Why our cash-hungry national game needs a slice of humble pie

This year has seen some terrific football triumphs as underdogs Leicester won the Premiership and Wales out-performed England at the European Championships.

But the last week of September 2016 will go down in English football infamy. Newly-appointed national team manager Sam Allardyce left his “dream job” by mutual consent after only 67 days in post, having been caught on camera attempting to secure a £400,000 business deal and touting advice on how to get around player transfer rules.

The story, a shocking example of the greed of the elite in English football, plumbed even greater depths as “Big Sam” took to his doorstep to speak to reporters camped outside his house. Whilst Allardyce admitted that his actions were “an error of judgment,” he blamed media “entrapment” and failed to offer a meaningful apology. Indeed, he later said, via a “source,” that he denies any wrongdoing.

Allardyce took over from Roy Hodgson on a £3 million-a-year contract, reaching the pinnacle of any English football manager’s career as the national team languished at its lowest ebb in living memory following the ignominious defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016.

The former Sunderland boss took over the role at a time when there has never been more money in the English game. The cash washing around the Premier League, the Football Association and professional football generally is so vast it is beyond the comprehension of ordinary football fans. Immense wealth has created such levels of expectation, arrogance and demand amongst managers, players, agents and owners that rather than setting about building confidence in both his players and in fans, changing personnel, or developing a style of play, Allardyce has been caught trying to inflate his salary further – that’s a salary which is already the highest of any national team manager in the world.

A simple deconstruction of the language of Allardyce’s impromptu press conference last Wednesday highlights a lack of humility, absence of remorse, and failure to admit to any serious wrongdoing. Allardyce paints a picture that he isn’t sorry for what he did – he is sorry he was caught and that it cost him his job. Of course he is deeply embarrassed, but Allardyce’s attempts to trivialise the nature of his indiscretions as a “silly thing to do” suggests there has been no serious reflection on his actions. The absence of any redeeming morals or virtues epitomises the amoral word that elite footballers and football managers live in. There was no sense of modesty, of reticence, nor reserve. Allardyce paraded himself and his ego in front of the television cameras at the first opportunity, making sure his words were heard swiftly and finally – departing the role by “mutual consent”, but leaving the country very much on his own terms.

Allardyce is not the only high profile figure caught up in the Daily Telegraph exposé last week, and he is not the only one to have lost his job. In his Financial Times article last week, Simon Kuper writes of the affair revealing “a clash between two views of football”: the view of the “insiders,” those in the game who treat their work like any other “job,” and the view of the fans, who “see football as something rather higher;” an “industry” with a moral purpose, whose leaders are role models of good character for fans.

The idea of “players showing character” is a cliché of managers’ post-match interviews. Usually “character” is used as a synonym for on-field “resilience,” “determination” and “bouncebackability;” in other words, performance virtues, with no moral tether. This is the “win-at-all-costs” mentality. Indeed, elite professional football is so amoral that when instances of immorality are highlighted, it is hard to summon up serious moral indignation at the transgressor. For football to return to truly being “the people’s game” there is a desperate need for a complete re-examination of its values.

For English football to regain any sort of footing on the world stage, it needs to look at itself, long and hard. It needs to realign its character, from top to bottom, from the boot room to the manager’s dug-out.

Aidan Thompson, Centre Manager, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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