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30 March 2022

Forget the millions and the Baby Bentley, a footballer’s life is one of stress and toil

From injuries to social media trolls, fans just don’t realise the strains of being a rich and pampered player.

By Hunter Davies

It must have been awfully worrying for Chelsea players these past few weeks. If the club can’t earn money, will their £10m a year suddenly stop? And the Baby Bentley has to be sold. Up at Everton, they must be fretting for different reasons. If the club goes bust, what happens to them?

Fans just don’t realise the stresses and strains of being a top footballer. Yet in my long-legged life, I have met only one footballer who wanted out. It is common in other professions for people to leave, even if they are well paid and have status. Doctors pack it in before they have to. I knew one GP who beside the names of most of his patients had scribbled “HS” for “Heart Sinks”.Teachers get worn out – by the kids, the parents, the management, the government, the local pub banning them on Fridays after school for getting too rowdy.

We can understand that, but footballers have all the money and fame they could want, so you would think they would love their life. But, poor petals, in the dressing room and behind the scenes, there are many things they can’t cope with.

Being Picked Upon. As in any group of men and women at work, from the cabinet to the staff room, there is a footballer who gets teased. The others take the piss out of his clothes; on the coach they mimic his accent or mannerisms. You can’t tell who it is out on the pitch, but there is always someone not looking forward to training on Monday morning.

[See also: Owners and investors are all just passing through. But fans are here for life]

Headaches. Goodness, the stress of it all, having to concentrate for 90 minutes, when so much depends on it, for the team to get into Europe or just survive in the Prem. Goalkeepers have it worse. They have to lie down after a game. All that concentration has done their head in.

Injuries. In the old days, teams had at least one assassin, whose job it was to injure and maim. They have mostly gone. But the risk of a career-threatening injury is always there. Have I pulled something? Can I run it off? Is that it, will my career be over? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

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The Crowds. Players can hear the boos when they give the ball away – or worse, the laughter after they sky it over the stand. Fans can be fickle, quickly going off someone and making their life hell. Not a nice place, the pitch, when you or your team are playing shite.

VAR. A modern form of torture. Imagine the euphoria of finally scoring, the fulfilment of all your dreams, the adrenalin rush, the orgasm of delight, then someone in a room far away says “Sorry, chum… ”

Managers Changing. That can be a right pain, if you have been regularly picked and the manager seemed to like you. Then the new bloke arrives with a PhD in the latest computer-generated bollocks from some east German football poly.

[See also: The sack race, self-pity and Smith Rowe’s pudding bowl: the Prem season so far]

New Owners. Flash Harrys and money launderers can please the crowds and marketing by buying an ageing superstar, but he plays in your position and he has to start. Tightwads then cull the first team’s high-earning low achievers – which means you.

Home Life. Your wife hates it here, she can’t speak the language, you still haven’t settled after two seasons or got used to the funny food. This has happened since professional football began in 1885 – even when the only “foreigners” came from Glasgow.

Trolls. There was abuse, right from the start, too. I have a copy of the Sporting Chronicle for 19 November 1888, with the headline “Disgraceful Scene”. At an Everton-Notts County game, the crowd had shouted out “dog” and “pig”. Yes, disgraceful. Now if you are playing rubbish, or suggest you might like a move, you and your family are in for a 24-hour troll fest.

So, friends and fans, do try for a few seconds to feel sorry for our heroes, however rich and pampered they may appear. And yet, and yet, can you think of any player in a top team who voluntarily gave up long before he had to? The nearest I ever met was Alan Gilzean, the Spurs star from the Seventies. While the fans adored him, he had lost all interest or pleasure in being a footballer. He said he couldn’t wait to give it up.

[See also: After 72 managerless days, Spurs were desperate. Then, my phone rang…]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain