The willingness to be responsible for success but not for failure is evident in much of business and politics, so we should not be surprised when it appears in football. It is nonetheless irksome, perhaps especially in football’s case because while the sport is not, in the end, as important as business or politics, it means more to most than either.
The latest manifestation comes after Manchester United’s Easter drubbing at Everton. The Reds lost 4-0 and were very poor indeed. After the game, the players knocked out the required apologies and soundbites about needing to respect the shirt. But stories also surfaced about a number of players needing to “consider their futures” if their team finished outside the top four in the Premier League.
They are eyeing a future away from the club they have helped not do very well and at a club where other players have helped their team do better.
None of them have said this in so many words, of course. It’ll be down to the odd wink in the right places so that any resulting controversy can be blamed on those pesky journalists who just make stuff up. While flagging up that a move might be considered.
But we can be sure that quite a few of the players are thinking this way because it’s nothing new. For some time now this spectacle has been a feature of the game — the modernplayer saying they need to move on to a club that delivers what they think they deserve, while refusing to acknowledge that their contribution to what they’ve got may have got them what they deserved.
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about a stellar talent who has clearly grown faster than the team. In such cases, the move to test talent at the highest level possible is the mark of a good professional. A club is forever but a career is temporary, after all. But in too many cases, those voices saying they want — no, need — to move on are key contributors to the team.
In the wake of Manchester United’s humiliation — on Merseyside of all places — three of those rumoured to be ‘considering their futures if United fail to qualify for the Champions League’ were David de Gea, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku.
Each has featured fairly prominently, and yet it seems not prominently enough to make a difference. Pogba said after the game: “We didn’t respect ourselves, the club or the fans.” That’s quite the interview pitch for his prospective next employer. Yes Paul, bring that to my club.
The image of Jose Mourinho sparking up a fat cigar, ordering another cognac and laughing heartily has, for some reason, momentarily distracted me.
Whatever happened to being part of the team? Almost without exception, season’s end brings with it a roll call of players signalling that they ‘need’ to play for a team that competes in the Champions League.
The idea that their current team hasn’t qualified because they might somehow bear some responsibility doesn’t seem to register.
Plucking examples from the past always runs the risk of evoking some false picture of a perfect bygone age, of relegating observation to a grumpy dismissal of modern times. But one example from the past does stand out in this instance.
When Tottenham Hotspur were relegated from the top flight of English football in 1977, club captain Steve Perryman was hotly pursued by Liverpool, the dominant side of the era. He refused to consider a move, saying that as his team had been relegated on his watch, it was his responsibility to help get them back up.
He succeeded, and went on to lead one of the great Spurs teams to multiple cup successes and a decent crack at the league title. The team spirit engendered by the man his former teammates still call 'Skip' had much to do with that success.
Some will see Perryman’s example as a relic of a game long gone, and use it as a stick to beat the modern footballer — another of the folk villains we so love to take down. But it’s possible to ask whether something valuable has been lost without dismissing the many positive developments in the game.
Football is a tough profession. The rewards for those who succeed are huge, but fortunes can change in an instant. An injury, a run of bad form, the manager on your back, the fans demanding instant success...
No one should blame players for looking after themselves, but the seeming inability to acknowledge that they have contributed in some part to the situation their team finds itself in grates.
If a player is good enough to win things, surely they are good enough to win things where they are? And isn’t it more of an achievement to lift those around you to success than to move somewhere else and play a bit part in success ultimately built by others?
The trouble with the ‘need to move’ brigade is not that they irritate fans. It’s the fact that the attitude betrays a lack of professionalism. If you can’t acknowledge your own part in failure as well as success, how do you learn, improve, make a realistic assessment? And there is a more existential perspective to consider.
One possible future for football is that it becomes dominated by increasingly few clubs with money, who recruit a small group of elite athletes and managers on a rotating basis season by season.
Some would say we’re pretty much there already. But there is still enough personality and unpredictability and excitement to elevate football above the ordinariness craved by so many who run and play for football clubs — the ordinariness that comes from having guaranteed winners that the self-appointed top players can slip into at will when they fancy a bit of success.
Success tastes best when you create it yourself. Success doesn’t come instantly, and creating success invariably necessitates recognising where you have fallen short. Having an enormous sense of entitlement hinders the pursuit of success.
Those Manchester United players considering their futures if they don’t get their team to where they think it should be may wish to reflect on the season that Wolverhampton Wanderers have had.
"The players wearing the Old Gold have arguably forged the success story of the season, playing attractive football, shaking up supposedly superior opponents, and looking every bit the experienced campaigners in their first season back in the top flight.
Inevitably, some will be picked off by other clubs. But how many will seek a move to where they ‘need’ to be, and how many will carry on trying to be where they deserve to be? And what would be the bigger achievement?