Folly of footballers, with knobs on

Are footballers knobs? That's what the distinguished football philosopher Joey Barton suggested on the Today programme. First, we have to define a knob. Is it the same as a dickhead, twat, wanker or arse? All of them cover various shades of abuse. Knob suggests a foolish, simple person, rather than nasty or big-headed. Either way, pretty useless.

Professor Barton went on to give examples of footballers' knobbishness: they were detached from real life, relying on their agents or others to organise everything.

I remember being with Wayne when his wife got stuck on a train that was delayed. His first reaction was to ring his agent, asking him to sort it out. When I was with Gazza, he had been playing in China and had come home rather hurriedly (to dry out), leaving all his stuff. His poor old agent was then given the rotten job of flying all the way to China just to pick up Gazza's miserable belongings.

But all this is understandable. From the age of eight, our Prem players have been cocooned, spoon-fed, had their noses wiped, egos massaged. As long as they are doing the business, they need not bother themselves with boring, piddling, domestic matters or accepted standards of behaviour.

Naturally, many get carried away, assuming their millions and their status will absolve them or, at least, save them from their transgressions. Drink-driving? Sexual assault in a nightclub? The club or the agent will sort it out, using the sharpest lawyers. No need to get involved - just put your boots on the right way round and don't be late for training.

Pop stars and cabinet ministers are similarly blessed - don't have to make their own phone calls, get protected from the mob and, when caught out
by any authorities, will instantly make that heartbreaking plea: "Don't you know who I am?" It usually works.

So yes, on the whole, footballers tend to be knobs. But here's the rub - only up to about the age of 23. Most of them then experience a sudden coming of age, an onslaught of maturity, even wisdom, tinged with cynicism and realism.

They even look older, as if between 23 and 25 they have put on ten years. They become wizened, baggy-eyed, lined of cheek. I always thought John Terry was a berk - I missed that out from my list of insults - but now I see a grown-up man who has seen things, knows things. Only yesterday, Alan Smith of Newcastle was like a choirboy with his rosy red lips. Today, he looks about 50, having been battered by the world. Rio Ferdinand, when he returns, will doubtless appear more solid, even sensible.

Almost every footballer, however naturally gifted, will by the age of 25 have experienced highs and lows unknown to their peers. Injuries will have threatened their careers, managers will have gone off them, crowds booed or groaned, defeats and failures played havoc with their fragile minds. I'm surprised that more don't take the money and run. If just to the therapist. But they return, knowing nothing else, and carry on - wiser, and better people.

Ryan Giggs strikes me as decent, unknobbish, and so today is Becks, who was a right knob in his day. Both of them in their maturity have become statesmanlike. Which is a state not all politicians attain.


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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 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously