The Law of the Jungle

“What do you miss most now that you have retired?” A simple question asked of ex-professional footballers and normally met with the same response. “The banter in the dressing room.” It’s not the feeling of scoring a goal or the surge of adrenaline when their team secures three points. It is not the adulation of the fans singing their name or asking for their autograph. It is not the tidy sum of money they got paid every month for doing something they love. While I have no doubt players still miss these aspects of the job, the part they miss more than any other is sharing a smelly dressing room with twenty-five other like-minded hairy-arsed men. Go figure.

So what is it that makes the banter in a football dressing room so special? To be honest it is not one thing — it is a million and one things. It could be a witty comment, a dry remark, a planned prank or a hilarious mishap, but there is one guarantee. Every day you come to work, you will laugh. Sometimes so hard your stomach hurts. This blog gives a small insight to some of the shenanigans that go on behind those closed doors.

I suggest you stop reading now if you are easily offended. A football dressing room is an HR disaster and no place for the faint of heart. I am not for a second trying to say you need to be a macho man to survive, but having skin as thick as a rhino certainly helps. In offices and workshops all over the world, there will be a certain level of workplace banter that is considered acceptable. All these rules go out the window the second you enter a football dressing room. Imagine sitting at your desk working on a laptop when a colleague arrives and they are greeted with, “Did you get dressed in the f%#@&?g dark this morning?” Quickly followed by another verbal volley of light-hearted abuse from nearby work mates. Most likely along the lines of, “I wouldn’t wear that to paint my house,” and other similarly witty quips. In any normal workplace you would be marched straight to the boss and given a verbal or written warning for harassment or bullying. In a football dressing room, this type of behavior would be met with universal laughter and back slapping.

There have been many mornings I have prepared to dress for work and had to spare a thought about what the the boys may say about my selected attire. There have been certain pieces of clothing that just were not worth risking in front of the football crowd. Who would have thought getting dressed for work could be such a minefield?

Charles Nzogbia obviously didn’t worry about what his team mates thought. I would have hung this shirt from a flag pole.

For those unfortunate souls who wear something that doesn’t meet the lads’ high standards, you can guarantee that after training the offending piece will be hanging from the dressing room ceiling for everyone to see. It’s a clear sign from the boys that this item is considered unacceptable. At Sunderland, I came back in from training one day to see a huddle of lads laughing at an item that had been hung up. I walked down chuckling and keen to get involved in the high jinks only to find it was my t-shirt that was displayed on the hanger and in need of a good wash. It was a plain white t-shirt covered in stains. My laugh was quickly replaced by embarrassment as I grabbed the t-shirt down and realized the joke was on me. Mental note, time to learn how to use my washing machine.

I have seen a multitude of pranks with players’ clothes, from holes cut in socks to shoes nailed to the floor, but, unfortunately, it isn’t just your everyday clothes that are at threat. Your training kit can also come under attack.

It isn’t unusual for the press to make you sweat with some probing questions but during one particularly relaxed interview before training at Wolves, I was so uncomfortably hot and sweating profusely and I could not wait for the interview to be over. My answers were getting shorter and shorter as I squirmed in my seat. Only afterwards did I realise the source of my discomfort was emanating from the deep heat Andy Keogh has rubbed in my slips that very morning. It was payback for the itching powder I had put in his a week earlier. In a football dressing room, what goes around usually comes around. Players have memories like elephants.

Even well-dressed players are not immune and a cutting edge piece of clothing can bring great hilarity, as my ex-Sunderland teammate Chris Brown found out. He came in one morning sporting a very nice black leather jacket. Myself and a couple of boys decided to make some improvements by adding “T Birds” to the back with some white physio tape. Big Browny put the jacket on none the wiser and headed in to Sunderland town center for a bit of shopping completely unawares he looked like an extra from Grease. He only found out when he bumped into our masseur at the petrol station and clocked him taking a double take of his jacket. Just imagining the big man swanning about the town like John Travolta was enough to have us all in stitches.

Chris Brown was the butt of that joke, but on most occasions, he was the instigator. Every dressing room is made up of different characters all bringing a variety of things to the party and big Browny, in my time with him at Sunderland and Preston, was king of pranks. I quickly learned to always to be wary when I sensed he was up to something. He would go to any length to get a laugh from the boys. He once drafted a letter to Gary Breen claiming to be Umbro wanting to design and release a special range of Umbro Breen clothing. Breeny was a wily old fox though and saw right through it, unlike Kevin Ball, who Browny caught hook, line and sinker while he was caretaker manager. Our friend and teammate, Dean Whitehead, had bought a new dog and Browny decided to have some fun at his expense. A letter was duly written to the club pretending to be a fan complaining that they had recently bumped into Dean while walking his dog and, though pleased to meet the captain of the club, they were disgusted as Dean’s dog “curled out a log right in front of them and then Dean refused to pick it up.” Kevin Ball called a team meeting to remind everyone of our responsibilities while we represented Sunderland Football Club. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Dressing room banter is certainly not limited to verbally slaughtering or vandalizing people’s clothes. It can, at times, be very subtle and pretty dry. As a 17-year old in Queens Park’s first team, I learned the hard way as I was often the butt of the experienced pros’ well-rehearsed lines. On one trip home from a match, as I sat down the front, my name was shouted from the back by player coach Paul Martin. I was asked to let him know when we were passing Strathclyde Park as that was his drop-off point. Eager to please, I immediately focused my gaze out the window and noticed at that precise moment we were passing his drop-off point. Quick as a shot I jumped up to let the big man know we were already there only to be met with hysterical laughter from all the experienced players at the back of the bus. I wasn’t just learning on the pitch I was learning vital lessons off it too.

In a football dressing room, you can’t hide anything, and if there is anything you feel slightly self-conscious about, you can guarantee one of the boys will bring it up and make a joke at your expense. There are literally no boundaries. Forget the PC world we now live in because it doesn’t seem to apply in a football dressing room. I have been taken to task over my milk bottle complexion, my ginger hair and of course for being a Jock. There is obviously a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but it’s much further away than in most workplaces. There is absolutely no sympathy or time to feel sorry for yourself. It’s best to just laugh and think of a quip to throw back or, perhaps better still, put some deep heat in their underwear.

At Sheffield United, Danny Wilson brought in a new fitness coach, Dave Morrison, who had previously been a professional footballer. Dave was unique as he only had one hand. Having been a player himself, Dave knew the environment he was entering and endeared himself to the lads in his first session by making a joke at his own expense. Straightaway, he was one of us and the banter flew back and forward all season between him and the players, never once getting out of hand. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.)

While it might be described as dressing room banter, it certainly isn’t confined to the training ground alone. Some of the best laughs can be found while traveling away on the bus or whiling away the hours in a hotel. Quite often, the fun and games begin while trying to curb the boredom that sets in spending hour upon hour resting in a hotel room. A bucket of water balanced in front of someone’s door is always a banker for a good laugh, and getting hold of someone’s room key while they are busy with the physio always results in tears — tears of laughter for the perpetrators and tears of anguish for the victim.

With all this spare time on our hands, the lads are never far from their mobile phone but if they take their eye off it for a second, it can prove costly. Big Matt Murray, ex-Wolves goalkeeper and now Sky Sports pundit, made such a mistake just as we boarded the bus for an away trip and it gave me enough time to change my number for manager Mick McCarthy’s before returning his phone. Matt was none the wiser to what had just happened. Sitting up the back of the bus, me and a few other lads decided to pull the pin out of the grenade. A text was sent to Matt asking him to come for a chat. We muffled our giggles as Matty rose from his seat and made his way down the front of the bus to see what the Gaffer wanted. As Matt approached, he hesitated as he could see Mick was busy on a phone call. At the back of the bus, we were on tenterhooks as we watched Matt nervously shuffle around Mick without actually disturbing him. Eventually Mick turned to the big man and asked what he was hovering around for. Matt mumbled, “Did you not want to see me?” Mick, in his upfront Yorkshire way, told him rather bluntly he did not as the back of the bus broke out in hysterical laughter. Mission accomplished.

Snodgrass is a fantastic player but also king prankster.

Matt is one of many players that have fallen on the sword of modern technology. With players always looking for their next big move or 15 minutes in the limelight, it is easier than ever to catch someone out with a prank call. I like a good laugh but nothing makes my stomach ache more than someone getting caught out by a bogus caller. I played with two of the best prank callers of all time and I’ve seen some hilarious calls. The list of names to fall foul of Chris Brown and Robert Snodgrass’s prank calls is endless. It reads like a who’s who of football. The pair of them effortlessly dupe people into thinking they are someone else, normally a reporter or agent, but sometimes even a manager or chairman. If I ever receive a call from a number I don’t know from someone claiming to be an agent or a journalist, my guard goes up immediately. I have witnessed too many innocent players caught out in similar circumstances.
I once managed to persuade teammate Jackie McNamara to phone ex-flat mate Iain Russell for an interview on being nominated for Scottish Second Division player of the year. Beany, as he’s most commonly known, used to vow I would never catch him out, but Jackie played the roving reporter fantastically well and went through a series of awkward questions that Beany duly answered as professionally as possible. To finish, Jackie told Beany he had actually won the award but not to tell anyone. Beany said he was not surprised and felt he really deserved it. I had to stuff my fist in my mouth to stop myself from laughing and, thankfully, I was still smiling the following week when Beany really did win the award. It certainly softened the blow for him knowing I had got one over on him.

You may read this and think all this micky-taking, bantering, scheming and conniving sounds awful. Your clothes, accent, physical appearance are all open to scrutiny and ridicule. How can this possibly be the best part of being a footballer?

Let’s get it right. You can’t arrive in a dressing room and, from the first second, start poking fun at people like you have known them all your life. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t go down too well. The great laughs and banter arise from the relationships and bonds that are forged over time that bring you closer together as a group and as you develop a great respect for each other.

When I look back and think of some of the great laughs I enjoyed with my teammates, they came in teams where we enjoyed a relative amount of success on the pitch. The majority of funny stories that come to the forefront of my mind were during Championship-winning seasons at Sunderland and Wolves. We had a togetherness and camaraderie that grew the more we won together and laughed together. I always found that the players that were closest could be the most brutal with each other. You knew your pal could handle it and, deep down, while you were slaughtering their gear or their new barnet, it was considered a sign of affection and acceptance. It’s not always easy and you have to stand up for yourself at times. It’s not an initiation as such, but some of the stick is a way of testing you and seeing how you handle it. Once you proved to the group that you can laugh at yourself, it goes a long way to being accepted. The saying ”if you give it out, you have to take it,” applies here.

I often hear my Dad complaining that people in a normal business environment don’t enjoy the same camaraderie with colleagues as those in a sporting environment, and, whilst it may be understandable that the pranks and banter which footballers create would not exactly be those accepted in a professional accounting firm, there is no doubt in my mind that the business world could improve a lot if people were less sensitive and precious about themselves. If something needs to be said, then let’s say it and move on. There have been many sportsmen over the years who have developed very good business models through the implementation of their experiences in the sporting environment and the creation of an ethos of togetherness, honesty and openness. In other words, “guys let’s call a spade a spade” or if in Scotland a f@$&%!?g shovel. Handle the dressing room and you can handle the boardroom like a stroll in the park.

So when players say they miss the banter of the dressing room, it is not because they miss someone abusing their new shirt or latest haircut, but because they miss that bond of friendship and camaraderie that develops over all the hours spent winning, losing, training and traveling together. You really are a band of brothers. Football is full of so many highs and lows that these childish pranks and laughs give players a break from the pressure. It is a release from thinking about the next game, the next training session or their next move. Playing football isn’t like many other jobs. You not only get paid to play the sport you love, but you get to do it with a group of lads that become your best mates.

Wolves Championship Winners 2009. At Jody Craddocks testimonial dinner 2015 it was as if we had never been away from each other.

You may not keep in touch with every player you ever played with, and I certainly haven’t been best buddies with every single one of them, but the second you meet up with ex-teammates, the banter carries on from where it left off. It is like you have never been away. Of course you reminisce about great victories, bad defeats and dressing room bust ups, but the main conversation is about great times, great laughs, great nights out and of course some banter about what your ex-teammate has decided to wear for the evening.

 

The Art of Heading

Close your eyes and just picture the scene. You are in the away end sitting behind the goal cheering on your team with the scores tied at 1-1. There is a minute left on the clock and your team get a corner. They are attacking the goal right in front of you and it’s their last chance to snatch the three points. Along with the rest of the die-hard away fans around you, you give it one last roar as the linesman points his flag to signal for a corner, hoping to galvanize your team for one last push. The ball is delivered and it’s like slow motion as you watch it hang in mid-air waiting to be attacked and then above everyone your centre back rises and meets the ball perfectly with his forehead sending it like a bullet in to the net. 1-2. He wheels away, arms aloft, towards you and your fellow fans. Queue delirium.

Some types of goals just seem that bit more special. A mazy run beating four men before slotting past the keeper. A long range thunderbolt from 30 yards. A cheeky chip over a stranded keeper. We all have our own favourites and for me a thumping header can be a thing of beauty but sadly it is something we rarely see these days and I think it is because heading the ball is becoming a lost art. Recently in the United States they have placed a ban on children under the age of 10 heading the ball and certain restrictions on 11-13 years due to health concerns in later life. Oh dear where does this leave me as from the age of nine I used to practise heading every day with a mitre mouldmaster ball? For those of you that are too young to know what that particular ball was like just think netball/cannonball or as my Dad would say “A clubby”.

Regardless of these rule changes in the US designed to protect younger players from head injuries, heading the ball amongst young players has been non-existent for a while. Heading does not seem to be a skill that is practised or coached in youth academies up and down the UK any more. Many youth team games I have watched at differing age groups all seem to follow the same structure of slow build up play from the back with plenty of emphasis on passing. In some respects it is great that as a nation we are constantly trying to improve and get away from the kick and rush type game we may have seen 10 years ago with the goalkeeper trying to kick it as high and as far as he can every time he got it. Unfortunately I fear we may have moved too far the other away as the youth team games I watch are so far removed from what actual professional football is really like. Go to any football league game and count how many times the centre backs on each team head the ball. I know from experience it will be a lot and if it’s not the chances are their team will be shipping goals because if they are not heading it the opposing centre forward certainly will be.

Even the best teams in the world need people that can attack the ball in the air. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the finest players to ever play the game and yet one of his biggest assets is being able to head the ball. Speak to anyone that had the pleasure to watch Pele and they will tell you his timing, spring and bravery made him a fantastic header of the ball some of his finest goals were headers. I am not sure if this aspect of the game is neglected because many coaches feel coaching heading makes them look old fashioned or because players don’t find it as exciting or as fashionable as dribbling or shooting but one thing I am sure of is that there are a dearth of young players coming through that can head the ball the way some previous generations could. I grew up watching players like Steve Bruce, Tony Adams, Richard Gough, Duncan Ferguson, Alan Shearer to name a few who were awesome in the air. In today’s game they would create havoc with their aerial ability.

There may be the view that the game has changed and that the ball isn’t played in the air as much . That may be the case but what does a team do with ten minutes to go and they need a goal? They start throwing it in the “mixer”. This is when you either need a striker that can head one in the net for you or fashion a knock down or a centre back to come and head everything out the danger zone if you are protecting a lead. Let’s not forget the number of set pieces that you have in a game where aerial ability is vital. France won a world cup final with one of the best players of his generation Zinedine Zidane scoring two headers from corner kicks. Heading is an important part of the game which cannot be ignored. I have been fortunate to carve out a 16 year professional career mainly based on my ability to head the ball. Don’t get me wrong being good in the air isn’t enough to sustain a professional career even in the lower reaches of the football league but it does provide a skill that makes you a very valuable asset to your team .

When growing up my Dad always told me that if I wanted to become a professional football player I would need to be exceptional in one specific area of my game. I always played centre back and used to attack the ball aggressively when it was in the air. Whilst I also worked on many other aspects of my game and in particular those areas where I was weaker I recognised I had a great strength in the art of heading the ball and needed to develop that art also. I would spend hours heading balls, working on my timing so that I was meeting the ball at the highest point and if possible well above everyone else.

Considering that I am 6ft 3in with a very good vertical jump I had all the ingredients to be excellent in the air. I believe I was completely dominant in the air at under 16 and under 18 level but I quickly realised I still had a lot to learn as I moved up to reserve team level at Queens Park in Scotland. In my first few reserve games I struggled aerially as far more experienced strikers would body check me or nudge me enough for them to win the header. It was a steep learning curve and one that was valuable at that stage in my career. I wonder where young players nowadays learn these lessons. Some of the lucky ones get to go out on loan where they are guaranteed to learn how different the man’s game is but too many are left playing meaningless under 18 and under 21 games against the same players they have played against their whole youth careers. A young Chelsea 17 year old centre back would learn more in one match against Newport County’s beast of a striker John Parkin than he will playing 6 months of U21 fixtures.

One thing that has improved and will continue to benefit professional footballers is the attention now being given to the treatment of head injuries. Far more stringent rules are being put in place to protect players that have suffered serious head injuries. Gone are the days when someone can get knocked out sit up count the number of fingers the Physio is holding up and carry on. When I look back at my career I wince at some of the head and facial injuries I’ve experienced and the way they have been dealt with. Playing centre back in the English football league has done nothing for my good looks. I’ve suffered multiple broken noses, a broken cheekbone, stitches to my eye, lip and face. I distinctly remember one game, away to Colchester United in the FA Cup, where I played with a lump the size of a golf ball on my forehead. I couldn’t head the ball for the pain. I struggled through the 90 minutes and my face was yellow by the end of the match as the internal bleeding began to spread. I have always been able to play through the pain barrier and duly carried on playing . In hindsight however should a medical expert not have made the decision for me and insisted I was removed from the field of play? Is that not where the ultimate duty of care really lies?

Going back to the rule changes in the US I can understand the thought process of stopping children from heading the ball at an early age it will protect their brain while it is still developing. Surely at a young age children could still learn to head the ball with a sponge ball or even a balloon. They can learn the technique without constantly heading a size 5 leather ball. It should also be remembered a modern football is nothing like what they were thirty years ago. They are lighter and don’t take on water so again advances are always being made to the benefit of the player. I actually think that the rule change will have an adverse impact and cause more injuries. How do you play a game of football when you can’t head it? What do you do when someone crosses the ball in the box? Players will more than likely start trying to control the ball or kick it in a very dangerous fashion, increasing the number of fouls given for high feet and reckless challenges. When the players are old enough to head the ball I predict that their technique and timing will be so poor it will cause even more injury problems for them and their opponent.

A large number of head injuries are caused by players who don’t know how to head the ball in the first instance or indeed are just reckless when they attempt to go for the ball. Players that are strong in the air invariably don’t inflict injury to opposing players as their timing and spring is so good they leap above everyone and head nothing but the ball. I fear in a time that whilst many things are changing for the good some aspects of the game will be lost forever as the word of political correctness takes over. I sincerely hope heading the ball is not one of them.