The Matt Holland Column: Stop excusing players, start making examples of them

Click to follow
The Independent Online

At last! If we are going to have any chance of avoiding relegation, we must have a good Christmas programme. Do not doubt our commitment. The players are working hard, and coming back from a goal down, away from home, against a form side like Spurs is a fine effort. But what we need now is a succession of similar efforts, and results.

As elated as I am, however, the week's headlines have concentrated on the less savoury side of the game. Is football out of control? Stop now and think about the game, about the recent headlines, about the threat of strike action, about urinating and vomiting in bars, about a trial that lasted 18 months after a vicious attack, but also about David Beckham's performance against Greece, about Veron, Van Nistelrooy and Owen, about Liverpool's Treble triumph and the illness of their manager, Gérard Houllier.

A mixture of the terrible, the criminal, the poor, the greedy, the thrilling, the sublime; of hard-earned success, decency and compassion.

Fair? Now think about society in general. About loutish yobs drinking in high streets, about police vans camped near busy pubs during weekends, about vandalism, graffiti and drugs. Is football a curse, a cause, a reflection or a symptom?

None of this is meant as an excuse for footballers, but I think that any discussion of players' behaviour needs to consider the low standards of behaviour in society. A society that players are not above, whatever some of the ignorant ones may think. We are part of it, the same as stock-brokers, factory workers, politicians, the unemployed and, dare I say it, journalists.

The fact is that yobbish culture prevails over the whole country and in all professions. Players need to be above that, but not for the reasons trotted out in the week. The real reason is our influence on children. If we behave, the kids who adore us will behave and in turn will teach their kids to behave. It might even rub off on the parents, but we are not now responsible for the behaviour of adults, as has become popular to suggest. Let them take responsibility for their own actions.

But we need to help the players. Throwing vast sums of money at young men is not the whole problem, as has also been suggested this week. The problem is throwing the money and then leaving them to their own devices. What they need is education, care, guidance; call it what you will, but they desperately need it.

Players have to learn that their celebrity or money does not allow them to escape punishment. It imposes certain strictures on their lives, because misdemeanours may be exposed in the media.

At Ipswich the academy conducts a three-year course for young players during which they learn about the media, the peripheral demands on players, the importance of diet and fitness, and the elevated role they have in society.

Alongside that the senior players also have an influence. They need to set high standards for the younger ones to follow. There will be mishaps – after all, we are human – but, if punished firmly and fairly, these become part of the learning process.

Titus Bramble, our talented defender, was fined this week for falling asleep in a taxi after the players' Christmas dinner. He was drunk, his behaviour was unacceptable, but it is not damning for his career. He realises his mistake and is determined to learn from it, as should all the younger players in the club.

I also believe that it would be good for the younger players to be farmed out to lower-league clubs where they will not be pampered. I spent years at Bournemouth and thoroughly enjoyed them. The training ground was not state-of-the-art, there were no lackeys to attend to our every need, and as a consequence we did not get inflated opinions of ourselves. The bright lights and glamour that surround the big clubs are very seductive and corrupting, so a short, sharp spell of graft and hardship in the lower leagues would teach the youngsters that football is about more than BMWs and big houses.

It worked for David Beckham. Being loaned out to Preston North End did not damage his career, in fact it probably enhanced it and made him appreciate it more. Any youngsters who want to succeed in football, or another profession, could not find a harder-working, better-behaved role model than him.

Clearly, though, it is time for football to purge itself. It can be done, as it proved with the hooligan problem in the 1980s, but it needs all in the game to contribute. Players on and off the pitch need to be more aware of their actions and what is and isn't acceptable. Managers must stop excusing their players and start making examples of them. Less accounting and more advising would also be welcome from the agents.

Football is a powerful influence and can help improve society, but it must not become a convenient scapegoat. Anyway, being the season of good cheer, I will finish on a happier topic. My two-year-old son, Sam, has informed everyone that he is getting a blue bike for Christmas, although he isn't, or should I admit, wasn't. So young and yet such a powerful negotiator. Meanwhile all I have asked Santa for is some more points.

Matt Holland, the Ipswich captain, was talking to Iain Fletcher

Comments