Why players will [always] choose to play...Thursday, September 5 2019
Mo’ matches, mo’ money, no problem.
In the last couple of posts I’ve had a pop at FIFPro’s At The Limit report.
It outlines their proposal for reducing the workload of elite footballers. Suggesting mandatory pre and mid-season breaks, caps on the number of matches per season and enforced rest periods between games.
It’s at best naive. At worst, nonsense. Not because it doesn’t make valid points. It does. But it completely overlooks two critical factors: Money. And football’s relentless pursuit of it.
And I’m not just talking about the TV companies, governing bodies and boardroom fat cats. All of whom would swallow their collective tongues at the prospect of less product to flog to the masses.
(Sorry, that last line should end: ‘…at the prospect of less of the beautiful game to share with the worldwide football family.’ Pesky predictive text.)
Players are also guilty.
Because fewer matches means less appearance money. Less exposure to bigger clubs, better contracts and more lucrative image rights.
- every match you miss means one of the perhaps half dozen squad members battling for the same shirt is out there strutting his stuff. And no-one wants that.
So if it means overplaying, you’ll do it. If it means playing at 75% fit, you’ll do it. If it means having a pre-match injection to block out the 25% that’s broken, torn or strained, you’ll do it.
And if it means lying to your manager… Pfft! What do you think…?!
Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a magic sponge
I regularly played with cortisone injections. Not so I wouldn’t miss a Champions League final… or to get me through a World Cup… no, no, no.
I did it to collect fifty quid appearance money on a wet, windy Friday night at Rochdale. It doesn’t always have to be a Tuesday night at Stoke, y’know!
Okay, we are talking late 80s, early 90s in Division Three and Four – that’s League One and Two for any millennials or iGens* reading this – so the numbers might’ve changed, but I guarantee the attitudes haven’t.
*Note: Of course, no actual millennials or iGens will be reading this. They’ll be race-trolling a footballer on Twitterstagram, or doing a knife crime.
The difference between a teammate and a mate
I didn’t even know what cortisone was. But I did know I wanted my £50 appearance bonus. I also knew I didn’t want some other - quicker, fitter, better – player taking my place. And quite possibly keeping it.
So I had to play. And that meant a pre-match jab. Which sounds harmless. Quaint even. Certainly no indicator of the bone-grinding agony to come in your late 40s every time you drive, climb stairs or spend more than four minutes on an aeroplane.
But professional football is a cut-throat business. Most people will understand that. What might surprise some is the extent and proximity of the throat-cutting. And how far beyond the 90+3 minutes on the pitch it goes.
That, brothers and sisters, is playtime. All you have to worry about during the match is the other team.
There is not a player playing who hasn’t been ‘done’ by a team-mate. Typically one who plays in your position. Often on a Friday. Occasionally on the morning of a game.
The late (tackle) fitness test
In this next bit, the names have been left out to protect the guilty, but the events are actual.
The year is the late 1980s. The setting is the English lower divisions. It’s the morning of a non-event match between two non-descript teams. A senior player is giving a fitness test to a first-year professional who’s had a spell out injured.
The younger player – who we’ll call… erm… Natt Mesbitt - has missed the last six weeks with a broken foot (now called a metatarsal injury). The senior player – who we’ll call, er… Blive Caker – had been out of the first-team picture for a while and reached that pitiful stage where he is helping out the coaching staff on match days.
Anyway, the foot in question feels fine. No discomfort from running, jumping, or ball-striking — all good.
Young Natt is thinking that £50 appearance money has got his name all over it. He’ll be out on the town tonight!
“How’s it feel?”
“Right, let’s do a couple of block tackles.”
Couple of gentle 50/50s. Side-foot, stationary ball. Nice and steady. Feels fine.
Now a bit firmer. Up the resistance. Rolling ball. But nothing silly – after all, we’re in ankle socks. No strapping or shin pads or anything. Not a twinge. All good.
Young Natt’s thinking he might even wear the club blazer out tonight. See if he can get a bit of VIP action in Ritzy's nightclub…
“Okay, one more and we’re done…”
High. Late. Studs up. Six weeks out.
“…well, you’re gonna get them in the game son…” Said the smirking senior player as he walked towards the dressing rooms.
Guess who started the match. And pocketed my £50 appearance money. And guess who stayed in that night.
Matt Nesbitt swapped his short, unspectacular but joyous football career for a much longer, successful one as a football tipster.
Who the hell is Matt Nesbitt?
Punter. Tipster. Collector. Of winnings.
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