Was it Brian Clough who said of football’s role in hooliganism: “If people have a fight in a supermarket car park, nobody blames Sainsbury’s”? Perhaps Clough, or Oscar Wilde, or possibly Chairman Mao – one of those lads who was always saying stuff, anyway. The point that Cloughie, or Maoie, was making was an invitation to explore sport’s place in society, its responsibility to it, and whether it shapes or reflects its life and times.
It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that British football is undergoing a period of self-examination, for countless millions here and abroad are more than happy with the shiny, noisy thrill of it all, with the Premier League’s pulsating hyper-capitalism and constantly updating emotional drama.
But in some pockets, people are questioning where the sport sits in broader society, and one such is a thoughtful film on BT Sport this Wednesday called State of Play, by Michael Calvin.
Calvin, once of this parish, is a sportswriter and broadcaster who made a very good documentary a couple of years back called No Hunger In Paradise.
That BT Sport film looked at the ruthlessly efficient meat-grinder of the elite football academy: a large number of young boys in, a very small number of men playing top-flight out, and especially the waste product, the broken and disillusioned lad who feels his life is over before he is old enough to get a driving licence.
State of Play has a broader and less melancholic remit, and indeed the scope is tremendous for a 90-minute film.
Northampton Town forward Marvin Sordell talks about terribly low times, including an attempt to take his own life, and the poetry he now writes about depression under the anagrammatic nom de plume Denis Prose.
Gareth Bale talks about the paradox of being incredibly feted and yet also giving up a lot of personal autonomy. “We are like robots, told where to be and when, what we have to eat. You lose your life. You think, ‘Is it really worth it?’”
His existence sounds like that of a prize cow, perhaps one of those Japanese Kobe ones that gets massaged, and has its topknot styled.
Burnley coach Sean Dyche talks about the pressure of needing to deliver instantly, he attempts to shut out as many distractions as possible, including the media; referee Ryan Atkin and Stuttgart director of football Thomas Hitzlsperger discuss coming out; Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes ponders whether she will be the person who blazes the trail to coach men at a high level; Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt explains how you continue to think and buy local under economic pressures in a global world.
Danny Rose, as reported elsewhere, appears to be in despair about racism and what is not being done about it. Les Ferdinand delivers a striking assessment: “Stephen Lawrence was killed, just for being black. The same things that people are chanting from terraces, Stephen was killed for the same thing.”
Calvin draws insights and feelings out of all he meets, the only dud for this viewer being his part as an uncomplaining guest at a Sam Allardyce pity party.
And it is not all doom and gloom by any means: there is also the infectious, joyous disbelief of Jadon Sancho realising that it is his tricks and flicks that kids barely younger than himself now emulate on PlayStation, or a neat portrait of the desire to carry on competing, by which Derby manager Frank Lampard explains his plunge into the uniquely stressful world of management.
Linking all of these stories – about racism, mental health, sexuality, money, privacy and identity, ambition, belonging or being excluded – is the question: is football causing them, or incidental to them? Would they be happening anyway?
Calvin does not offer simplistic answers, but does conclude that football “reflects and magnifies”. There will be those who think that politics and social issues have no place in football, and that it should be an escape and retreat. The state of play for that view? Increasingly, not possible.
- State of Play, the next film in the award-winning BT Sport Films series, will premiere at 10.30pm on Weds May 29 on BT Sport 2.