Perhaps it is an indictment of what football, or more pertinently footballers, have become that when I read about Michael Johnson in the press yesterday, about how he has "squandered" his career, his life, his gift (NO, NOT HIS GOD-GIVEN GIFT, FOR CRISSAKES!), instead of feeling sadness, or as the Guardian put it, "deflation", I felt damn good. I liked the guy more than ever. Shit, he looked just like I did at 24. The Guardian article by Daniel Taylor was a classic piece of sports non-writing, full of badly taped together logic, spurious morality and the same kind of self-referential, narrow world-view that serves merely to alienate more and more people from both sportsmen and sports journalism. The only moral compass deployed in building Taylor's argument was one that simply reinforced the myths of SPORT™ in what must surely be its most insipid, colourless age - namely, that caps, cups and stats make the man. Bullshit. There are countless players who never won a thing, that were fat or useless or brilliant or drunks or mad or all of these things. And twenty years ago, they were footballers in much the same as you or I are whatever the hell it is we are. I guess human beings would be a good start.
I personally felt a sense of pride in a young man described by that human monument to stoic professionalism Mark Hughes as not having "the personality for professional football". Perhaps "Sparky" (ha!) means that here was a kid who actually had a personality. From what I can see more and more often, it appears to be a near catastrophic attribute in the modern game, where the monolithic egos of former players-turned-managers demand that their young charges live, breath, eat and shit the same myopic bullshit propping up their own Xanadu-ian house of cards.
Taylor's article starts with a pretty unsubtle contrasting of the careers of Gary Neville and Lee Sharpe, quoting some stories Sharpe tells about Neville's dedication to the game, the implication (although maybe implication is the wrong word, seeing as Taylor is happy to drop in the fact that Sharpe's Wikipedia entry currently describes him as being best known for appearing on Celebrity Love Island) being that we must accept that Neville as success incarnate, and Sharpe as failure. Leaving aside the use by a professional journalist of a Wikipedia entry as basis for an argument, or the petty sneering at Sharpe's post-football career, let us ask ourselves why we must see this contrast in the terms set out in this article? Why can we not take a more philosophical view? In any other walk of life, we would want balance. We would want perspective. We would want broad horizons. This is not to say that balance, perspective or broad horizons will help a young footballer when he will need every ounce of everything he can give in an arena that has become so elite and rarified as to become, frankly, freakish. Nor is it to say that someone like Gary Neville does not have as wide or rich a life as anyone else. I hear he is an excellent golfer, for example.
My point is not really about the player. Players will make what they make of what they are or have. There will be a whole spectrum of achievements, and achievements of wildly differing types. But I want more from sports writing than this. Turning in an article that renders Michael Johnson's story as a watered down parable of squandered gifts is passing up an opportunity to really rip open the heart of what the game has become and ask what it could be. Why is there no room for someone like Michael Johnson? I find Mark Hughes' use of the word "personality" fascinating. Why not dig deeper into it? I want journalists to stop praying at the altars of their sports, devoid of critical faculty, to stop regurgitating simple ideas and trading platitudes with ex-pros, or tugging their forelocks in deference to the quasi-mythic ego-maniacs that blight sport and have removed it from any semblance of a relationship with real life. Because as CLR James said, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"