TWO club captains who also lead their countries. Two front-page stories showing them in controversial downtime mode. Back on the pitch, two performances which demonstrated no obvious ill-effects from the downtime, helping bring about two victories. Two celebrations mocking the tabloid pictures. Two sets of team-mates defending their skippers and emphasising how much they inspire their teams. And one complaint about a footballer being entitled to a bit of “privacy” being echoed by another.
It’s astonishing how much Scott Brown and Wayne Rooney have in common right now. Brown hits the town with some mates, visits lapdancing bars, consumes takeaway pizza, has a wee lie doon. Rooney gets the boys round to his place, mucks about with boxing gloves, takes a punch, has a wee (involuntary) lie doon. The captains struck these contemplative poses, which were captured on fuzzy cameraphones, within 48 hours of each other. Their games were on Sunday and might well have ended with the same 3-0 scoreline if Brown had responded to the Celtic fans urging him to take the penalty-kick which was ultimately missed. But is the debate about what players do in their spare time really done and dusted?
The Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal, thought it should never have started. That he was even asked his views on Rooney being decked by his chum and fellow footballer Phil Bardsley was “twisted,” he said. “I think it is a ridiculous world where we live that I have to answer questions. I don’t have any comment.” Meanwhile, Brown’s team-mate Kris Commons thought it “disgusting” that the photos of the Edinburgh night out should by published two days before the League Cup final and “outrageous” that the guy couldn’t relax with friends without being spied on.
These were the stout defences you expect of football folk. Team success is built on everyone sticking together, after all. But surely those of us who watch British and Scottish sportsmen make their way in the competition arena, often struggling to do so, are entitled to wonder about this behaviour. Not to think it “disgusting” or “outrageous” or even “ridiculous” that footballers engage in such malarkey, but be disappointed by it, maybe disillusioned too. Scotland, in particular, has significant health problems. A small nation which loves its bevvy and its fatty food needs to shape up. Sportsmen and women can give a lead and inspire. I know that some will claim in Brown’s defence that he’s just a daft laddie from the Hill o’ Beath who’s stayed true to his roots and being Celtic captain and Scotland captain are big enough asks without having to be a role model as well. Well, the player has indeed gone far in his career, which is down to his talent and steel. But the role model bit: I’m afraid it comes with the territory.
With the pressures of these roles being so huge, shouldn’t he have the opportunity to let off steam? Okay, but does that have to be done so conspicuously? No one goes for a quiet drink in the district of our fair capital known as The Pubic Triangle. And you could reasonably ask: Should a top sportsman be touching any alcohol so close to competition?
Other athletes don’t. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, scores of competitors spoke of the sacrifices they’d made, in living well and only eating and drinking the right things, as they trained like demons for two years or more. Other footballers don’t. You look at Alexi Sanchez, Chile’s Duracell bunny and surely England’s player of the year for his exuberant displays for Arsenal, and as you remember what he helped his small nation achieve at the World Cup you wonder how many benders he’s ever allowed himself in his life.
Where does a bender figure in the teachings of the sports scientists? If football has developed to the extent that the body is scrutinised inside and out in such infinitesimal detail, how come some players still treat theirs like it’s still the good old, bad old 1970s?
Rooney at least confined his boxing to home. Everything took place in the privacy of his mansion. “It’s what friends do,” he explained, although he might now wonder how much he should trust these friends, if the footage can then find its way to the newsdesk of a tabloid. This player is frequently indulged, with a successfully haggled mega-contract often being followed by an underwhelming performance at an international tournament, but I’m less concerned with him than I am with Scotland’s captain.
There’s been a general acceptance of Brown’s behaviour and almost the sense that this is Scotland, the football culture, and it’s never really going to change. I don’t blame him for that acceptance and nor do I blame him for our failure to qualify for major tournaments. But the story and the photographs of his “day off” did nothing for Scotland’s sporting image, or indeed that of the country itself. These are weighty concerns to have on your shoulders, I agree, but he’s got himself a fabulous career, one many young boys dream about. He must view what he does, what he is, as an immense privilege.
Most days I’m sure he does. I like Brown, his guts and his pawky humour (paraphrasing slightly, his take on the midfield battle for supremacy is: “Cement, or you will be cemented”). And I loved it two years ago, before the revival of the Scotland-England fixture, when he challenged the English press: “I bet yooz lot couldn’t name even one Kilmarnock player.”
Priceless moments like that suggested he was growing into the role of shaven-headed statesman. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, you’d hope the events of last Wednesday amounted to an off day, as opposed to what a footballer really thinks constitutes a day off. But he must realise he’s been a fortunate fellow. Lucky not to have been sent off in the Scottish Cup tie with Dundee United, lucky not to have conceded a penalty on Sunday – and lucky that Ronny Deila has been so lenient with him when the Celtic manager bangs on about “24-hour athletes” as much as he does.
Yes, the League Cup can apparently be won on pizza and lapdancers, but doesn’t Broony want to aim higher than that? And, indeed, doesn’t Scotland?
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