It’s amazing how many people want to tell you they expect better from a footballer. “Footballers are role models,” they’ll fume, “like it or not.” Can I choose “not”? By all means expect better from governments, or friends, or your spouse. But those who affect serial disappointment with the personal decisions of people whose job is kicking a ball seem more deserving of medical assistance than a polite ear.
And so to the latest news in bizarrely miscast role models. We have company for both Wayne Rooney, who you will recall is failing to live up to his unsolicited role as a figurehead for Austerity Britain, and Andy Carroll, whose potential England call-up would apparently represent the death of civilised society. Joining their number is John Barnes, whose failure to attend the birth of his baby on Sunday – he preferred to stay in the Sky pundit’s chair for the Liverpool-Chelsea game – has been taken as a personal affront by all manner of people other than Mrs Barnes.
The child was Barnesy’s seventh, so the comparative rarity of his former club being 2-0 up at half-time these days has not gone unremarked upon. Yet though no one has the remotest inkling what Mrs Barnes feels about it, and though by any civilised yardstick one might imagine it a matter between her and her husband, the fact that John previously played top-flight association football seems to have rendered his personal decision profoundly symbolic for some. They expected better.
We may judge this judgmentalism by its flipside. Labour-room attendance is a pet subject of the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell, who cannot learn of a sportsman’s decision to skip a match to attend his child’s birth without unleashing a standard rant. “How unfortunate for the Taliban that our British squaddies hold the nation in somewhat higher priority,” ran his diatribe about Martin Johnson’s decision to hang around for his baby’s arrival, while a former Liverpool player’s failure to travel to a European fixture for the same reason was given slightly less of a coating on the basis that “at least Shabby Alonso was letting down only his club, not his country”.
To anyone who questions this crystalline logic, Jeff has a simple answer: “Usually, I refer them to the lovely Mrs Powell, who belongs to the rational majority of wives and mothers who believe that a man’s first job is to provide for the family and who consequently take pride in the husband’s work.” Isn’t he priceless?
But what neither Mr Powell nor any of those frothing about John Barnes can see is that having a rigidly prescriptive view either way on this stuff is the height of ghastliness. And unless we really have given up as a culture – a possibility, admittedly – we might consider investing the personal lives of players with less symbolism, not more.Witness the agonising over Carroll’s potential England call-up, which some are opposing vocally on the basis that rejecting the Newcastle striker in light of allegations about his off-pitch behaviour would draw some sort of moral line in the sand not just for football, but the wider country. Yet does the composition of the England football side truly “send a message” to an impressionable populace about what will and won’t stand as far as non-footballing matters are concerned? If so – and I hate to break it to the blazered coppers/social engineers/trainee eugenicists of the Football Association and elsewhere – the policy seems to have been failing.
That’s perhaps not the most enormous surprise. As an instrument of social correction, the personnel decisions of the England coach are that bit less likely to change the fabric of the nation than little things like failure to provide decent education. Or to put it even more simply: if Britain is broken, it isn’t John Terry’s fault. Even the most part-time conspiracy theorists or commies might suggest the emphasis placed on such total and utter irrelevances creates a convenient opiate which allows the rather bigger villains of society to go about their work in peace.
We’ll leave the last words on Carroll to the troublesome anti-hero Joey Barton, who sneered at the “goody two-shoes” image of “Team England”, or Club England, or whatever figleaf we’re slapping over the malfunctioning enterprise this week, and observed that other countries just pick the best players in their position.
Naturally, the moralisers will retort that one doesn’t go to Barton for ethical guidance – and I’m afraid that should only underscore his perfectly sensible point. One doesn’t. One shouldn’t. And long may that continue.