Home Features Opinion: Big Sam – The Last Of The Great Football Characters

Opinion: Big Sam – The Last Of The Great Football Characters

After sixty seven days, one victory, one pint of wine and a Chinese Sam Allardyce’s reign as England manager has ended in ignominy.

When Big Sam was appointed just over two months ago there was that feeling of inevitability that he was not the man to rejuvenate the fortunes of the English national side much like Roy Hodgson and Steve McClaren before him.

At least when Fabio Capello was appointed to the position the Football Association could be content in the knowledge that they had chosen a bona-fide world-class manager and at that even he couldn’t coax anything other than a mediocre tournament performance from his charges and was shrewd enough to walk away from the job on principal during the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand racism debacle.

For the FA the search once again begins for the ideal candidate to take up the mantle of the most poisoned of chalices and leave this most recent scandal behind them. The striking thing about this most recent controversy is how wholly English the whole affair was. It seems that only an English manager could get caught criticising his own employers, lampooning his predecessor’s speech impediment and chastising a member of the Royal Family for pulling ‘moonies’ while slugging back wine from a pint glass in a Chinese restaurant. Had it been a scene in the hilarious comedy film ‘Mike Bassett: England Manager’ it may have been cut for being just a little bit too slapstick.

But the wider issue here is not the moral outrage stemming from Allardyce’s comments but the fact that such intrusive activity by the likes of The Telegraph on this occasion and the general public in many other instances has eradicated the ‘character’ from English football. The proliferation of smart devices in the last decade has decreed that anything that any celebrity does in the public domain will almost undoubtedly be snapped and shared online no matter how mundane.

BOLTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: Former England manager Sam Allardyce speaks to the media as he leaves his family home on September 28, 2016 in Bolton, England. Allardyce left his position as the national football manager after only one match in charge following allegations made by a national newspaper. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)

So when a footballer such as Jack Grealish for example is found passed out on a footpath in Tenerife it will not only be documented but it will go viral in a matter of minutes. Young Grealish has had a few scrapes with his employers as a result of his party-boy antics being filmed and circulated online a number of times, with the most recent instance drawing the ire of Aston Villa legend Dion Dublin and prompting Stan Collymore to write him an open letter warning him of the pit-falls of being a young, rich, fun-loving professional footballer.

And while both Dublin and Collymore are right in what they are saying about Grealish they both operated in an era when smart phones didn’t exist and player’s naughty antics were confined to word of mouth or the odd snap by the tabloid’s paparazzi.

If Gazza had been out drinking sambucas the night before a Premier League match his manager may never know. If Denis Wise was passed out in the corner of a kebab shop there would probably be no evidence to ever prove it. If Neil Ruddock got in a brawl outside a night club it may never be known whether it actually happened or was just some fabricated version of events by an opportunistic member of the public.

The nineties was full to the brim with ‘characters’ in English football and while many of them were slaves to their vices and others had slightly unsavoury characteristics, they all shared the vulnerabilities that football fans saw in themselves and in turn it is why they found them so relatable.

The drunken fan saw himself when he watched Duncan Ferguson or Paul McGrath or Gazza, the gambling addict saw himself in Paul Merson, the egocentric flawed genius saw himself in Eric Cantona probably because he’d attempted to karate kick his buddies down the pub on a few occasions. All of these former footballers were fine players but also huge ‘characters’ of the game and there propensity to become such ‘characters’ was fostered by the care-free hedonistic world that they lived in known as the nineties where if their bad boy antics weren’t snapped by The Sun they were away scot free.

21 Dec 1996:  Eric Cantona of Manchester United in action during an FA Carling Premiership match against Sunderland at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. Manchester United won the match 5-0.  Mandatory Credit: Mark  Thompson/Allsport

Yes, there would be hundreds of prying eyes in nightclubs to see these footballers in their element but none of them had camera phones and subsequently the stories could only be told by word of mouth further mythologising the antics of the Gazzas, Fergusons, Collymores and McGraths.

When fans flocked to see them on Saturday afternoons they may speculate about the rumours of drunken debauchery but have no concrete evidence to back it up adding to the romance of a character like McGrath, who may have been hopelessly drunk Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and win the Man of the Match award at Old Trafford at the weekend.

Nowadays someone like Grealish could never fly that close to the sun and come away unscathed due to the prying eyes of the iPhone brigade. Obviously McGrath and other players from that era, such as Paul Gascoigne and Tony Adams amongst many others, faced some very tragic days due to their battle with booze and not for one moment am I condoning a life filled with reckless partying in place of a rigorous fitness regime for today’s breed of footballers.

But there is no denying that ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’ and instead of the charming chaos that came with following a Duncan Ferguson or a Paolo Di Canio, fans can now instead get their kicks by following the likes of Jesse Lingard’s Instagram account, which is supposedly quite amusing but in a completely safe and sanitised kind of way.

Football has moved on from the care-free halcyon days of the nineties and many great strides have been made in various areas of the game, but a world where a football manager can’t slug down a pint of wine and advise shady sorts of how to make a quick buck at the expense of others without worrying about being filmed is one I don’t want to live in.

RIP the football ‘character’.

Éoin Kennedy, Pundit Arena

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