Sun, sea and snoods: today’s “fragile” players

Alex Ferguson is very fond, when talking about today's players, of saying that they are "fragile". A strange word to use and he's never quite explained it.

The normal fan - or, even more so, the non-fan - might think the opposite: that today's players are strong, for they have enormous power and wealth, able to boss around clubs and hold out for whatever they want.

I can see that physically they are probably more fragile than they once were. Fitter, quicker, taller, oh yes, but so lean and thin and weedy they fall over in a light breeze or heavy glare, and they are always injured, poor petals. Managers need seven on the bench, waiting for those on the park to turn faint or weary, and massive squads backing up behind the scenes. When players were short and squat and burly, eating half a cow before each game, there were no subs. You had to get on with it, whether your leg was broken or not.

I suppose also that wearing bedroom slippers instead of boots with steel plates at the front, and armoured leather over the ankles, has added to their feeling of fragility. Today they wear gloves and snoods - about to be banned - to protect their little pinkies and tender necks from nasty chills, as their mummies always advised.

But I think Fergie is referring to their mental and emotional fragility, which is why he admits he has subdued his hairdryer treatment in recent years, for fear of tears before bed, or even before leaving the dressing room.

Dubai life

Three incidents and events in the past fortnight have illustrated the tender nature of our present-day heroes.

First, Spurs swanning off to Dubai for "warm-weather training". Bloody hell, I was furious. I don't want my money spent on them lying around on
a beach or playing golf. It's stupid, anyway. They have to come back and play in the cold, so what's the point of having trained in the sun? I know when I go to the sun in the winter I come back half blind, unable to see properly for a week till my eyes adjust to the north-London gloom.

At one time, players got no such exotic treats - or only, perhaps, if they reached the FA Cup final. Then they were allowed a trip to Blackpool, a walk along the sands and a couple of raw eggs for their tea, which was Blackburn Olympic's treat in 1883. It seemed to work. They beat Old Etonians 2-1, becoming the first non-public school team to win the FA Cup. I did larf when it was reported that Jermain Defoe came home injured from Dubai. Fell off his pina colada.

Second, there was the Ashley Cole shooting incident. How on earth was he allowed to take a loaded air rifle to the training ground and then let it go off, allegedly, injuring some poor sod five feet away? Gazza got away with such things, making Jimmy Five Bellies drop his pants while he shot pellets at his bare arse, but Gazza was daft and it happened 20 years ago, when training grounds were not the armoured camps they are today. Cole has suffered little, apart from a piddling fine, because, of course, he is a vital player - don't want to upset him.

Third, the case of Kolo Touré of Man City, testing positive for a banned substance, is similar in that everyone is rallying round, desperate not to be horrible to him. Arsène Wenger, his ex-manager, is saying he is a good bloke, a decent human being, so he obviously didn't mean it, did he, awful mistake.

Touré's mistake, apparently, was to take some of his wife's slimming pills, worried he was putting on weight. It's the height of the season, he's been constantly sweating and pummelled, weighed and dieted for the past six months by teams of docs and physios, so there can't be an ounce of fat on him. The overweight must be in his mind, part of his low self-esteem, being a fragile modern footballer.

Our players today are cosseted and flattered, their indulgences and weaknesses excused. So, unlike Fergie, I wouldn't use the word fragile. I think he wanted to say "spoiled", but drew back, not wishing to cause offence.

Which is rich. Who is the most spoiled manager, kept in with by everyone, able to say up your bum to the BBC, childishly rubbishing refs he doesn't like.

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 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?