Have You Ever Played The Game Though?

A type of snobbery exists in football that I find both patronising and narrow-minded.

Many times in the past I’ve heard several current and ex-footballers, employed in the media, say to a caller or contributor they disagree with…”yeh, but have you ever played the game?”

The most recent time was during a football phone-in at the weekend when Joey Barton had called in to a show co-hosted by Robbie Savage.

For some reason it irritated me a little more than normal when Barton said exactly that to a caller, who’d criticised his reaction to being ‘slapped’ by Arsenal’s Gervinho at the weekend.

As it happens, I reluctantly accept the point that Barton went on to make, which was that if he’d have stayed on his feet, he’d have been doing his team-mates a disservice.

What he meant was that most players struck, however lightly, in the face by an opponent will go to the floor, not because they’re badly hurt, but because they know it’ll result in a red-card for the offender and an advantage for his team.

I don’t like that, I’d rather it didn’t happen, but I can understand it – what I can’t understand is why you need to have ‘played the game’ to get your head round that – hardly rocket science is it?

Do you also need to have ‘played the game’ to understand the difference between a mistimed challenge and one deliberately intended to cause harm?

I don’t believe you do – but it’s a criticism many referees have been subjected to over the years.

What about management? Should the lack of a professional playing career really inhibit the chances of a talented coach fulfilling their potential?

Andre Villas-Boas, appointed Head Coach by Chelsea this summer, is seen by many as a coaching visionary – but he never played professionally.

At just 33 years of age he inspired FC Porto to a league and cup double and the UEFA Europa League last season.

Many of his players spoke of a man who understood what made them tick, a coach who gets the best out of players by trusting them and allowing them to express themselves.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was so impressed that he forked out £13.3m to secure his services – yet many more within the game remain sceptical.

Earlier this summer I heard a radio interview with Graeme Souness, who suggested it was a problem for Villas-Boas that he’d not spent much time working with top players, explaining that you need time in that sort of environment to understand what goes on.

Souness is a man of vast experience, who’s managed in five different countries and won three European Cups as a player, so when he speaks you have to listen, but I’m afraid I still disagree with him.

No doubt similar opinions were expressed about the likes of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Arrigo Sacchi and Guy Roux when they began careers in football management, but all went on to achieve fantastic success despite never playing professional football.

Parreira and Sacchi even came up against each other in the FIFA World Cup Final of 1994 – Parreira becoming the first coach to win the tournament with Brazil since 1970, beating Sacchi’s Italy on penalties in the United States.

Sacchi, a former shoe salesman, was often asked about his lack of playing experience and once replied: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first…”

A quick glance over the pond to U.S sport backs up that theory.

Like the Premier League, the NBA is littered with huge talents, some with equally big egos and eye-watering salaries – but having no experience of playing in that sort of environment doesn’t seem any great barrier to success.

Coaches who never took to a court in the NBA account for just over 40% of the Championship titles ever won.

Examples include Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls) – Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) – Red Auerbach (ex-Boston Celtics) – John Kundla (ex-Minneapolis Lakers) – Chuck Daly (ex-Detroit Pistons).

Surely the most important thing for any coach in any sport at any level is to understand the game and how to teach the game – dealing with egos and personalities is an issue faced by all sorts of managers in all sorts of professions and is certainly not exclusive to football.

Thankfully supporters don’t need to worry about that side of things, but they do, in many cases, spend thousands of pounds in watching football – they also invest lots of time in their sport and are more knowledgeable than ever, with so much football, from around the world, beamed almost constantly into our living rooms these days.

How insulting is it then to suggest those people can’t have a valid opinion on something to do with football, simply because they’re not one of the extremely fortunate few who get to fulfil their boyhood dream?

We can’t all ‘play the game’, but we can all have opinions on it, and that’s one of things that makes it so great.


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