Is This The End For The Proper Football Man?

Having long been the domain of men who are physically tough and emotionally impenetrable, the British game is now undergoing a major cultural shift — but why?

A cluster of England players are squashed together just inside Panama’s 18-yard box like a pack of impatient commuters shoving their way onto the Tube. As Kieran Trippier whips the ball in, they scatter in different directions, as if they’ve just heard over the Tannoy that their train will now be departing from another platform.

Anibal Godoy can’t pin down Harry Kane, so he hangs on to the Tottenham striker like a leopard desperately trying to ensnare an escaping gazelle. The referee points to the spot and Kane blasts a penalty past Jaime Penedo to make it 5–0 to the Three Lions.

England manager Gareth Southgate stands proudly on the touchline sporting a dashing, form-fitting waistcoat, flanked by a former model and Macclesfield Town frontman. Southgate’s handsome colleague is Allan Russell, a specialist striker coach who joined England’s coaching staff in April 2017.

The journeyman forward is the mastermind behind this set-piece plan — a routine that proves fruitful for the Three Lions throughout the 2018 World Cup in Russia. England post a new tournament record by scoring nine goals from set-pieces — two from free-kicks, three from the penalty spot and four from corners.

Southgate and Russell thought up this strategy after consulting NFL and NBA coaches about how to create space in congested areas. Meanwhile, back home, the man Southgate succeeded is watching England charge towards their biggest ever World Cup win as he sinks his teeth into a burger from the comfort of a London watering hole.

Sam Allardyce wasn’t on a beer-glugging bender, fuelled by jealousy and bitterness — he’d simply decided to silence his grumbling stomach after taking part in a promotional event at a pub commandeered by a well-known bookmaker.

But these images represent an important juxtaposition taking place in modern football: Southgate, a torchbearer for the new progressive manager who is intelligent, open-minded, emotionally available and focused on detail, vs Allardyce, a ‘Proper Football Man’ and archetypal alpha male who is entrenched in traditional masculine ideals, loves the banter, and believes the lack of opportunities afforded to them by top-tier clubs owes much to a preference for Jonny Foreigners than a lack of ability.

These are sweeping generalisations that require closer inspection, but Southgate’s achievements and the nature of his approach proved to the British man that you can still be a proper bloke while also being a football geek with a capacity for empathy.

He earned the nation’s respect as a competitor with his meticulous preparation, and won their hearts when he comforted crying Colombia players after England won their first ever World Cup penalty shootout to reach the quarter-finals.

It’s difficult to imagine the PFM putting the pain of a crestfallen foe ahead of his own moment of glory. But Southgate wasn’t alone in shifting the perception of modern-day masculinity. Social media-savvy players and their success on the pitch also shattered the PFM’s assertions that posting a selfie was somehow distracting them from delivering match-winning displays.

So, what does this all mean? Is the PFM becoming obsolete? Is there a new generation of player and manager redefining what it means to be a man? And if so, what’s driving this change? FourFourTwo slips on a waistcoat, clutches our man bag and kicks off a quest to find out…

Maybe we’re being harsh on Big Sam. His style of football is pragmatic, but he did have the foresight to embrace sports science, statistics and psychology long before many of his British counterparts, enabling him to exceed expectations at clubs with a limited budget.

That said, there are different incarnations of the PFM and the former Bolton boss encompasses many of the common characteristics. For starters, he fits the age profile. Typically, the PFM is the wrong side of 50, and as a consequence his views on social media, manhood and haircuts — not to mention football — are closer to your grandad’s.

He likes black boots, a short back and sides and Frank Sinatra. Dare to crank up a hip-hop tune and your pre-match playlist will come to a premature end. Just ask Joleon Lescott, who had to stand down as West Bromwich Albion’s dressing room DJ after Tony Pulis banned his music because it contained obscene lyrics.

A few swear words may be off limits, but there’s no harm in sticking a pig’s head in your team-mate’s locker — that’s just banter, an integral part of the PFM code of conduct.

The PFM sees no crime in getting blind drunk as long as you can run around on a Saturday and ‘get up and at ‘em’ as ‘they don’t fancy it’.

If that doesn’t work, he’ll refer to his playbook: HIT THE BIG MAN. But there’s no playbook for mental health. Mention depression to the PFM and he will roll his eyes and hear weakness. In 1999, Aston Villa boss John Gregory queried what Stan Collymore could be depressed about, seeing as he was earning £20,000 a week.

In spite of these character flaws, the PFM feels he’s been denied the chance to manage a big club as he’s plain old English and clubs like to curry favour with fans by appointing a foreigner with an exotic name.

“If my name was Allardici, I’d get a top job and win the Champions League with a top-four side,” Allardyce once joked… sort of.

Self-aggrandising claims are another common characteristic of the Proper Football Man. One of the younger members of the PFM mafia, Tim Sherwood, once said: “My win percentage is the best of any Spurs manager — I’m the best this club’s ever seen.”

Statistically this was true, but so was the fact Spurs finished 6th and trophyless under Sherwood, and while Tim suggests he handed over a steady ship to Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine saw it differently.

In the book Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, he explains: “The Tottenham dressing room was full of figures who at some point in their careers had been considered stars but had lost their way. And the team didn’t come first. Two weeks after coming here I remember saying to Hugo Lloris, ‘What am I doing here?’”

This isn’t a personal attack on the aforementioned PFM. There’s no denying that the likes of Allardyce, Sherwood and Gregory have had success with their methods, but their methods have a ceiling. By and large, the PFM is either a Premier League survival expert or Football League promotion specialist, hired as a short-term fix.

Former Watford goalkeeper Richard Lee explains the limitations to this approach, having experienced PFM techniques first-hand. “The PFM might not necessarily be most in tune with the emotions of their players, and the highs and lows each individual will have, but they’re totally committed to winning,” he tells FFT.

“But at some point, if you haven’t got a structure and methodology behind what you’re doing, your luck’s going to run out. Their approach is often very short-term, going game-to-game as opposed to putting in a three- to five-year plan.”

Lee, who spent five seasons with Brentford prior to retiring in 2015, is now a master neuro-linguistic programming coach, and works with a number of professional goalkeepers on fine-tuning their mindset.

The author of Graduation: Life Lessons of a Professional Footballer, Lee reveals he suffered from acute mental anxiety during his career — a condition he had to conquer to survive a dressing room environment bristling with toxic masculinity.

“When I joined Watford, I went from an all boys grammar school to a football environment where it’s constant banter and people getting on each other,” he recalls. “I had to adapt really quickly to fit in.

“I remember two or three talented players at the club who struggled mentally and emotionally under one particular youth-team coach and eventually got released.

“I felt sorry for them, because in another environment they would probably have done really well, but there was a bully in the team who was screaming, shouting and digging everyone out, and that’s exactly what the PFM wanted.

“He saw this character as a winner, despite the fact he wasn’t that good and made a lot of the other players feel bad about themselves.”

It’s a familiar tale that can be heard at every level of the game. The ultra-competitive alpha males that embody the traditional values of masculinity — confidence, aggression, physical strength and toughness — thrive, while the more mentally fragile and sensitive characters are ruthlessly cast aside.

Successful leadership, according to PFM beliefs, is achieved through respect. However, rather than respect, it’s actually something more akin to fear — the fear of being humiliated; the fear of being ostracised; the fear of not being a considered a man.

The PFM has been shaped by the guidelines for manhood laid out by society, and therefore bases his model for leadership around them. But where does this code originate from?

“At the start of the 20th century, around the time of the suffragette movement, men were working all day long in factories and mines, and women were at home raising their sons,” explains Michael Kaufman, a masculinity expert and author.

“The people who invented the Olympics and boy scouts wrote about an intense fear of men being feminised — there was a panic around women’s empowerment and men not being men. And so they literally invented modern sport as a training ground for masculinity. The way we play sport is the embodiment of a male dominated culture that is fighting for its future.”

Fast-forward 96 years and Alex Ferguson wasn’t expecting a fight from an unknown Frenchman wearing glasses and an ill-fitting suit.

“He [Arsene Wenger] has no experience of English football,” said the Scot during a television interview. “He’s come here from Japan and is now in English football, and he’s now telling everybody in England how to organise their football. I think he should keep his mouth shut.”

In the end, everybody, including Ferguson, wanted to know how he was organising his football. Following his arrival from Grampus Eight, Wenger swiftly set about revolutionising Arsenal and, as a result, the English game, which had become insular after British clubs’ ban from European competition.

The Frenchman was the catalyst behind the Londoners becoming a successful modern club, changing the diet and training methods of the players, introducing an exciting brand of attacking football and, most importantly, proving you could rule with kindness, not just kick, bollock and bite.

“My first thought on Arsene was: ‘Do nice guys win things?’” recalled former Gunners centre-back Martin Keown, who was in Wenger’s first Arsenal XI at Blackburn in October 1996. “He’d shake my hand three times in the morning — there was genuine warmth. He avoided telling the players off by creating an atmosphere where you would tell him what you’d done wrong.

“That’s what happened after the incident with Ruud van Nistelrooy [Keown struck the Manchester United striker on the back of the head after he missed an injury-time penalty in 2003]. I told him I was out of order and he said, ‘I think you were too, but I’ll try to help you.’

“Wenger’s magic quality was the way he made you feel important and special. He was my footballing father — the warmth he gave me took my game to another level.”

Arsenal lifted 10 major trophies during Wenger’s 22 years in charge — three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups — and while he was criticised for being too lenient with his players towards the end of his tenure, he paved the way for more foreign bosses in England’s top tier.

Some have been good, some bad, but the PFM has always claimed ‘they’ were stealing their jobs. Except that’s not quite true.

Sure, top-level jobs have often been handed to foreign coaches, but their nationality wasn’t the key factor in their selection; it was their CV.

They weren’t relegation escape artists; they were serial winners. Outside the top six, the PFM is still often a shoe-in for a job. The likes of Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce are never far away from their next well-paid gig, despite often having left their last job with their reputation seemingly in tatters.

And when given those roles, the PFM can point to a number of past successes. There’s undoubted value in their managerial approach and it’s important to contextualise their beliefs and intentions, rather than simply demonise them with holier-than-thou finger-pointing.

First of all, football’s a cut-throat business. Without mental resilience you won’t survive, and if you can’t handle criticism, the professional game will destroy you. Players have to deal with injuries, scathing critiques from supporters and the press, and the intense pressure to perform week in, week out.

The PFM also his livelihood on the line — he simply can’t afford to have players in his team that cut corners or crumble at the slightest sign of adversity. Some of their methods might be questionable, but they’re trying to groom a set of players who can handle the stresses of elite-level football.

Australian coach Scott Miller moved to England a decade ago and managed to land a job at Fulham as a fitness coach. He worked under seven different managers at Craven Cottage before leaving the club in 2015 to become the head coach of the Newcastle Jets — making him the youngest head coach in A-League history.

On one hand Miller believes the PFM is antiquated; on the other he believes their core values are still relevant today. “The PFM’s openness to sports science and psychology is often very limited, but they’re intense, committed, hard-working and they make everyone at the club accountable,” explains the CEO and founder of the Identity Pro Academy.

“I’m caught in the middle because I like the old-style approach to discipline and respect, but I love sports science and psychology too.

“The modern-day coach defines the culture and includes everyone in the plan. Back in the day this wasn’t how it worked — the manager would say one thing and everyone just did it. The best managers find that balance of empowering, but also leading.”

And that’s exactly what Gareth Southgate did with England. Rather than dishing out jobs for the boys, he assembled a team of coaches and analysts who were best suited for the positions.

He applied the same ethos to team selection and proved he could be both compassionate and ruthless, dropping senior internationals — like Wayne Rooney — who weren’t performing.

In came young, hungry players to fi t the 3–3–2–2 formation he had devised with assistant manager Steve Holland over dinner in Russia, while they looked for potential training bases last summer.

To establish a winning culture that resonated with an inexperienced group of players, Southgate also enlisted the expertise of psychologist Pippa Grange, who was appointed the FA’s Head of People and Team Development in November 2017.

Together with Grange, the England gaffer created a culture of trust, challenging his players to take responsibility, play with freedom and not be defined by previous failures, but instead have the courage and confidence to write their own stories.

Rather than put constraints on their social media activity, Southgate ensured his players were given training by the FA and allowed them to have fun on the platforms and reconnect with fans.

Most strikingly, he had the emotional intelligence to let the players know it’s OK to be vulnerable and put family first. Before the World Cup kicked off, left-back Danny Rose spoke openly to the press about Southgate’s role in helping him battle depression.

“England has been my salvation and I can’t thank the manager and medical staff enough,” he revealed. The manager also granted Fabian Delph a leave of absence midway through the tournament so that the midfielder could attend the birth of his third child.

In contrast to Fabio Capello’s prison camp rules in South Africa eight years ago, Southgate encouraged his squad to play darts with the media, go sightseeing in Saint Petersburg and race each other on inflatable unicorns during recovery sessions in the pool.

Off the pitch England looked relaxed, happy and united, and on the pitch they defied expectations, posting their biggest ever World Cup win, ending their penalty shootout hoodoo and reaching the semi-finals for the first time since Italia 90.

The nation invested because it felt genuine, because Southgate had the courage to do things differently, to be himself, to break the mould of the archetypal PFM and say, ‘I’m going to do things my way.’

“When you think of your coaches at school — even the inspirational ones — they felt they should produce a certain type of man by telling boys to just tough it out,” says Kaufman.

“They would humiliate them if necessary by teasing and taunting. This approach isn’t based on caring, empathy or connection, so when we see an alternative to this, like Southgate’s, it’s moving.

“The results are there for everyone to see — England overperformed. Perhaps one of the reasons behind their success was the environment Southgate created. Players weren’t living with performance anxiety.”

It’s not unusual to see the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp being very touchy-feely with players, but for the PFM there are boundaries to public displays of affection between men.

Not for Southgate. He embraced his players like they were his kids, which earned their trust — a product of a generational transformation.

“One of the driving forces behind it is the redefinition of fatherhood,” explains Kaufman. “In today’s society there’s a greater involvement from the dads. You need empathy to look after a child — the ability to feel what someone else feels.

“As a result we’re raising more empathic and connected men. These type of men understand team dynamics and won’t just be the alpha male or subservient male — they’re going to be part of a team. The coach will be better at tuning into the needs and feelings of their players.”

The PFM’s notion of team dynamics and bond between players and fans distorts their judgement — none more so than Graeme Souness.

The Scot is the archetypal PFM — whose persistent use of the phrase ‘proper footballer’ when judging a player possibly helped to coin the term — and seems to have it in for Paul Pogba.

After the Manchester United star scored for France in the World Cup final, Souness commented: “He’s undisciplined, and that’s the kindest word I say about him.” This at the end of a tournament where Pogba lifted the trophy (below) and played with a maturity and selflessness that he hasn’t demonstrated in the past.

The question is, would Souey have been quite so damning with faint praise if Pogba didn’t represent everything the Scot disliked about the modern-day footballer: image conscious, carefree and happy to bask in the limelight on and off the pitch?

For the PFM, these traits are regarded as character flaws — juvenile distractions in the grown-up pursuit of winning things.

For Souness, Garth Crooks, Roy Keane and the myriad other ex-pros who obsess over Pogba’s hair colour, football is an intense business, one you must take seriously at all times, even when at the barbers.

And that’s the thing: all that’s changed is the way players express themselves. While the PFM would connect with team-mates during drinking sessions, today’s players like Pogba bond over fashion, music, social media and plenty of other pastimes your PFM would disapprove of. But then this is how the current generation of twenty-somethings connect, so why should footballers be any different?

The PFM can’t see the hypocrisy in this. “A lot of their anger comes from what they perceive as commitment, focus and competing for the shirt,” says Miller. “Young players live on social media and it’s actually curtailing negative behaviour, because everyone’s got a phone and if they’re out behaving badly, they’ll get caught.

“Social media is a part of football now and it’s healthier than going on 14-day benders and talking about it on Sky Sports like it’s a joke.”

It’s also part of planning for the future, observes Lee. “If you look at it objectively, what’s Pogba doing? He’s an intelligent guy. He knows football isn’t going to be forever so he’s building up his brand and enjoying life to the full.”

The PFM’s inability to adapt and engage with modern players suggests their days of getting jobs at the top clubs could be numbered. But rather than taunt and tease their old-fashioned views, we should be asking ourselves what would a real man like Gareth do?

Put an arm around them and say, ‘It’s OK, I understand, but let me show you how we can be better together.’

Originally published in FourFourTwo in October 2018.

Football writer specialising in sports science and performance. His work has appeared in FourFourTwo, Men's Health and The Independent https://www.benwelch.org/

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