Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shirt Kissing in the U.S.A.

[Actually, this article has nothing to do with the U.S.A. I just couldn’t come up with a better title.]

I was down at the always impressive Stadium of Light the other week, and enjoyed a very entertaining contest between Pats and Shels. Both sides probably felt they could and should have won and a draw was probably a fair result.

Two incidents, [amongst many others, I hasten to add,] stuck in my mind after the match. The first was after the Pat’s second goal. Bennion came and flapped like a man going under for the third time, and Colm Foley, judging his run and jump to perfection, nodded into an unguarded net. Foley wheeled around in obvious delight and, running back to the halfway line, kissed the crest of his shirt.

After the final whistle, Stephen Geoghegan, our two goal hero, came over to Section G and applauded the fans. Grabbing his jersey by the crest, he shook it at us, before planting a big wet smacker on the three castles.

This apparent display of infatuation with football jerseys is by no means confined to Messrs. Foley and Geoghegan. Week in, week out, up and down the country, players who are fortunate enough to find the net, often seize the moment to indulge in a spot of shirt snogging. The question is – why?

I do the goods inwards for a small manufacturing company. If, as occasionally happens, I succeed in taking in a particularly difficult or awkward delivery, I feel no compunction to kiss the tacky polo shirt that I am obliged to wear. The languid and disinterested youth who occasionally serves me in Macdonalds, rarely, if ever, displays any affection towards his rather fetching brown and yellow uniform, even after successfully collecting four different burgers, chips and four different drinks and depositing them safely on my tray. It appears to be a phenomenon associated solely with soccer players.

What a footballer of course is saying when displaying such intimate feelings towards his jersey is, “Look at me. By this simple act, I am symbolically showing my undying love and devotion to the club for whom I am performing.” Of course, he might not be able to articulate such sentiments, but he is experiencing them nonetheless.

This is of course a very praiseworthy and laudatory gesture, and the supporter will usually respond to it by roaring encouragement at the player concerned. Fans, by their very definition, are supremely loyal to a club and admire displays of loyalty by their players.

But one nagging question remains. Why do players only ever make this gesture of supreme loyalty at a celebratory time of the match [e.g. after scoring a goal or immediately after the final whistle of a match narrowly won?] Suppose Colin Hawkins next week were to slice a horrible clearance into the roof of his own net. The chances are he will not run over to the faithful in the Jodi Stand and give his club crest a bit of tongue sandwich. If he did, he would certainly be looked at oddly. But why not display your loyalty to a club at bad times? Surely it is easy to be loyal when experiencing great personal success, but a lot more difficult when things are going against you.

And therein lies the nub of the problem that I have with this lip service to loyalty. Because that’s all it is – lip service. With a very few notable exceptions, a professional footballer will gravitate towards the highest possible weekly wage that he can achieve. Suppose Bray Wanderers decided that they’d have to halve Jason Byrne’s wages and Paul Doolin came in and offered him double [unlikely, yes, but its only an example] Robbie Keane’s more famous cousin might love Bray, but the smart money would envisage him plying his trade at Belfield in the not-too-distant future. If Birmingham or West Brom come in for Wes Houlihan, he’d be off like a shot. Not because he’s going to win more medals [because he’s not], but because he’d be maximising his earning potential.

It may seem that I’m criticising players for their mercenary attitudes, but really I’m not. The company I work for have been fairly good to me, but if the firm next door offered me double what I’m on now, my loyalty would go flying out of the window. Loyalty to a club reached its pinnacle in the fifties and early sixties, before the abolition of the maximum wage. It was a lot easier to be loyal when you knew you were earning the maximum amount of money at your present club. Once the ceiling on earnings was abolished, and clubs could pay players whatever they liked, transfers mushroomed. The cream of Irish footballers now looked to England as their Mecca, as the financial rewards were so much higher than League of Ireland clubs could afford.

My point is that professional footballers, no more or no less than every working man or woman in the state, will try to earn as much money as they can. If its worth my while to change my employer, I will. We should not blame players for their apparent lack of loyalty. They are paid employees of a football club. They might enjoy being a part of the club, they might feel a spirit within the club, they might give their all for a club – but how many of them would continue if asked to play for nothing?

Peter Hutton’s move from Derry to Shels is a case in point. Peter spent 10 years at Derry and then unexpectedly signed for Shels. The Derry fans were incensed. They called him a Judas. If that was the case, every player who has ever been transferred up the footballing ladder is a Judas. Every player that Derry signs is a Judas.

One of the main differences between fans and players is the money issue. Fans don’t get paid for supporting their team. Just imagine that Dublin City decided to pay their supporters, say, €100 per match, would I transfer my loyalty from Shels? Much as I love Shels, I would be forced to admit that Dublin City valued me more than Shels did. But in the real world, fans follow their teams out of loyalty. They normally lose money through their support. It is a true act of love to follow your side through thick and thin, to follow them through the lean years.

Fans should not expect players to be as loyal as they themselves are. We go along to a match once a week. It is a past-time, a hobby. A passionate, obsessive hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. For a player, it is his livelihood. The standard of living for himself, his wife and his children is at stake. It is a completely different set of criteria, and fans have no right to expect the same degree of loyalty as they themselves show.

So why do players insist on shirt kissing? Snogging a piece of nylon does not mean that player is loyal to a club, that he loves that club. It is a piece of ostentatious codology on a par with Ciaran Fitzgerald’s “Where’s your f-----g pride?” or Vinnie Jones’ fist clenching. It is playing to an audience and I’m sure that the other players on the team see it as such. Unfortunately, the fans seem to take it at face value.

I remember, nearly ten years ago, a young Cork lad playing for Nottingham Forest in the English Premier League. He scored a goal for the struggling club, and slid on his knees towards the corner flag, kissing his shirt as he did so. The crowd went mad. Three weeks later, the same player started making “Come and get me” overtures to Manchester United. The Forest fans were incensed, but the young lad had no need of them any more. [I often wonder what became of him, by the way.]

So, lads. Leave it out. Put the effort in on the pitch, work hard, go in bravely. We’ll love you. But leave out the oral sex with your shirt. Unless you’re coming to the end of your career, you’ll probably be looking for a transfer sooner or later and then your enthusiastic displays of loyalty will seem all the more hollow.

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