Acclaimed novelist and lifelong football fan Ross Raisin's latest work of fiction is set in the world of England's lower leagues, an obsessively documented but almost entirely closed community. What Raisin discovered in researching his new book makes uncomfortable reading for anyone seeking to defend the reputation of our national game.
There is a football dressing room game, which goes like this: a squad sits on benches around the room to form an audience, and two players are picked out. Player one walks over to where player two sits, and when he reaches him he pulls down his own pants and puts his penis into player two's mouth. The joke is whether or not he gets an erection. There are, I believe, variations on this game, and in my imagination I have been through plenty of them: both players are naked, and the loser is the one who gets aroused first; everyone has their eyes closed and mouths open — surprise! — or, that everyone is naked, and the funny part is the spectacle of waiting for audience cocks to sprout, at random, like dawn mushrooms pushing through the soil.
Any way you look at it, there is a baseline homophobia and repressed fear going on here that puts you in mind of a Fifties boarding school, or an army barracks, a prison.
Football is a closed world. We all know that. More words are spoken and written about football — dull, platitudinous words, the same words season after season — than any other subject I can think of. And we listen to all this superficial football chat, participate in it, at the same time as we take for granted that ugly, retrograde things probably go on behind closed doors.
We have very little idea what kind of people footballers actually are, because all we ever see is the pantomime act of the Premier League. But there has never been a more important time to try and figure out who the humans behind the masks actually are, and — when shocking events occur like the Ched Evans or Adam Johnson sexual offence cases, or when deplorable behaviour comes to light such as the allegations of historical child abuse within clubs and subsequent attempts at cover up — to understand more of the hidden culture that they belong to.
For the last five years, as I have researched and written a novel set in the world of football, that thought has been at the forefront of my mind. It has not been easy. Practically, because
of those closed doors, and also because, despite my unease at many of the things I have heard and seen and imagined, I love football. I am a football supporter. Some of my life's most exquisite moments of joy, release, have occurred inside football grounds. So I have become hyperaware just how little I have ever concerned myself about what goes on off the pitch, turning a blind eye to the grubby reality in order to enjoy the show.
My novel, A Natural, isabout a young footballer released by his boyhood Premier League club, who then signs for a lower division side in a town that he has never heard of. As he struggles to reconcile his old dreams with the reality of living alone in a hotel and finding himself on a League Two subs' bench, he begins to realise as well that the person he might really be is one that he does not understand, or like — a person who, in a world outside of football, would probably identify themselves as being gay.
The institution of football is a fortress of imposed order. Everywhere you look you will see the pervasive exertion of control. From the sideline tiger-whipping of the under-10 team right through to the shiny superstructure of the Premier League, everything must be simplified, statistical, made conventional. The idolisation of the individual is just for show. There is no room for a real individual — especially if that person is a threat to the norm. And if a footballer does show signs of abnormal individuality, he will usually be taken down. Remember when Graeme Le Saux was lambasted for mentioning that he read The Guardian? He was a pussy. A queer. (Although the insults didn't mean anything, of course; they were just banter.)
I was told often during my research about this discomfort with difference. I was surprised, in fact, at how open the players I spoke to were in talking about it — when nobody else was listening. Which is why, when I went inside clubs at different levels of the pyramid, from the Championship down to the Isthmian League, I learned to make sure to have those conversations one-to-one, with the promise of anonymity.
I met with a player I'll call BP, a midfielder, in his club's training ground canteen. My own lazy stereotyping had not prepared me for how articulate he would be. When I told him this, he said that he holds back his real personality when he is among the group, and that he thinks lots of players are much smarter and more sensitive than they let on, but they don't express that side of themselves because they don't want to stand out.
BP: "Emotional things, or awkward things, don't get talked about. Except with banter. The banter's just there to hide themselves: 'I'm laughing at you but actually I care about you.' Guys find it difficult to communicate with each other. There's a persona you want to keep to, and the last thing you want is to look different. Everyone even uses the exact same terminology, the same vocab. They say 'I'm struggling' but they don't say what they really mean. It's just: 'I'm struggling.'"
What underlies all of this, of course, the elephant in the dressing room, the canteen, the boardroom, the terrace, the television studio, is performance anxiety; the performance of being a man.
There is a baseline homophobia and repressed fear going on here that puts you in mind of a Fifties boarding school, or an army barracks, a prison
It was a fear of the queer that gave rise to institutionalised "male" team sport in Britain in the first place. The industrial revolution took fathers and older brothers away from the home and into the factory. Young boys, as a consequence, were spending more time with their mothers in the private sphere and so were at risk, so it was believed, of becoming unnaturally feminised. Or "inverted" (Sigmund Freud's term for gay). The organisation of football and rugby teams was an overt attempt, by the patriarchy, to get society to man up.
And they made a pretty good fist of it. One-hundred-and fifty-years on, that philosophy is still woven into the fabric of men's sport: being one of the lads, not being soft, winning at all costs, legitimising violence, ostracising the weak, doing away with emotions, words.
The performance of masculinity on the field can be electrifying, certainly. Watching an athlete push his machined body to the limit of its capabilities, desperate to overcome his opponent, to win. But the performance of a masculine ideal off the pitch upholds a culture that lacks in empathy and can be big on bullying. There is a manager (not much loved by Bradford City fans like me) who is particularly infamous for his caveman machismo. I could fill this whole piece with anecdotes about him, but I'll plump for one: the half-time team talk when he abused his rock hard (on the outside) senior centre-half so vehemently that he made him cry, and then sent him out on loan.
The misuse of masculinity as a weapon is endemic within football. You are not one of the boys, part of the club, until you have proved yourself a man. Which may well involve being humiliated for not being man enough. Sometimes this can be in "jest", as banter. Look at any football internet message board and you will observe how the banter bubble of the dressing room is replicated on forums, with insults, threats, levelled at other posters and players alike. And sometimes it can be physically malicious.
The initiation ceremony is regularly a rite of passage for the young player, or the new signing. An Eighties initiation called "the glove" came to public attention a couple of years ago when a former Stoke City trainee took the then first-team goalkeeper Peter Fox to court for a claim (from which Fox was later cleared) of historic sexual assault. The ceremony allegedly involved a young player being held down on a table while somebody smeared Deep Heat on the finger of a goalkeeping glove and thrust it up his anus. Clubs up and down the country braced themselves for the result of the case going the other way, because they were well aware that it could have led to a deluge of financial payouts.
There is a scene in my book based on another initiation I heard about, in which a player is held down (a recurrent feature of the initiation ceremony, being held down) and his genitals rubbed in boot polish. The most difficult situation in the novel for me to imagine, however, was one that I knew about anecdotally from people at several clubs, including from a director. The Christmas party silver platter. A silver tray is passed around until it is piled high with notes, which are then used to pay one of the mysterious women who have been invited to the party to go up on stage with whichever young player has been strong-armed up there with her, and have sex with him, fellate him, for everyone else's amusement.
How much of this still goes on, I don't fully know, and I suspect, I hope, that the increase in phone technology and social media has caused the raucousness behind the VIP curtain to lessen.
The public image, at least, of the footballers' Christmas party has these days become one of expensive fancy dress. I sometimes marvel, when I look at those photos of squads dressed up in high-end costumes of figures from children's stories — Harry Potter, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Snow White (for the banter) — at the high-quality stock that must be available in the fancy dress shops of Bradford and Fleetwood and Oldham.
It makes sense that footballers have bought in so wholeheartedly to the concept of fancy dress. There is a reassuring simplicity to it: you can take a break from the performance of yourself for a night, yet stay in rank. The hierarchical structure of the squad is preserved, just with silly faces on. So the centre halves can be He-Man and the Hulk, and the team joker can come dressed as a strawberry.
Youth team players learn early on that there is a strict social order, a template of manhood to fit themselves to. Tiers of mini-me squads watch and learn from the big boys of the first team, following in their shadow, cleaning up after them, giving up their place in the canteen queue for them. They look to the authority of their coaches, and the implicit authority of fully-fledged men, to know how to live their lives. As one manager put it, "If the gaffer says run around naked and headbutt a wall, they'll do it."
I heard about another manager who used to make apprentices go out into their lodging house garden in the middle of the night, where they would stand, naked, on upturned buckets and then get hosed down by him while shouting out, "I am not shy! I am not shy! I am not shy!" Until local residents filmed it and threatened to go to the police.
The effect of creating such a cauldron of masculinity training is that the behaviour of youth players can often be more extreme than that of the seniors. Banter and bullying can easily turn into even darker behaviour and, at worst, into outright brutality. Somebody who works as a welfare officer for football clubs, giving guidance to young players, related an account of this kind of aggression at its most upsetting: an instance of hysterical virility within the youth team of a now Premier League club that resulted in the gang sexual assault of one boy with a broom handle.
Footballers are brought up inside a bubble. A bubble inside which there are no women: the canteen cooks, if they're lucky, maybe one or two other members of support staff. Very rarely do women hold positions of power inside football clubs. As for girls their own age, clubs would prefer their boys to have as little to do with them as possible because that way, they fear, lies trouble. The life of a youth team footballer is usually one of being shepherded from place to place — lodging house to training ground, training ground to college to study two afternoons a week for your BTEC in sports science — and being told constantly where to be, what to do. Run round that pitch seven times. Clean that senior player's boots. Headbutt that wall.
So, when that youth player reaches adulthood he is still recognisably an adolescent, because he's not gone through a natural process of figuring out how to be a person in the world outside of football. A world which, for the vast majority, they will be released into as soon as they fail to get that dreamed-of senior contract.
I have a friend who is a TV and radio presenter and often goes on event days with ex-players. He went on one such golfing holiday (he has a difficult life, this friend) with one of England's best players of the Nineties, who, despite having travelled abroad probably hundreds of times before, was paralysed by being in the airport. He didn't know how to get on a flight without being told what to do.
I remember watching a club website video of the former Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson being interviewed in his office. (I wonder sometimes whether writing my novel has in fact simply been an excuse to finally offload the 30 years of trivial crap with which I, like all football supporters, have clogged my brain.) In the background of the video you can just make out the fines board: "Friday night meal in hotel. Not to leave table until RR GJ NA say so. £25."
If you treat a grown man like a child for long enough, what you will have on your hands is a child. A child, however, who may feel an overwhelming need to prove he is a man.
We have very little idea what kind of people footballers actually are, because all we ever see is the pantomime act of the Premier League
In October last year, the former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans, who now plays for League One Chesterfield, was acquitted in a retrial of the rape of a 19-year-old woman. What the case had exposed was the team "sharing" of young women — often with other players filming — that is widespread within football. A gangbang culture in which the woman is an object of the footballers' need to perform manliness (and, of course, to have some banter at the expense of anybody whose performance is not up to it). One player told me that for some in his squad, the first thing they do if they bring a woman back, without ever thinking to ask the woman, is text one or two of the others to come and join him.
These are displays of misogyny, demonstrations of male power born out of powerlessness. The fully-grown versions of the boys on buckets, but now using a woman, usually an intoxicated, vulnerable woman, to express the same thing: "I am not shy!" "I am not weak!" "I am not a pussy!" And what I definitely am not is gay.
I find much of the discourse about homosexuality and football frustratingly shallow. The same words get repeated over and over. We hear the blithe, unqualified statistic that if one in 40 men in the UK is gay, that must mean there must be one gay man in every Premier League squad. As if it's that simple. As if nothing outside of the Premier League counts. As if all of the young men who are not straight are self-aware enough to understand that about themselves.
This is one of the main interests of the novel: the shame and self-loathing that comes from telling yourself that you are abnormal, even if you cannot fully understand, or admit to yourself, why. As a footballer, you will have lived your whole life being educated into the idea that the world boils down to a binary split between success and failure. Speak to any player for a length of time and you will sense that fear of failure. It is deeply embedded: a fear of letting down your teammates, your manager, the fans, and then being publicly shamed for doing so.
We go along with the belief that victory is the most exciting thing about football. But read any back pages and you realise that the real driver of salacious interest is failure. Downfall. England managers, the England team, Wayne Rooney. And in a hypermasculine world, where being one of the boys, not standing out from the group, is fundamental, it is easy to see how telling your teammates that you feel confused and afraid about your sexual orientation might equate to the biggest failure imaginable.
It is not difficult to comprehend, either, how for a young player brought up in this macho environment, never encouraged or shown how to express emotions, words — girl stuff — the fact that you have been sexually abused by your coach might be a tough one to open up about.
The kind of bravery — emotional, not physical; individual, not collective — that it would require to do that is not the kind of bravery that most young players possess. So you can imagine the heavy load of shame — and failure — that the victims of child abuse by football coaches have carried around with them for decades.
At least it's all out in the open now, though, right? After those incredibly courageous steps by the first few victims to come forward, the floodgates were opened and the tide of revelations and media coverage — facilitated by the urgent will of football clubs and the FA to come clean and tell us everything that has been uncovered by their "independent inquiries" — well, that has just continued unstoppably, hasn't it?
How often have you heard the scandal discussed in the media since last year? How many times have you heard football clubs opening up about it? The institution of football has, so far, managed to do exactly what it does best: use power, money and closed doors to make sure that the issue, like all the other issues that football needs to address, is not being talked about.
So let's talk about them. Let's start having a new conversation about football. One that is not simply, "how grumpy does Pep Guardiola look in an interview after beating Burnley"; one that instead regards managers and players not as cartoon characters but as real people.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Esquire, out now.