Most of the time footballers sleep late and get home early. Those with big names are paid more than some people who run countries

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The Independent Online
As a labour force, footballers are hardly to be compared with coal miners, firefighters and oil riggers - no matter what you hear from their union. It's a short career but show me a manual worker who wouldn't swap places. It's a damned sight better than working on a hospital ward or an assembly line. There are perils for sure, but boxers would laugh at them.

You can't beat the hours. Most of the time footballers sleep late and get home early. Those with a big name in the Premiership are paid more than some people get for running countries. They don't have to worry about the mortgage, health care, the gas bill or how their children will be educated. They still come from working-class backgrounds but it isn't long before they are voting with their wallets. Pandered to by the game's middle-class following, glorified in print and across the airwaves, they lose touch with reality.

Now comes a survey to suggest that footballers do not suffer much stress either. It was conducted by a psychology lecturer, Dr Howard Khan of Heriot- Watt University, Edinburgh, who interviewed 512 players and 10 managers in the Scottish Premier and First Divisions.

"We thought we'd find that footballers have an extremely hard life," he said this week in the Daily Telegraph. "Pressure from the crowds and referees, TV cameras on them all the time, and the general inspection of their lifestyle led us to expect that they suffered enormous levels of stress. But that wasn't the case."

To discover that the stress experienced by footballers is minimal compared with other trades and professions in Britain comes as no surprise personally. As Dr Khan concludes, football managers take most of the strain. "It is why several have had heart attacks in the past two years," he added. "The players are so laid back they are almost falling over. There's not enough pressure on them to do a decent job."

With players in the Premiership earning upwards of pounds 5,000 a week, in some cases four times as much, it isn't a union they need but Securicor. "What stress?" a manager said recently. "If anyone is going to be made a scapegoat here it's me." And that is a petrified truth.

Despair in a footballer is ephemeral. Another week, another game. If necessary, another club. If you are half-way decent there is always one out there.

Stress is the dole queue, a cardboard box for a bed, negative equity, abandonment, redundancy. It isn't missing a goal, mistiming a pass, getting dropped or even playing in a team threatened by relegation. As the Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, discovered a few weeks ago, some players cannot even be relied upon to give of their best in a cup final.

No more justifiable cause has been taken up in sport than that which 35 years ago liberated professional footballers in England from a maximum wage and the iniquitous retain and transfer system.

One of the great figures remembered from that time was Nat Lofthouse, a successfully vigorous Bolton and England centre-forward who became his club's president.

An interview with Lofthouse in Arthur Hopcraft's splendid book, The Football Man, published in 1968, serves to emphasise the change in attitude brought about by the effects of affluence and a different audience.

"Lofthouse... caught the essential gratitude and surprise of the working man that worldly comfort can be his without the drudgery of manual labour," Hopcraft wrote.

"It is one of the key factors in the public's embrace and nurturing of football. Lofthouse... talked about one memorable early morning in Bolton: `The team was going to South Africa for nine weeks. I'd left my house at half past seven to be picked up by the coach at the bottom of the road. There's a works down there and the men were rolling in. Half past seven, that was, and I was there with my cases going to South Africa for nine weeks, all paid with pounds 2 a day spending money.' Lofthouse conveyed a sense of victory, not just pleasure, when he said that."

What bothered me all those years ago was that too many players went along with the game's feudalism. Now it is that agent-inspired market which came about was not a labour triumph anyway.