A weekly wage of £20,000 is a terrible strain on a poor lad

Over breakfast with my dear wife, we were discussing various things, such as Iris Murdoch dying. I was wondering how many obits and appreciations Malcolm Bradbury had done about her, then wondering who will do them for him when he dies. Could be silence, as he's cornered the lit obit market. Then we got on to higher planes. Stan Collymore, I said. I feel really sorry for him.

"Who?" So I explained. "Aston Villa striker, cost £7 million, earns about £20,000 a week for playing, which he hasn't much recently, one of our footballing enigmas, innit. Last I heard, he was having treatment for stress, poor lad."

"Stress!" she said. "Footballers suffering from stress? Don't talk to me about stress. Just think of the stress your mother was under. Four kids, invalid husband, no money . . ."

"You sound like John Gregory," I said.

"Who's he?"

"Collymore's manager, that's who. He said much the same, though his comparison was with someone of 28 playing for Rochdale on tuppence a week with only three months of his contract left, a mortgage and three kids - that's stress, that is."

"Quite right," she said.

"Oh come on. Don't be so heartless. I expected you, you know, being a woman, brought up on empathy, milk of human kindness, plus your cod liver oil, I thought you'd be really sympathetic."

"Why should I? Surely the whole point about football is to relieve stress . . ."

I had to think about that. She's right, in a sense. It's one of the pleasures, the shouting and screaming, the joys and depressions, the letting out of all emotions, cheap catharsis, regardless almost of what happens, otherwise how do you explain Man City still getting huge crowds. So, "true," I said, "but that applies to the fans, not the players."

"Yes, but when you played, you said playing relieved stress."

"That was park football, pet. And I did feel terrific after playing, win or lose. Been much more bad-tempered since I stopped. But that doesn't count. We're talking professional footballers."

"Don't talk to me about them. Don't talk to me about the stress of earning £20,000 a week for kicking a ball about."

"But I really do feel sorry for them. Honestly. The ones at the top so rarely get any pleasure out of it. They come off the pitch with the most terrible headaches."

"I'm not listening," she said.

"The bigger the team, the bigger the salaries, the bigger the worries - about losing, being dropped, being injured, losing form. I remember doing a survey of the Spurs first team pool some years ago - almost all of them got more pleasure out of playing football at 15, when they were young and just beginning, than at 20 or 25, supposedly at the top of their profession. Today the pressures are even more intense."

"Boring, boring."

"They get screamed at by coaches and the management all week, criticised by the press, their bodies continually battered, yet they have to perform to their best all the time."

"Have you finished your muesli or not?"

"Imagine what it's like to be a footballer approaching 35. Not just your career, but your life is nearly over. You might have a million in the bank, but you're about to be nothing, nobody. Really, you're about to die . . ."

"My heart weeps," she said, stacking the dishwasher.

"Do you realise, football is one of the few activities where you get criticised while actually performing? Writers might get rubbished by the lit critics, but that's usually a whole year after they have done the work, and are on to something new. Nobody sits beside them while they're writing, shouting in their ears, 'What a load of rubbish, gerrimoff, what a wanker'. Ditto film stars. Footballers have to take stick, there and then, on the pitch. It can devastate, break them, ruin them, especially when their own supporters turn against them. Think about that."

"I'm thinking about going to work now."

"Fans get upset when their team gets stuffed, but they come home, kick the cat, put the wife out, and get on with their life. Players can't. That is their life. Are you listening? There's no escape. So I honestly think they deserve all the money, for what they have to suffer."

"Spare me."

"Will it end tomorrow, that must always be at the back of their minds. What if we get a new manager and he doesn't like me? Are they about to buy somebody better, younger, or just cheaper? God, their heads must be in a spin. No wonder it's win or lose, out on the booze."

"That's British players. They don't do that abroad, or so you've told me. Ours are pretty stupid, if you ask me . . ."

"No, it's being brought up in a hot-house. Only one part of their personality has been developed. It's not their fault their education has been limited. They're quite intelligent, really. They have to be, to understand all the modern tactics and formations, instructions and directions. They can't play their own natural game, the way they would like. No wonder they get stressed and need someone to help them."

"David Lodge," she said.

"You what? He can't help Collymore. Right city, but Stan needs a therapist, not a retired professor of English with a dodgy haircut."

"I mean when Malcolm Bradbury dies. David Lodge will do his obits."

"Of course, why didn't I think of him? At least we've solved one problem."

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 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?