostensibly for a shocking run of form but driven, some commentators claim, by a player led revolt against his famously autonomous management style. Mourinho’s failure to get a performance out of his record breaking marquee signing, Paul Pogba, did not help the Portuguese.
Despite Mourinho’s dour demeanour and increasingly petulant outbursts, Pogba, who cost £89m in the summer of 2016 and reportedly receives wages of £290,000 per week, received significant criticism for his role in Mourinho’s exit. A proportion of commentators, pundits and fans on social media claimed that a player of Pogba’s talent (he won the 2018 World Cup with France) should be sufficiently incentivised to play beautiful football whether he gets on with his manager or not. The fact that Pogba has scored four times and played a significant role in Manchester United’s upturn in form since Ole Gunnar Solskjaar was appointed to replace Mourinho appeared to validate the view that Pogba had ‘downed tools’ in an exhibition of the football cancer that is ‘player power’.
We have precedents for this. Mourinho’s second term at Chelsea ended ignominiously after players stopped producing performances on the pitch. Chelsea winger Eden Hazard acknowledged that “Mourinho’s second spell as Chelsea manager descended into a “negative cycle” in his third season, [citing examples of] criticising players and taking the “fun” out of training.” Claudio Ranieri’s coupon busting 16/17 league title win wasn’t sufficient to save him from the chop either. He was sacked a mere nine months after lifting the Premier League trophy amid reports that players had complained about his management to the chairman en masse.
At face value, the argument that footballers should perform to the peak of their abilities week in, week out because they get paid a lot of money and are in a very privileged position is not without merit. Most fans spend a significant proportion of their own wages buying tickets to watch them so the least they can do is make an effort. But it’s also ludicrous in a culture that is increasingly aware of the importance of the role of psychology in elite sports. Is it reasonable to expect someone born in 1993 with skills honed on bowling green training grounds to thrive while being screamed at in the rain?
Football is increasingly uncomfortable with this new breed of footballer and would almost certainly divert them towards less manly pursuits if their skills weren’t so goddamn marketable. Kevin de Bruyne would definitely lose a fight with Duncan Ferguson, but no one in their right mind would claim Ferguson is the superior footballer. Arsenal fans are tying themselves in knots over Mesut Ozil, who occasionally strokes the ball so beautifully it makes them bleed from the eyes but spends the rest of his pitch time casually following the game while leaning against a goalpost smoking a cheroot.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in history. Football would be nothing without legend. Remember that time Bert Trautmann played the FA Cup Final with a broken neck in 1956? The universal joy that broke out when Abou Diaby kicked John Terry in the face while trying to clear a ball from the penalty area? Halcyon days.
But this is 2019. A new climate in which professions and institutions of all kinds are re-examining their infrastructures to ensure they don’t facilitate abusive and/or dangerous behaviours. The majority of fans understand that racism, homophobia, misogyny and abuse of minors need to be expunged from the game completely, but the culture of bullying often dressed as toughening players up for the rigours of the game is a different matter entirely.
Mourinho’s dismissal could be the beginning of the end of this type of management, not least because modern players are different to those that came before. They respond to different things, different support systems and different motivations. Arguably they’re far more emotionally sophisticated than their forebears. You can dismiss them as soft, unable to take criticism, not up for it or anything other euphemism for ‘not manly enough’ all you want but you can’t beat a tune out of a violin. You have to be open to learning, flexible and respectful of it before it will sing for you.
Even the manager of Molde knows that.