W hat do you suppose was going through Ross Barkley’s mind as he wheeled away to celebrate in front of the Gwladys Street End after Everton’s second goal in a 3-1 defeat of Burnley towards the end of last season?
Or, indeed, when he picked up the ball in the middle of the field against Watford a few weeks later, drove towards the box before striking the ball into the bottom corner from twenty five yards, the sole goal under the Friday night lights?
” barkley is subject to scrutiny that extends far beyond the pitch”
In many ways, should such things be the concern of the public? Here was a young man playing football and- particularly in his effort against the Hornets- displaying his promise and potency as a talented one at that.
Yet the story does not- cannot- end there. Barkley, like many athletes, is subjected to scrutiny that extends far beyond the football pitch.
Recently, that scrutiny manifested itself in one journalist’s now notorious article in a newspaper that has been out of stock in many newsstands in Barkley’s hometown of Liverpool for some time.
What goes through Barkley’s mind, do you suppose, when he is compared to a Gorilla, and his salary to that of a drug dealer? The state of the midfielder’s heart and mind becomes important in such a context, as does those of his contemporaries. Everton teammate Aaron Lennon’s detention under the Mental Health Act for “a stress related illness” is evidence of the normal human frailties that even idolised footballers can experience.
“a peculiar marriage of old and world news”
And perhaps therein lies a problem: idolisation. The fervour and dedication during the 20th Century that built British football into arguably the greatest domestic game in the world is now what entices- and sustains- the peripheral off field attachments to the sport, of which a variety of commentary in the media is one such part.
As football commercialises, it declassifies itself from the people and culture that fuelled it for so long, opening itself up to as wide a market as possible. There is a peculiar marriage of these worlds- the old and the new- that can sometimes be jarring as attitudes and expectations shift.
The part of the media that is concerned with ephemeral narratives sees footballers as fair game, their salaries and notoriety arising from something so popular that the inherent public interest in them justifies the way in which the players are written about.
Narratives require characters- people reduced, exaggerated, or allegorised into understandable figures, and there is no narrative quite as compelling as the hero and the villain. As our consumption of the peripheral parts of the game increases relative to the 90 minutes on the field, the strength of a narrative over reality can increase, too, if it is clear enough and accepted by enough of the consuming audience.
The trope of the hero and the villain is an all too common occurrence in English football, but by no means does it reside there alone.
Ross Barkley has suffered from the same fate that has seen scorn heaped on Wayne Rooney: both working class men from Liverpool with tremendous natural ability.
Once he retires, Rooney’s failure- perceived or otherwise- to transform that ability into realised potential will be well worth a discussion on many facets of the game; from how British football employs attacking and creative players, to the merits of good management.
Rooney has had an incredible career, and achieved a lot, and whilst parallels to former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo may show him in an unfavourable light there is little doubt that he has done well.
Yet one would be forgiven for thinking that Rooney’s inability to haul Manchester United or, particularly, England to titles and victories through his sheer talent is a failing that is all his own: that the boy from Liverpool isn’t worth that much if he falls just shy of the very pinnacle of achievement, something incredibly difficult.
By implication, Barkley is already being configured as the predecessor to Rooney: ill disciplined, unstructured, lots of effort with little end-product, and disloyal to his club and contract. Ultimately, he is expected to fail, in part because the stakes of acceptable success are so high they are almost unattainable.
We also that sportspeople be role models: the economic rewards they receive are conflated with a presumption, or rather demand, of a moral and ethical ideal. Or, at least, to appear like this on the surface; to the media.
When a politician espousing the virtues of the family unit is found the be an adulterer, there is a clear hypocrisy of values. Yet the same revelatory approach in degrading their public status is applied to footballers, where the ethics are often far less hypocritical, and the implications problematic.
Somewhat arbitrarily we are ascribing expectations to footballers, as role models, that relate to what is societally valued, not least in relation to class. Whilst football support is increasingly declassified, the vast majority of British players are from the heartlands of the game: the industrial, working class hubs of talent that have produced many of these islands’ greatest players.
Yet there seems to be more at stake than mere appreciation of footballing ability and the idea of players as representative of the town, club, or country in the way football is weaved into narratives
Barkley was labelled ‘unintelligent’- a substitute for uneducated- in the previously mentioned article despite the widely acknowledged intellect and mental speed required play creative attacking football.
Similarly, he was compared to an animal. ‘Beastly’ and unrefined, he is someone who gets involved in nightclub altercations: hardly the behaviour of a multimillionaire; or, rather, the behaviour of a ‘deserving’ multi millionaire.
Implicit in this is the sense of undeserving fraudulence. The wealth bestowed upon Premier League players- gargantuan, by anyone’s estimation- is forgiven if a player can become the hero. Otherwise, their wages are further evidence of ‘villainy’.
By demanding unreasonable expectations- winning the World Cup with England, no less- it becomes easier to dismiss a player’s ability or achievements into a binary, often concluding failure over success. The rules are set against players: given too much too young doesn’t merely relate to money, but praise, adulation, and expectation, too.
In particular, footballers represent social nobility, and this somewhat arbitrary barometer of fraudulence is a deeply regressive and reactionary attack based on little more than prejudice; consequently, real human beings are being used as ideological footballs in the public sphere.
One problem- and not the only one, of course- of talking about Barkley in such derogatory terms is how thinly it veils the ideological antipathy of the criticism. This article was explicit in its determination to create and reinforce negative associations between barometers of class- money and status- and career success; or, rather, failure.
Barkley is the ‘wrong’ kind of millionaire and to prove himself worthy of not just admiration but his economic standing he is made a prophetic hero as a teenager, someone whose raw ability must be translated into personal and national success. Otherwise, by this logic of the hero or the villain, he is only worthy of the most heinous ridicule.
He is from the wrong part of the country, from the wrong background, and such aspects are reinforced should he not attain the conscribed standards of becoming the country’s saviour.
The knock on effect is to legitimise such values in mass consciousness. Football is such a partisan and popular interest, holding the interest of large portions of the country, that it isn’t inconceivable to think that one bias relating to the ‘dislike’ of a player based on club loyalties can become associated with another bias ascribed to a player for more sinister and ulterior means. There is a clear distinction between satire and vitriol.
“any undesirable aspect is up for vicious ridicule”
In the age of social media, there is an increasing responsibility to critique such destructive representations of sportspeople. With direct access to athletes’ social media for the public, any ‘undesirable’ aspect of a human being is up for vicious ridicule, forgetting that the ‘character’ on the receiving end is, in fact, a real person, and not the imagined construct they are portrayed as.
Indeed, this extends well beyond the footballing sphere. The jovial and infamous idea that Andy Murray is Scottish when he loses and British when he wins comes from the same societal value system that seeks to utterly degrade Barkley.
One man who has recovered from villainy having dashed the hopes of the nation is David Beckham. In Beckham, we see what is valued: conformity.
The conscious loss of accent, his embrace of ‘wholesomeness’, and pursuit of societal ascension through the titled class system all uphold an existing value system, though he received public scorn earlier this year for leaked emails that suggested a ruthless ambition regarding the latter, albeit his publicist informed the media the emails had been “hacked and doctored”.
Nevertheless, Beckham has retained his public appeal off the field due in no small part to his conformity. His celebrity and wealth is more accepted, more ‘deserved’, than footballers who exhibit human failings that remind us of their fallibility and, crucially, their origins.
As long as sportspeople are asked to suppress themselves in order to cultivate the role model image for the public gaze from an early age, we are in danger of denying them their very humanity. Tiger Woods’s infidelity is by no means excused by the demands placed upon him uphold a certain image, yet it isn’t inconceivable that when someone gets used to hiding parts of themselves from the public eye out of necessity, that behaviour can manifest itself in something even more destructive.
“THE MEDIA SPOTLIGHT SHOWS NO SIGN OF ABATING AS THE PUBLIC IMAGINATION CRAVES SCANDAL”
However strongly denounced Barkley’s treatment has been- and it was deplorable- the act of weaving narratives around sportspeople sees no sign of abating as commercial sport increases it monetary and cultural hold in the public imagination.
For nearly every footballer in the national consciousness it is easy to conjure a negative caricature relating to their appearance, alleged sexual antics, or heritage. Go on: try it. It’s worryingly widespread.
Whilst this phenomenon of image cultivation is widespread, and common, it is not to say it is the sole journalistic tone: something as large and as popular as football receives a lot of eloquent, accurate, and fair assessment, and long may it remain so to counter the more sinister aspects of the media.
We might, finally, consider the effects- and subsequently the ethics- of treating athletes in such a negative way. Perhaps the most talented English footballer in living memory is evidence of the dangers of a fickle media: Paul Gascoigne.
It is important to emphasise that Gascoigne’s alcoholism cannot be attributed to his fame alone, but the exaggerated idolatry he was held to in the wake of Italia ’90 certainly exacerbated his existing predilection for self destructive ways of coping with life.
Gary Lineker’s infamous warning- “be careful”- upon the England team’s return to Britain after the tournament should be a prescient reminder to modern sportspeople, but it could perhaps be one for journalists and the media, too, and the consequences of their actions.
In no way does the absence of heroes justify the creation of villains, not least for dubiously duplicitous reasons. Until then, Barkley- a 23 year old man- and those who follow in his footsteps should be left to succeed, or fail, on their own terms, and not have their characters disparaged for every minor footballing failure.