THE seemingly irrepressible readiness of footballers, past and present, to take a contemptuous view of media chroniclers and critics on the grounds that they have not played the game at the highest level is one of the old game’s most enduring ironies.
This is, after all, a group who, like jockeys in horse racing, are renowned as the least astute judges in the business.
There are any number of areas in which professional practitioners are frequently found wanting, not least in the matter of familiarity with the Laws, as well as other regulations, such as the reasons why referees are obliged to issue cards for certain actions. It is a constant source of amusement (and bewilderment) that so many players, flushed with haughtiness in the matter of disdaining a pundit’s “credentials”, should be so often the embarrassed recipient of a booking or an ordering-off through ignorance of the rules.
But it is in the matter of assessing the merit of fellow players that professionals are at their least convincing. This is hardly surprising, since they are bombarded with potentially judgment-distorting influences at their clubs on a daily basis.
This factor was confirmed one night at half-time in a match at Tannadice some years ago, when Gordon Smith, former player, agent, broadcaster and Scottish FA chief executive, reacted to my contention that the pros are the most unreliable witnesses of all. “You have a serious point there,” said Smith. “When I was coaching at St Mirren, I would overhear the guys in the dressing-room talking about one of their team-mates in glowing terms, agreeing that he was quite brilliant. The fact is that he was only brilliant on the training field and not in a match.
“This is quite a common thing in the game, but it seems to take those most closely involved a long time to realise that somebody who dazzles them in training isn’t actually any good when it comes to the real thing. It’s very easy to be misled.”
It is a flaw that also invades the sensibilities of managers, who frequently leave fans and other observers puzzled by their insistence on regularly selecting certain players of obviously dubious capabilities.
Managers are, of course, like players in that their talents range from the peerless to the pathetic. It was one from the middle orders who once took exception to something I had written by accusing me of not having playing experience at the elite level.
“Shakespeare was never a king, but he knew how to write about them,” I replied. “But you’re not Shakespeare,” he came back, with just enough of a hint of smugness to suggest that he was very pleased with himself. “And you’re no Jock Stein,” I retorted, a response which would brook no argument, given the impoverishment of his team and their impending relegation.
The case for the non-playing critics appeared, surprisingly, to be supported by Neil Lennon, when he impugned the acumen of members of PFA Scotland over their nominating four contenders for player of the year which did not contain any from Celtic. Curiously, this is no evidence of the injudiciousness of the players. It is easy to see that what may be called “the Celtic vote” could have been diluted by being spread among a number of potential nominees, while there is unquestionable merit in the claims of Leigh Griffiths, Michael Higdon, Niall McGinn and Andrew Shinnie.
Much more compelling evidence of the dubious perceptiveness of players came from the startling utterances of Lee McCulloch and Mark Hateley, current and former Rangers heroes who chorused their endorsement of a return to Ibrox for Nacho Novo. Both appeared to have founded their enthusiasm for the 34-year-old Spaniard on the alarmingly shaky premise that the fans love him and he loves the club.
Given the esteem in which Walter Smith is held by Rangers supporters and McCulloch and Hateley, it seems preposterous that their clamour for Novo’s re-instatement appears to take no account of the fact that the former manager’s consistent reluctance to make him a first pick amounted to a declaration of his low regard for the player’s abilities.
Football writers’ dinner bloated with accolades
The spirit of this apparently cock-eyed 2013 awards season will be preserved by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association, whose annual player of the year dinner in Glasgow on 19 May threatens to feature more prizes than
Following its inception in 1965, the SFWA event was quickly and universally recognised as the premier social occasion of the football year, the laureate accepted as the recipient of the most prestigious and coveted honour in the Scottish game.
The singularity of the award highlighted and reinforced its status. When ever-rising costs finally made sponsorship attractive (the association resisted commercial cajolery for many years) and we were asked to incorporate a manager of the year election in our dinner, it seemed merely a natural and acceptable addition, like a supporting act.
But, in 15 days’ time, the player and manager ceremonies will be swollen to the point of bloating by the young player, international player and – surely the capper – the Football Media and PR Club of the Year. Perhaps, on the night, one of the young bloods will explain to this fast-maturing columnist exactly what that means.
Scarily, the International Player of the Year does not involve deliberating the candidacy of such giants as Lionel Messi, Robin van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo or Bastian Schweinsteiger, but is restricted to those who wear the dark blue of Scotland.
Being asked to select a Scotland International Player of the Year in the current climate comes close to being asked to nominate the most attractive of the witches in Macbeth.