Focus: So where did it all go wrong?

The question once asked of George Best now applies to a whole sport whose superstar players seem out of control. Author and fan Dave Hill investigates how his game lost touch with the real world

On worn grass littered with leaves, two teams of little boys play football at the fringes of the famous Hackney Marshes. They follow in the steps of many professional players who, when they were children, also displayed their skills on this great east London vista of municipal pitches. David Beckham is but one of the more recent and best known.

The marshes evoke both the history and the romance of the national sport - a point I bored my older sons with when the marshes were their primary school team's "field of dreams" and I was its nerve-racked assistant coach. But after two weeks of non-stop horror headlines inspired by top players' conduct on and off the field, what sort of example is being set to today's marshes dreamers? What code do their heroes live by? Do humbler football devotees despair at the conduct of the élite?

"I can only answer yes to the last question," says John Larter. He makes the comment sadly, for this is not a man who savours talking the game down. For more than 30 years he has worked in primary school football, coaching, running competitions, helping children in one of Britain's poorest urban areas to take part. Despite retiring from teaching, he has now answered a call from The Learning Trust, which runs education in Hackney, to promote and co-ordinate sport in the borough's schools. His colleague David LeFevre, a former Yeovil Town goalkeeper, is on secondment from the school where he teaches. He has put a couple of decades into all sorts of local football, much of it as a referee.

"My biggest bugbear is the swearing on the pitch," he says. "You can see them on the television saying 'eff off' to referees and, yes, it filters down. I do get sworn at more than I used to. Mind you, with me they only do it once."

We meet on Thursday afternoon as the media buzzes with rumours that the England squad might strike over the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand for missing a drugs test, with news of Leeds United's Jody Morris being arrested in connection with an alleged sexual assault and with frenzied speculation over which Premier League players were involved in an alleged gang rape at London's Grosvenor House hotel. All this in the wake of televised post-match brawling between Manchester United and Arsenal players two weeks ago. Not for the first time lately, the strong impression is that too many high-flying players, with their weekly wage packets that dwarf what a nurse can make in a year, believe they are above the rules observed by mere mortals like you and me.

Mr Larter shows me the handbook he gives to boys selected for the Hackney district team, and their parents. Its code of conduct reads: "Be a good sportsman - learn to appreciate all good play, whether by your team or by your opponents. Never question the referee's decisions. Keep your temper under control. Players whose behaviour falls below acceptable standards will be withdrawn from the squad."

Amid the present seething climate of transgression and excess there is something brave and poignant about these noble injunctions, with their echoes of a bygone, more gracious sporting age. "It's not just about winning. It's about conducting yourself properly in new situations, learning how to be part of a team," Mr Larter explains. "We see football as part of a much wider education process." For these men the game is about pleasure but also about encouraging virtue: respect for yourself and other people, accepting responsibility. In their way they are as devoted to football as Sir Alex Ferguson or Wayne Rooney, yet anyone could be forgiven for thinking they are mixed up in different games.

Too pessimistic? Maybe. Liam Brady, a wonderfully gifted player for Arsenal during the 1970s and now head of youth development at the north London club, takes a brighter view. "I don't believe there's been a huge deterioration," he says. "The good role models are still there - David Beckham, Michael Owen, Alan Shearer, our own Thierry Henry. And I can promise you that at Arsenal we do our absolute utmost to make our youngsters realise that football is a disciplined profession - by which I mean you have to be a disciplined person in your outlook."

Some will chuckle at this comment: the on-field self-control of Arsenal's first team is notoriously fragile. Yet the French manager Arsène Wenger has spearheaded the introduction of different lifestyle patterns into a British football culture where heavy boozing has, for generations, been a team-bonding norm. Former club captain Tony Adams, a recovering alcoholic, now counsels Brady's youngsters about drinking. As at other academies, Arsenal's junior prospects are encouraged to keep their education going, even after they have left school. Nationally, the Professional Footballers' Association - the players' union - puts £5m into scholarship programmes supporting those aged 16 to 19, of whom 85 per cent will have failed to make the grade as professional players by the time they are 21.

So if today's boy wonders emerge into the spotlight so versed in "life skills", why do too many of them still seem hell-bent on being yobs once they've made the grade? "There's so much temptation for them these days," says Brady. "I have problems with some of mine, and I always will have problems. You keep hammering home the message, but in some cases it never quite gets through."

Gary McAllister, Coventry City's player-manager, whose career has encompassed successful spells with Leeds and Liverpool, believes major unruly incidents are pretty isolated but highly publicised. "I don't think there are many bad people in football." He observes, though: "These young boys in the game now who are getting so much so fast must find it difficult to cope with. When I started out, oh, 20 years ago, I got £25 a week. Then it went up to about £50, then maybe £100 and so on. It was a lot to me, but it was manageable. You could measure it against something you wanted that was real - your first car, first flat or whatever. But what some are getting now is completely unreal."

Half a century has passed since an English football legend could, like Preston's Tom Finney, also lead as normal a life as the plumber next door. Yet fabulous wealth and the scale of celebrity that gets your movements monitored by Hello! is still new. The sociologist Ellis Cashmore, author of a learned book about David Beckham, points out that the new football millionaires are in uncharted territory. "There is plenty of precedent for the stars of rock music or the movies, but British footballers are still finding their way. They walk into a club and everyone turns their way. The women flock to them and they're suddenly these young, mostly uneducated, guys, who think the world is theirs to do with as they please."

Maybe, then, it is not surprising some of them get into a few scrapes. And maybe it would not be all that surprising if some of the England players incensed by Ferdinand's omission failed to grasp straight away that their indignation, far from being hailed as signifying loyalty, might be condemned by outsiders as an arrogant defence of the indefensible - a grown man in receipt of a hundred grand a week who couldn't keep a date to fill a specimen bottle. Like, does he pass holy water or something?

It is tempting to see the Ferdinand débâcle as an addition to a fattening catalogue of player misdemeanours and acts of financial lunacy that expose the glossy surface of so-called New Football as a sham. OK, the Sky-Premier League era has seen the game transformed from the hooligan-ravaged shambles it once resembled into something far more family-friendly and clean. But has it in the process sacrificed its roots, its integrity, its soul?

Reading Football Club is a revealing case of modernisation in the face of madness. The chairman, John Madejski, made his fortune as the publisher of Auto Trader and for 13 years has been working to turn a club with no folkloric past into a growing yet viable football force. "I've been determined to run it as a proper business," he says. "I won't buy into this idea that certain practices that would be frowned on elsewhere are just part and parcel of football."

Mr Madejski has twice lately become prey to the laws of the football jungle. After the fall of ONdigital he used £500,000 of his own money to pay bonuses to which he was committed. Then team manager Alan Pardew, having signed a three-year contract, promptly declined to honour it when approached by West Ham. Mr Madejski refused to roll over, but Pardew still left - albeit on terms condemning him to several weeks of gardening and West Ham coughing up £380,000. "Running a football club is a fascinating business dilemma," Mr Madejski reflects. "How much should you gamble? How much should you play safe? It's a challenge - a ridiculous one, frankly - and if you'll forgive the cliché, the goal posts are moving all the time."

In this environment, where loyalty counts for nothing, what is the ordinary fan supposed to feel? John Larter and David LeFevre, Liam Brady and John Madejski all remark that the downsides of modern football, albeit revved up by the press, often vividly reflect some wider social malaise, be it loutishness, disloyalty or greed.

This is not to forget that rowdies have always been part of the game, but in past they had to live with their neighbours, rather than hide behind security gates. The effects of the rich getting richer and not giving a damn about the poor have never been more corrosive. Yet the trouble with football, for those addicted to it, is that it's just about impossible not to go back for more.

Bernie Kingsley, a manager with a high street employment agency, has been following Tottenham Hotspur for 35 years. They are having a rotten season and have just sacked their manager Glenn Hoddle. Mr Kingsley was four years old the last time Spurs won the league and sometimes jokes that if only the team could repeat the feat just one more time, "we wouldn't have to turn up any more". It wouldn't be because he did not care. But maybe it would reflect how the relationship has changed.

"It has been a bit like the railways," he explains. "We used to be passengers. Now they call us customers. But of course, football fans are different. We provide total brand loyalty for all time."

Mr Kingsley, who publishes a fanzine called Cock-a-Doodle-Doo (the Spurs' crest is a cockerel), reflects on the paradoxes of loving a football club perhaps a little more than it loves you. You put up with outrageous ticket prices to pay inflated wages to players who don't perform. You know that "the part money plays now is the biggest thing destroying football as a sport".

"OK, Man U have always been the richest, but 25 years ago at least the playing field was pretty level," continues Mr Kingsley. "Now you've got clubs saying it's more important to get into the Champions' League than win the FA Cup because it means more money. That depresses me."

Later, in deepest Chigwell, I sniff round the secluded Tottenham training ground. Protected by a high fence, the first team squad is barked through its training schedule while across the way the academy hopefuls polish their passes, each surely hoping he'll turn out to be one of the few not swallowed by obscurity. Looked at that way it's a bittersweet scene: as the cliché has it, football can be very cruel. We've also seen too often lately how it can also appear arrogant and venal. Time, maybe, for a bit more wisdom, more humility. Time to think harder about the message being sent to those boys kicking a ball on Hackney Marshes.

Dave Hill is the author of 'Out of His Skin - the John Barnes Phenomenon' (WSC Books) and the novel 'Dad's Life' (Review)

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