Football: The vain search for effort and commitment

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS that the questing eye of my trade is seldom brought to bear on an issue that the Nottingham Forest manager, Dave Bassett, raised vehemently this week after a defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.

Accepting no blame for the lack of spirit he addressed angrily during the interval, Bassett, when fulfilling an obligation to Sky television, spoke some hard truths about the present generation of professional footballers that do not appeal to hero-worshipping popular prints, and supporters are not inclined to consider.

One of the statements Bassett put forward, to my mind the most important, is that a great deal of nonsense - "crap" as he put it - is spoken and written about football. I cannot recall exactly how he qualified this, but it was roughly along the lines that strategy and tactics are less significant than attitude. "Managers get too many accolades when the team wins, too much of the blame when things go wrong," he said, adding that "players get managers the sack."

With his club's Premiership status in jeopardy, maybe it is a tactless time for Bassett to be saying this, but it has the unquestionable merit of putting the blame where it often belongs. Under pressure, which can mean anything from a losing streak to matching past achievements, coaches stoke hotter and hotter fires in their charges. But where is the pride in an athlete who needs that sort of stimulation? And the character?

Last week it was suggested to George Graham that he was probably pleased with the effort Tottenham Hotspur had put into the defeat of Liverpool. A wry smile crossed Graham's face. "When you think of what players are paid today, that's the least to be expected of them," he said.

It probably seems to most people that top-class professional footballers, who by definition are supposed to perform at a high standard, who have careers at stake and families to support and egos to bulwark and team- mates to join in a common cause, have enough natural stimulation without the input of coaches and managers. That many have not makes a case for looking into their heads.

Probably, Bassett agrees. "We were so sloppy in the first half, so lacklustre, that I went in and asked how many of them have got the bottle to get us out of the trouble we are in," he said.

The coach builds a team, seeks to bring about technical improvement, individual and collective and motivates. Trouble is - more so now than ever before - not every player can be completely relied on for a maximum effort. "Half an hour had gone before we started to play," Gerard Houllier complained when looking back on Liverpool's defeat at Tottenham.

Houllier could find no obvious explanation for Liverpool's slow start, but it bothered him. "They must play for the whole game," he said.

A legendary manager once said: "If you treat footballers like men, they'll perform like men. If they don't, get rid of them." This was based on a persistently fragile assumption, that of the manager being around longer than contrary players.

Liverpool's problems, compounded by their elimination from the Uefa Cup on Tuesday, stems as much from attitude as errors in recruitment. Liverpool's greatest strength was the affinity between the team and its supporters.

So what are the supporters to make of Michael Owen's statement that his ambitions may have to be fulfilled elsewhere, and the doubts that have grown up about Steve McManaman's commitment to Anfield?

Doubtless, supporters of Blackburn Rovers were soothed when Roy Hodgson's contract was terminated, but did they ever think to ask questions of the players?

It cannot be imagined that many Blackburn players asked questions of themselves, because self-examination is not in the modern footballer's nature. Encouraged by agents, the characteristic that stands out in many of them is selfishness. That, more or less, is what Bassett was going on about. He knows from the bitter experience of his clan that footballers cannot always be trusted to keep their end of the bargain.

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