Pay your respects

Footballers are not normal, but they can be quite human

It's so easy to fall into the trap of assuming that footballers are not human just because they're not normal. They're not normal because they earn £135,000 a week while still only 28 - John Terry, that is - or £120,000 a week while only 23, viz: Cristiano Ronaldo. They ride Baby Bentleys or Ferraris, live in £10m mock horrors, don't pay for anything (least of all tax), can avoid speeding penalties, and have all the girls they can eat. Oh, sorry, you say that is normal where you come from? I do apologise. I must stop generalising.

Yet in some respects they are surprisingly human - especially when it comes to respect. Not respect for the fans, as they are useless and they know they are, nor the clubs, despite clutching their badges in moments of triumph. What they care about, nay, demand, is respect for themselves. Which I find rather reassuring - indeed, endearing.

Thierry Henry got awfully upset when a youth player sat in his seat on the team coach, bloomin' cheek. William Gallas has complained, and rightly so, about some younger players at Arsenal being insolent to him in the dressing room. This disgusting trend has reached even Germany, where Michael Ballack, the German captain, was horrified to be addressed directly by some of the new players. In his day, he was three years in the team before his existence was acknowledged. What is happening to the world?

There’s so much money and lack of talent that likely lads are courted, feted and worshipped, fought over and bribed

When I started my first job in 1958 on the Manchester Evening Chronicle I always wore a dark suit and addressed the news editor as Mr Walker and the deputy news editor, a right bastard who everyone was scared of, as Mr Mellor. You ran when they called, and stood to attention when spoken to.

I joined the Sunday Times in 1960 and the editor was always addressed as "sir". This was during a time when we had oak-panelled walls and posho hacks, like Ian Fleming, who disappeared at four on Friday afternoons to play golf.

I tried to bring my children up the correct way, to show respect for their elders and betters, and insisted they address me as either Your Worship or Your Excellency. Didn't work. They preferred to call me You, Hunt or Fish Face. I blame the permissive Sixties; that's when the rot set in.

I was amazed at a Christmas event last week at a primary school, where one of my grandchildren goes and where my three children went, to hear the head teacher being addressed by all the kids as Dilys, her first name. Have they no respect?

In football, the appalling lowering of standards can be explained. There's so much money and lack of talent that likely lads are courted, feted, worshipped, fought over and bribed while in nursery school. By 13, they have their own agent, lawyer, brand manager and Nike contract. At 17, in the first team, they sit in Thierry Henry's seat (and no wonder), probably trying to shag his wife and leave disgusting messages on his answerphone.

The old sweats, meaning elderly players (aged 33, 34), go on about the good old days when youth players cleaned their boots, swept the floor and wiped their bums. Those days, alas, are gorn.

The real reason why Robinho amazed the football world by fetching up at Man City was a lack of respect. Not from other players, but from his club. Real Madrid was contemplating offloading him as a part-exchange deal. He certainly wasn't taking that.

So, next time you hang around the stadium car park for five hours hoping for an autograph, do take a cloak, lay it down, and make sure to address the player as Your Beatitude.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech