Anton Ferdinand recently gave a heartfelt interview in a podcast about how tough he found things when his mother passed away, how it affected his performances for Southend. Although he rightly pointed out that his situation was relatively public knowledge because of his profile, many supporters would either have been unaware or unable to quite understand how much he was struggling, and he took a lot of stick from fans during that difficult 2017/18 season.
Chris Barker’s death reiterates the need to be wary of the mental health of players who are going through a tough time in their personal lives. Anton said he went to “some dark places” during the months after his mother’s death, but found it difficult to reach out for support even from his wife and team mates.
This got me thinking about how little supporters actually know about what players are going through off the pitch and about things going on at a football club in general. Anthony Wordsworth got a fair bit of stick during his final season at Southend, and even ended up in court following an altercation at the club’s Christmas party, but many supporters were unaware that he was struggling to cope with the death of his brother at the time.
Obviously everyone deals with these issues in their own way, but I can’t help but feeling if supporters were made aware of the struggles that both players were going through, they would have been able to empathise.
This kind of honestly would not come naturally to most players. From the moment they become professionals, players are media trained and taught to be guarded and say the right things whenever the cameras are present, or they are posting on social media. How many times have you read the usual tropes on Twitter about “we go again” or “fans were great as always”. Generic, dull, safe.
Some players go against the grain, tell it how it is and are regarded by fans and the media as a breath of fresh air, but you can guarantee they will have had some difficult conversations with chairmen, managers or PR people as a result. From a young age, players are taught to be robots, even though they are human beings and have good days and bad days, family problems and car trouble (insert Michael Timlin joke here) like the rest of us.
It is bizarre and unfathomable when you think about it, how football clubs are utterly unaccountable to their supporters. During January, Southend United undoubtedly spent some time under a transfer embargo. Yet this information was not publicly available, and even Chris Phillips at the Echo had a hard time getting the truth. Ron Martin was never going to disclose it, he is always happy to let his manager take the rod from the fans for not bringing in players. But why does the FA, or EFL, not publicly list information about which clubs are under a transfer embargo? No doubt clubs would be extremely unhappy and would claim it is a competitive disadvantage (as if people inside the game don’t know already or talk to each other) but supporters who are paying upwards of £20 a match to go and watch their team play deserve to know.
The more you visit things like the Southend United Facebook group, the more you realise how little the average football fan knows about the inner workings of a football club. A good example of this is transfer fees. These are usually undisclosed (again, keeping things from fans), but in the case of Tom Hopper, the Echo revealed the fee was approximately £150,000. As a result, fans would think the club has had a much-needed short-term boost and presumably can reinvest in the squad, no? Well actually most transfer fees are paid in instalments, over the course of a player’s contract. And the first instalment may well not arrive instantly. Indeed some chairmen (naming no names) have not been brilliant over the years at paying these instalments on time. So when Ron spun his latest line about paying fees for players in January, some would have scratched their heads as to how that was possible given the players and backroom staff went for a fortnight without their December salaries. But the transfer fees would not have been paid straight away, so actually it’s not a big leap to imagine, especially as the fees would not be substantial.
But if football clubs were a little more transparent about the business they did, then the support base would be more knowledgeable. Perhaps then, club officials would not moan so much about fans not understanding how things work and criticising the wrong people or things. It would also remove the gossip and half-truths that dominate conversations on message boards and social media. Where there is a vacuum of information, particularly these days, it will be filled by someone – correct details or not – and will quickly spread.
Southend United are by no means unique in conducting their day-to-day business shrouded in secrecy. But perhaps it is time for things to change across the game, as it is no longer realistic for clubs to keep everything to themselves. Things leak out, not always with the whole truth, which can be damaging. Clubs are now particularly reliant on their owners, often just one person, and when there is no scrutiny, this leads directly to situations like Bury.
Owners like Andy Holt (Accrington) and Daragh McAnthony (Peterborough) regularly update fans on goings on via social media (and doubtless regularly clash with the EFL over it), but this doesn’t really go far enough. Having a publicly available ledger of transfer business should be possible, especially as agents fees (by club) are regularly published. Players’ salaries could be publicly available. I’d love to see how much Liam Ridgewell has trousered from us for his half-game shitshow against Blackpool. Footballers would see this as a breach of privacy and clubs would worry it would upset dressing room morale, but to be honest most of them know what their team mates earn anyway and it might force clubs to treat players equally. Disciplinary action against players should be publicly available, and it’s high time that clubs stopped claiming a player is “injured” (hello Simon ‘pelvic injury’ Cox) when they’re imminently off to another club. It’s insulting to our intelligence.
Surely it is time for the Government to take a firmer grip on how the game is being run. Football clubs should also be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As we all know, the FA have no power and the Premier League is riding roughshod over the EFL, taking everything it can until there’s nothing left (the latest pressure being on FA Cup Fourth round replays due to “too many games” for Pep Guardiola’s poor little beleaguered 70-man squad).
It’s time for a higher power to intervene, although that’s unlikely under a Conservative government – without to make this article political, and whatever you think of the respective parties overall, there’s no doubt Labour takes a far keener interest in the game and has plenty of very knowledgeable MPs that know how important it is.
Football clubs belong to the supporters. Owners might disagree with that, but we can hope that Southend United will be around for longer that Ron Martin will. The players, managers and staff for the most part are passing through. How can it be right that in 2020, the people who know the least about the inner workings of their clubs, are the ones that will still be there when everyone else is gone?
Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX