The Blog Posts here are very interesting and give views right across the spectrum of opinion.
Luke Hakin's, Rip It Up and Start Again, had me nodding in agreement. I can’t disagree that there are far too many players at the SoL who are taking the club for a ride. But then, Michael Conroy’s article, Are You Mental? made me think in a different direction. Young professional footballers, from their late 'teens through to their early twenties carry a heavy weight of expectations and many, for a whole host of reasons aren’t, up to it, largely because of the way the club is run. This is not the players' fault and I doubt if the right kind of support exists at Sunderland, as at many clubs, for a struggling young footballer.
Who's to blame? It’s probably a combination of “the system” which is a complicated thing; the vast amount of money sloshing around in football; the media; the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the club, the fans and certainly other pressures I can't think of. The media has plenty to answer for, I remember The Sun’s “turnip” campaign on Graham Taylor, who was far from a bad manager: it was simply an exercise in kicking a man when he’s down. Then the media’s “players’ ratings” where 90 minute performances are subjectively summed up in 15 words. The media, inherently unstable, tends to classify footballers as either brilliant or rubbish. Then there are the same expectations of managers and coaching staff. There are no secure jobs in football, or any other sport for that matter. A rugby player having a less than excellent game for England can expect the boot from Eddie Jones. Eddie Jones can expect the boot if England have another season like the one just past. Cricket is probably the game which publicly exposes players more than any other: a batsman having a bad run might get a confidence boosting score of, say, 20 and then be stupidly run out by the team mate at the other end. A bowler whose action is slightly out of kilter gets clouted and loses this place. These sportsmen are even more publicly exposed than footballers - and that says nothing about boxing. I think that historically, cricket, which involves fewer players at both test and county level, has the higher suicide rate mentioned by Michael Conroy of any sport.
But, back to Sunderland. Although people say what a great club it is to play for, I think they mean it pays very good wages for lacklustre performances. It seems to me, though, that it is a very unstable club, mainly because many managers have come to the SoL and, for over ten years now, either been unsuitable, or have not been given the opportunity to build the kind of team they envisage. So, what kind of stability have jumpy, insecure managers been able to offer young players in their charge? What Sunderland have lacked has been positive continuity, otherwise known as success. The fans and media have, perhaps understandably, blamed young players who are not delivering. “So and so isn’t performing” they cry. Well, so and so, might, depending on this personality, i.e. mental state, come out fighting and find better performances from somewhere. Others might simply just fold, but continue playing with boos and jeers ringing in their ears and play badly, and become cynical because they’re still on a good contract. They continue to make up the numbers only because they’re the best of a poor lot and just draw their pay.
Young footballers come with a lot of talent in their feet and often a great deal of immaturity in their heads. This is not necessarily their fault. What 12 or 14 year old, already being courted by a professional football club is going to be too bothered about school? He will be eating, drinking and sleeping football. By the time he leaves school he will already be in the process of being absorbed into the professional game with its often questionable values. His time as as professional footballer will, if he’s lucky, last for15 years at the most. Not every retiring footballer can continue his life in football. There are very limited opportunities in management, coaching, punditry in the media and few will have a level of education to take a job in a profession. Clubs need to look at this and to encourage young players to look to their futures out of football. The big money many footballers earn is one thing, but reduced income might bring many who have overspent down to earth very quickly. Footballers in their late twenties must often wonder what on earth they’re going to do when they’re finished.
Football, as a whole needs to pay much more attention to players’ welfare in terms of continuing their education and mental health. Sport already employs psychologists, but their role needs to be long term and even extend beyond the time of a player’s retirement if necessary. There’s no shortage of money in the game for this and, as a way of making individual clubs take responsibility, the F.A should levy clubs to pay for it.
The problem at Sunderland, as I see it, is that there’s nobody taking ultimate responsibility. The club is in a mess and, if we’re seeking an irresponsible culprit - somebody who had the power to do much, much better, then it’s not really managers or players, but the one and only Ellis Short. He’s the captain who has jumped ship, left it rudderless and made it safely to shore leaving it to sink for all he cares. Nobody left on board is empowered to take decisive action. I don’t know about Martin Bain, who gets a lot of blame, but I think in Chris Coleman we have a decent, even good manager who hasn’t even met Ellis Short. In a situation where football as a whole leaves much to be desired in the way players are treated (doesn’t include salaries), but includes the meat market transfer system, dodgy, even corrupt agents, short termism, insecurities and panic buying and selling, we have some of the most rancid features of the worst of capitalism in football. Things can only get better.