“I hope we get beat”: Changing the culture in football
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
This is a completely honest statement but there were times in my career when I was on the bench or out of the squad and often my attitude was ‘I hope we get beat’.
If it wasn’t ‘I hope we get beat’ (As a centre back) it was ‘I hope we concede 3 or 4 goals’. It’s a mad thing to say but this has been the culture at some of the clubs that I’ve played for over the years and I can say the same for a lot of other people that I have met across football. For me it comes down to creating the right environment and is all about how you treat people within a football club.
For far too long in football as an industry, it has been about quick fixes and instant success. Managers need to win and don’t have time for anything else or risk being sacked. It’s never about building anything that can be sustained for years to come and always about where the next win is coming from (especially at the level I played at). It’s about solely concentrating on the starting 11 players and the short term. Nothing else really matters.
You are never going to please every member of a squad. FACT. If you are a coach or a manager, especially at first team level, your job is the get the very best out of every one of your players and that will obviously benefit your own career as well as the football club. So why would you not treat every member of your squad with the bare minimum which is respect? Surely, you’d want them to be feeling as good as they possibly can for when they may be needed going forward? Or at least so they don’t become demotivated or disruptive around the training ground? If you feel a player isn't good enough and it's not going to work at the club, then be completely honest but do it in the right manner and respectfully. Most players i know could accept this approach.
To build a successful team, in whatever field, you need to try and get every member pulling in the same direction. In football you have a team of staff as well as a team of players and it is impossible to keep everyone happy all the time. I do think though, that the smallest of conversations and a little bit of emotional intelligence could make all the difference in how it affects the morale of a player or the team. I realise that a manager’s job is the toughest in football, but I also feel like emotional intelligence should be one of the key factors when hiring a manager.
There are usually around 25 players within a squad. You will have players battling it out with each other every single day to be part of that starting 11. It is a team game, but it is also an individual career. Your teammates are your biggest competition most of the time.
You would usually have over 12 players (depending on injuries and squad size) that would not be in the team on the day of a game. That is over 50% of players in the building. Surely you need to treat all these players properly and try your absolute best to make them feel included. I’ve seen players constantly hammered by managers and had every bit of confidence chipped away from them and then a manager would wonder why that player wasn’t performing when called upon.
It’s a tough and brutal environment at times and you need to be resilient. But you are also human. If you are made to feel like s*** and aren't valued, you are naturally going to have a reaction. I cannot tell you the amount of days and months of my career I look back on and realise how mentally battered and drained I was at times.
There are so many little ways that football can improve around this and it is not even complicated. It’s about having emotional intelligence, people skills and realising how people feel, which should be one of the biggest parts of being a manager in my opinion. This doesn’t make you ‘soft’, it makes you human.
The reality is at most of my clubs the starting 11 was everything. I was lucky to play over 300 games during my career, but I also spent plenty of time not in the side. Being out of the team used to absolutely crush me. I felt like I took it so personal. It was humiliating, I felt embarrassed in front of the rest of the boys and I didn’t feel like I could be myself around the training ground. I felt that I had to let people know that I was not happy, that I wasn’t going to be laughing and joking. I felt if the manager saw me laughing and joking with teammates, he would think that I was happy to be on the bench. I didn’t have many outside interests away from football so I would constantly overthink things, go home, and it would massively affect my mood. This was my own mentality though and I probably would have had the same mindset if I was playing in the Premier League instead of League 2. So I wouldn’t look back and put any blame on a manager for that, but I do think it could have been made a lot easier.
If a manager had pulled me to the side and explained why I was out of the team , what I could improve on and how I could get back in the team in a respectful and honest manner, I probably still wouldn’t have been happy but I would have had a different mindset. The worst cases are when managers can’t even look at you. Some of the things I’ve seen over the years are scandalous and have led to players being depressed and spiralling out of control off the pitch.
I can’t tell you how demoralising it can be when the starting 11 would be named on a Friday and would go and work on the shape of the team, tactics and set pieces in preparation for the match on the Saturday, while the rest of the lads in ‘the bomb squad’ as its often referred to, would go and do a token session to get out of the way. What used to make me laugh was that if one of the ‘bomb squad’ came on as a sub the next day, all of a sudden the manager was saying ‘we need you now’ and this lad doesn’t even know what the rest of the boys have been working on.
If you think being on the bench is bad then being out of the squad is even worse, and again the manner in how I have seen this handled is shocking at times. A squad list would go up on the notice board on a Friday and if your name wasn’t on there is was a soul destroying. Everyone else would be coming in the next day and travelling together overnight for an away game and you would be made to come in and do some running with a member of staff. I’ve seen so many people go off the rails and struggle mentally after a sustained period of this.
If you aren’t in a squad and you were being a good professional and were still not spoken to properly then your attitude is often ‘f*** it, I hope they get beat’. It is a shame because I still think it is a preventable attitude to have. If it’s done correctly your attitude should be that you aren’t happy but if you keep doing the right things in training, working harder than everyone else, have the ‘I’m gonna prove you wrong’ attitude then you should end up back in the side. If you do that and it still doesn’t work, then maybe that club isn’t for you and you can use it as fuel to be successful elsewhere.
If the starting 11 lads win and keep a clean sheet, then the likelihood is that team will start again next week. That means I don’t play for another week, I don’t get the opportunity to do what I love, That means I don’t feel part of the group, I don’t look forward to going in to training, I don’t get my appearance fee or bonus’s that I need, it means me running after the game with the fitness coach in the pitch black on a Tuesday night, when its freezing cold. It means me and the rest of the’ bomb squad’ training on our own on Monday morning while the starting 11 have a jolly up and take it easy. My chances of a move up the leagues are then decreasing, people will think I am not good enough and then you get everyone messaging after the game asking why I didn’t play again. On top of all that, why would I want a manager who is showing me no respect to be successful? This can be where the ‘I hope they get beat’ attitude arises. It can be a tough place mentally to deal with all of the above at times and you can end up falling out of love with the game.
I found one of the most awkward moments in football was when the lads have just won a game and you were a sub. Everyone come is buzzing when they get back into the changing room. Everyone is celebrating and cheering, and you are sat there trying to put on a fake smile and pretend you are ok and happy for them. It’s a horrible place to be.
If I was a manager, and this is where you need good people around you, I’d be thinking in that team talk that the most important people to address are the lads not involved. The starting 11 take care of themselves, they are all buzzing and deserve the credit but it can be easy for a manager to get lost in the win and all the emotion. Long term he needs those lads who were not involved. I’ve seen it all too often that a manager has got no interest in you at all, treats you like s*** for weeks and then someone gets injured and they all of a sudden need you and want to be know you again. Short memories.
“you never change a winning team” is one of the worst sayings in football for me. I have heard managers actually say that before and what happens when you get to the training ground to start the new week? Most of the starting 11 stroll around and feel as comfortable as they like, don’t need to train properly because they know they are playing on Saturday. Some don’t even bother training until the Friday if they can get away with it. Same for the lads not involved. They train all week knowing full well no matter how hard they try, they won’t be playing on the Saturday. Why would anyone want that culture at their football club? It’s a completely different challenge the week after, a completely different opposition, why would you be set on one team? Why would you let players become comfortable and players not involved become disheartened and disinterested?
This isn’t me hammering managers, I have had some great ones. I am fully aware it’s the hardest job in football. It’s a role that I have never done and never want to do. I do feel that clubs could benefit in bringing in a member of the coaching staff that focusses more on the off field issues and can take some of the pressure off of the manager. Someone who players feel comfortable talking to and almost acts as a bridge between players and staff. A lot academies have a ‘head of player care’ role which is brilliant and I’ve seen first hand how much they can help players mentally.
Players have to take responsibility as well. I’ve had plenty of team mates in the past that haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t applied themselves and have treated coaching staff with no respect and the quicker you can get that kind of person out of the club, the better. But the good professionals and hard working honest players deserve inclusion and respect.
My ‘F*** it’ moment
When you first step up to first team football, it is an absolute dream to be on the bench. I remember being a second-year scholar at Brentford aged 17, when I was given the number 24 shirt and told I’d be on the bench away at Swansea City. I was absolutely buzzing. My first taste of being in such an arena in a competitive game and seeing my name on the back of the shirt is still an image I can remember so clear. I must have warmed up for about 70 minutes of that game but didn’t get on. I didn’t really mind, I was just happy to be involved and mixing with the first team boys and becoming part of the squad.
The issue for me came after I had had a taste of first team football out on loan and felt like I was ready to be involved and get game time. I was 19 at this point and in hindsight, I may not have been ready at that age to play League 1 football. But I was training well, was a good professional doing all the right things and had the respect of my teammates. This was over 10 years ago now, but I still remember the moment where I probably felt more embarrassed than I had done in my whole career.
It was a Tuesday night game away at Colchester and I was in the squad that travelled. There were no extra players that had come along as back up, so every player was going to be on the bench. Or so I thought…
We got into the changing room and the kitman had put all the shirts out so naturally I went and sat by mine. The manager read out the team and named 6 substitutes (you are allowed 7) and left me to sit in the stands when there was enough space for me to be on the bench. The whole changing room looked at me confused and I went bright red. I had no idea what I had done and still have no idea to this day. I didn’t have one word said to me by anyone. I wanted to get my stuff and leave before the game; I was that embarrassed. But I knew I’d be fined, and I couldn’t afford that. But that was my ‘f*** it’ moment.
After that I completely sacked it off, ‘headloss’ is the phrase in football. I had that ‘I hope they get beat’ attitude. For the first time in my career I started going out with my mates and drank every weekend, I didn’t train as hard and tried to put on this front that I didn’t care, but inside it absolutely killed me. I heard a rumour that it was the manager’s way of sending an in-direct message to the board because he wanted to sign more players, but I didn’t get told a thing and it was at my expense. People could have labelled me a bad egg after that or said that I was a negative influence, but at 19 years of age and treated like that in front of my teammates can you blame me?
I think this has been a massive problem in football throughout my entire career and I’ve seen some lads mentally scarred and almost forced into doing the wrong things off the pitch. You have to be resilient to make it as a professional, but you also still get affected by rejection and being disrespected like any other normal person would.
I just feel that so many of my dark days in football could have been prevented if I was just spoken to and treated with a bit of respect. I’d say to managers and coaching staff now – speak to everyone at the club in the same way whether it’s the best player, worst player, the kit man, tea lady, youth team player, security guard or whoever. This is so key to creating the right culture at a football club. Feeling valued in whatever workplace is one of the biggest factors for people performing well.
We’ll end it on a high…
I said before I have played for some really good managers and coaches who had a great balance with players. They were authoritative and strict but also had a side which showed they were human. Forget tactics, the main quality these managers had was that they were good people. It’s also no coincidence that these were teams were often successful. One of my greatest days in football was a Play-off final win for AFC Wimbledon. This was when I was 20 years old and a year after my ‘F*** it’ moment at Brentford. I was given a chance at AFC Wimbledon to kick start my career and shown a bit of love. I had played 25 games during the season, I had spells in the team and spells on the bench but I loved it. I was in the side but a few weeks before the play-offs I had torn my ACL and was now out injured for the best part of a year. I was absolutely gutted, but every member of that team and every member of staff made me feel 10 feet tall and like I was one of the most important members of that squad, even if I wasn’t going to play.
We ended up winning promotion on penalties in the final and I still think it’s the best feeling I’ve had in football. Myself and the rest of the boys not in the team were over the moon and straight on that pitch celebrating when that final penalty was scored. This was all down to respect and having a culture where everyone was treated in the right way. Every person at the club was made to feel valued and like an important cog in the wheel and it paid off in the long run.
I do believe more clubs are noticing this sort of thing and football is changing. It is another thing where the perception needs to change. People might read this and say ‘man up’ or ‘he’s soft’ but I couldn’t care less. If more people thought about how important the mental side of the game is and how much it can have an affect on performance, as well as mental health, then they might reconsider how things are done on a daily basis and how they can improve.
I wanted to end with a picture from that AFC Wimbledon play-off final win. Just before the trophy presentation, our assistant manager (Simon Bassey) as well as the club captain (Danny Kedwell) pushed a few of the injured players and squad players to the front of the line to go up and collect medals, so that we would be a big part of the celebrations and would be in all of the photos. They probably don’t even remember that little touch of class, but I have for the rest of my life. Even in a moment of pure ecstasy for everyone after winning promotion so dramatically, they had that emotional intelligence to make sure we felt included and as big of a part of that win as anyone. I remember being a little bit reluctant at first but they enforced that I had played my part that season and helped us get to the play-offs.
Out of the 9 players on show in the photo, only 2 had played in the final.
I was fortunate enough to win promotion twice more in my career and was probably more of a key figure in both of those promotions, but this one remains my favourite.