In English football’s era of the super athlete, smoking is locked away in the game’s past with all those other activities that are now shunned, like eating fish and chips on the team bus home, training sessions in the car park, drinking cans of Tetley’s in the communal team bath and, come to think of it, communal team baths, full stop.
But, when all’s said and done, all that Jack Wilshere did on Wednesday night was smoke a cigarette.
Daft? Yes. Irresponsible, foolhardy, naïve. All of those things. But to place it in context it was just a cigarette and we are talking about Wilshere here, a young man who has always had something of the devil about him. It is there in the way he plays, the Scrappy-Doo-style, let-me-at-em approach that is part of what he is. Sunday's was not his finest game, and yet he scored the goal that earned Arsenal a draw at the Hawthorns.
If it was James Milner who had been photographed leaning nonchalantly on a wall, smoking a contemplative late-night cigarette, one would be concerned that England’s Mr Dependable had well and truly flipped out. But this is Wilshere, who only needs to look around his team-mates in the England team hotel today to know he is just the latest in a very, very long line of English footballers who likes a night out.
The most offensive thing about the whole saga? It was the dismal, dog-ate-my-homework excuse that was pushed out to the newspapers. “Jack was with team-mates and friends,” a spokesman for the player said. “One dared Jack, who does not smoke, to momentarily hold the cigarette as part of a prank.” Ahem, really?
Anyone with a passing interest in these brief media storms should know that a lame cover-up is often a lot more damaging than the original cock-up. Wilshere’s agent would have done him a favour by telling him to accept this one and simply admit to an occasional weakness for Messrs Lambert and Butler. At least Wilshere’s first response on Twitter – posting a picture of Zinedine Zidane smoking – had a bit of style to it, mischievous and wilfully unapologetic. The lesson there is to ignore the expensive PR advice and be confident enough to show your personality, but that’s a whole other column.
Some find it unpalatable that a lot of footballers are occasional smokers. Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, and even Aaron Lennon have been outed. Dimitar Berbatov and Mario Balotelli too. Those who know football well say that there are many more. Carlo Ancelotti smoked like a chimney but at least that had the advantage of suppressing his legendary appetite.
None of this is intended to excuse the habit. English footballers are born into our country’s weekend binge culture, just as they are born into our obsession with the game, and they pick up the same traits. The England team’s failure to keep the ball for sustained periods of games is a far greater concern to me than the occasional social cigarette for one of the side’s key men.
Either way, one suspects that English football is a long way from that memorable scene in the film version of The Damned United when an ashtray is laid out by each peg in the Derby County home dressing room.
Where does it leave Wilshere himself? Back on the proverbial yellow card, one suspects, especially given Arsène Wenger’s strong words on Friday. The backlash has not been as strong as it might have been in recent times, perhaps because there is a greater understanding now that not all footballers can live the monkish existence that many wish for them.
Most of the biggest names in the England squad now reaching 100 caps, or having passed the mark, have had their moments of what is generally filed under – for want of a better phrase – tabloid shame. Among them we can count Steven Gerrard, Lampard, Cole (too many times to mention) and Rooney (also too many times to mention, with the potential for more).
The stories have often been embarrassing and have given ammunition to the anti-modern footballer brigade who seem to hate the profession no matter what they do. But they are yet to end a career and the longer one goes without re-offending, the slate of public opinion seems eventually to get wiped clean.
For instance, Lampard’s 100th cap for England last month passed without any mention of the incident when, along with Rio Ferdinand and others, he was sent home in disgrace from an England Under-21s trip in 1997 for getting drunk after a game against Italy that coincided with the seniors’ crunch World Cup qualifier in Rome.
In fact, according to Ferdinand’s autobiography, the then Under-21s coach Peter Taylor uttered the immortal words to Ferdinand, Lampard, Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy: “You’ll never play for England again.” Although given that the fifth culprit was Ben Thatcher, he was at least partly right.
Wilshere’s moment with a cigarette was not on the same scale, but the chances are that he too will have his day when the newspapers make difficult reading, even more than they did on Friday. He will not be the first to do so – and at least his rapid promotion to the seniors has spared him the classic coming-of-age Under-21s misbehaviour episode.
The big question after that will be how he copes with it. He occupies a prime position as one of England’s potential great hopes for the next generation, but then a lot of pressure comes with those expectations, and different players react in different ways.
Those four Under-21s players who were drinking 16 years ago went on to win 228 senior caps between them. The difference in the end was not whether they liked a beer, or the occasional crafty cigarette, it was the kind of mindset that allowed them to make sensible choices when it mattered most. Whether Wilshere possesses that, only he can say.
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