Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Almost-Footballers: Why Football Should Never Turn Its Back

I was saving my first proper post in this blog for Liverpool's next managerial appointment. However, somewhere between "Kenny Out" and "Talk to Rafa" I gave up wasting energy on the whole situation. More on Roberto Martinez (I imagine) once the whole circus is over. Thanks to the ever-discreet Dave Whelan i am aware that Martinez is with our owners in Miami having talks, but then in the context of this particular part of Liverpool's history, that's no guarantee that we're about to see a smooth process and a signed contract. Therefore, WARNING : this post contains discussion of a serious footballing issue.

This comes about after Joey Barton received his 12-match ban for a hatrick of violent conduct offences on the final day of the season. Speculation has begun as to whether QPR can and will sack him, and whether any other Premier League club will employ him once his ban is over. But there are also widespread claims that this should be Joey's last chance in the sport, and that, according to Paul Hayward of the Telegraph, "the game should cast out a limited player."

Its pretty tough to make a case for Barton, who is pushing 30, has served a prison sentence, been given several second chances and far more positive publicity in recent months than most other professional players. But he is in the extreme minority, both in that he is, despite what Hayward says, a talented footballer (though not as good as he thinks of himself), but also his transgressions have gone far beyond the boundaries of what is generally viewed as acceptable, on a pitch or on the street.

But what of the rest?

Despite that clubs are pricing out thousands of fans with obscene ticket prices, football remains a wonderfully classless sport at the grassroots level. The circumstances you are born into do not limit your opportunities to become a footballer - however, neither are they given the slightest consideration when you are deemed surplus to requirements, whether that be at 14 or 24.

For every Wayne Rooney, there are dozens of youngsters who are plucked from their council estate childhoods and given the hope, if not the promise, that they will make it as a footballer, only to find that it was all just a brief dream. They are often cast out before they become adults, just as if they were another Joey Barton, but without having stubbed a cigar out in a teammates' eye or beaten another one to unconsciousness. Plenty others spend 10-15 years working towards their dream, get as far as pulling a first-team shirt on and starting a League Cup match or an end-of-season dead rubber, but still find themselves looking for a new career before they reach their mid-twenties.

What about those that we can't even apply the absurd unwritten social law to, that footballers, because of their wealth, have no reason to be unhappy or angry, or any defence for their mistakes? Or are they simply just fortunate to have even got close to that blissful life of kicking a ball around for a living?

Whether he behaves well or not, what happens to the almost-footballer?

There are of course, provisions right through the game, led by the FA, for safeguarding children against all forms of physical and psychological harm within football institutions, as well as protecting their rights to education. Meanwhile the famous Sporting Chance charity does some stellar work through using the power of sport to turn troubled lives around, and most professional clubs run their own local community projects or foundations.

All admirable, necessary stuff. But there remains a severe lack of provision for how these youngsters deal with being in a position which has the potential to turn their lives, and their family's, upside-down. There is certainly none for how the unfortunate majority adjust to 'normal' life after their wildest dreams have been dashed before they've even had a chance to grow up and think philosophically about their own lives.

Of course, plenty of these youngsters are guided by their parents and probably go on to live perfectly fulfilling lives. But its no secret that there is a behavioural problem within English football's young pretenders, and this is certainly not exclusive to the super-rich and famous. On the contrary, Wayne Rooney was fortunate enough to have worked under two hard-line professionals in David Moyes and Alex Ferguson, who made every effort to ensure his immense talent wouldn't go to waste. But again, Rooney is in a minority, and plenty of lesser-known, promising youngsters are still earning significant sums of money before they know how to look after themselves.

It is not clear at what point Manchester United, which has dealt successfully with Rooney and other talented trouble-makers, considered the gifted Ravel Morrison as no longer worth the damage to their commercial image. Its not hard to imagine his move to West Ham being the last of his career that commands a transfer fee. Morrison, still a teenager, had his fair share of well documented troubles before kicking a ball at professional level, and is considered to be fortunate that the game has not turned its back on him already. That time may still not be too far away, despite his obvious ability. But I can't imagine Sam Allardyce and West Ham snapped up the youngster with a view to nurturing him into a morally upstanding citizen, pay him a relative fortune for doing so, then reintegrate him back into a more conventional way of life and hope he behaves. What they saw was a potential bargain that nobody else wants - not even the world's richest club - who they can always dump at a later stage if he continues to misbehave. No harm done.

Any employer reserves the right to dismiss an employee, but doesn't the sport as a whole have a larger responsibility? Do the FA in particular, through the likes of Barton and Morrison, have the perfect opportunity to change some perceptions of the most important sport in the world, rather than wash their hands of them?

While the work the FA, clubs and charities do currently in the community should serve as a benchmark of what can be done through sport, football is still in need of some radical reforms at the academy level to tackle these issues, and that may involve removing responsibility from individual clubs altogether, and making the game itself carry more of the burden.

Perhaps clubs should be banned from signing kids, and instead the FA expand regional schools of excellence, which should prioritise education and enjoyment first, and football a not-too-distant second, up until the age of 16. This doesn't just include the compulsory education to which every child is entitled too, but also, as they approach 'graduation,' education around the issues, challenges and responsibilities that come with being a wealthy professional sportsman who, whether they ask for it or not, will be in the public-eye. From 16 they would be able to sign contracts with clubs, though until 18, they will effectively remain in part-time education through compulsory FA-funded schemes run by the clubs.

Whether a player is released by its school of excellence at 16, or by its club at any stage prior to becoming an established professional, the FA should form a body separate from the PFA which exclusively deals with a footballer's involuntary retirement. This should also apply to players whose retirement is forced upon them either by injury, or by a refusal of clubs to employ them for non-footballing reasons, and even Joey Barton would fall into that category.

My overall point is not so much that the game should come to the rescue of Joey Barton or Ravel Morrison. Rather that primarily from the moment kids are identified as being potential footballers, which can be as young as 5 or 6, that the game makes every effort to ensure that each kid is prepared as much as possible for what comes next, whether it is glorious opportunity or rejection. Likewise, it should aim to strive that out of those fortunate enough to make it, there are as few as possible who will go on to self-destruct and throw away a career the rest of us would do anything for. Thirdly, it will also aid the game's recently increased awareness of sensitive issues affecting current, former and almost-professionals, such as depression and alcoholism, which are often hidden until its tragically too late.

Joey Barton deserved his 12-game ban, and in fact deserves everything that comes to him (or not) in the coming months. But football owes it to the thousands of young hopefuls at clubs across the country to not turn its back completely on those which tarnish its short-term image, and bring about positive change at the sport's most important age-groups.

Thanks for reading. Liverpool, next time, I promise.

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