As the World Cup unfolds, we hear every day about how football spills into the wider world – into politics, into the way people think and feel. It’s a symbol of something, we’re told, or a metaphor for something else. It’s far more significant than 22 men chasing a ball around.
Normally I would be sceptical about all that wide-eyed football-is-life, but today I’m beginning to see the point of it. I’ve discovered over the past week that, just now and then, the game can indeed be more than a game. It can represent something bigger and more universal.
Cynicism, for example. Or greed. Or sanctimonious egotism. Or just good old-fashioned dishonesty.
Is it worth worrying about, or writing about, a little football saga? I think so and I’ll try to explain why.
Here’s the background in brief. Six months ago the football club I support, Queens Park Rangers (the pride of west London), hired a new manager. It was rather an exciting appointment. Our club is in the Championship, one moment looking up longingly to the Premier, the next down nervously to Division One. The man we hired in the late summer had not been a manager before. He was quite young and had a good reputation as a coach, tactician and man-manager. He was ambitious but acceptably so, apparently straight and easygoing, a man you could relate to. His name was Michael Beale.
What was great about Beale – almost too good to be true in fact – was that it was clear from the start that he was not just another football opportunist. As he told us (quite frequently, come to think of it), he didn’t have a manager or agent. He didn’t believe in all that stuff. When he was interviewed, he spoke from the heart, avoiding the well-worn clichés and evasions that most managers employ. He was intelligent, yet grounded. He understood the crazy, illogical dreams of the fans and balanced it sensibly against the realities of our relatively small club. He felt like one of us – but with talent.
The season started. We discovered that he was also, miracle upon miracle, a winner. In September and October, our team performed far better than the experts expected. On their day, they were exhilarating to watch.
Good old Michael. Or, rather, good old Mick as quickly became.
A little over a month ago, his image received an upgrade from hero to saint. A Premier League club, Wolves, having spotted how well we were doing, tried to poach Mick. There were days of uncertainty, during which it was confidently reported in the press that Mick was on his way out and off to the big time.
But he wasn’t. He stayed with us. And, in heart-warming words, he told us exactly why.
‘Integrity is a real big thing for me and loyalty. You don’t give it to receive it back, but if those are the things you live by then at times when you are put in a position you have to be strong by them….I’ve been all in here and I’ve asked others to be all in here so I can’t be the first person to run away from the ship.
I’m in this relationship and I’ve asked for things from this club and they’ve tried to give me everything they can… I just want to fulfil that and see it through.’
This was rare. This was beautiful. This was why football could sometimes deliver a lesson to a harsh and cynical world. Politicians might be grubbier and less dignified than ever before, but at least there was one person who not only believed in old-fashioned decency and was prepared to act on it. Those were the values you live by, Mick said. You have to be strong. He said it himself.
Never has a manager been more adored and admired. The chairman of the club Amit Bhatia posted an emotional tweet online.
‘I’ve met some amazing people and shared in some incredible memories over my past 15 years in football. But the decision the gaffer made today, to trust us as he stood at a crossroad, is as important as any. Thanks Mick, here’s to building a successful future for our club together.’
At the next game, large banners were hoisted aloft by fans. Beside a photograph of Mick, were the words ‘LOYALTY WILL ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED’.
What poor, gullible fools we all were. A month later, another big club came to call – the Scottish club Rangers. There was more very public faffing round. Then Mick accepted. He was off.
Never has a hero turned hypocrite more quickly. Those solemn, slightly boastful, words about loyalty, integrity, the values you live by, had in 30 days turned to ash. Mick, it was clear, had been playing the same game as all the other ambitious bullshitters in football – only rather more cynically. Far from being the innocent, ordinary bloke doing his job and ignoring the rumours, he had been working assiduously behind the scenes to advance his career at the expense of the club who, six months before, had given him his first chance to be a manager. He had taken us all for a ride.
So what? you might ask. A manager leaves one football club for another. We all say things which are not entirely true in order to be liked. Who cares?
Here’s why I think it matters beyond football. Years ago, when I took my son to our club’s games, I remember how, for him and among his friends, the behaviour and personalities of the men we watched on the pitch – brave, reckless, selfish, honourable, sulky – mattered. Their managers, while less interesting, represented adult values, good or bad.
I have no doubt that the way Michael Beale has behaved will have a greater influence on the way young fans see the world, and perhaps on the way they behave, than any number of politicians partying in Downing Street or making big money for themselves in a reality show. The Beale saga will have been the talk in playgrounds and around family tables in Shepherds Bush and beyond.
Here was a leader who one moment presented himself proudly as a man of values, integrity and loyalty and the next cheerfully let everyone down without so much as a backwards glance. That sort of betrayal stays in the mind of young fans. It corrodes trust and eats into their little souls. It shows them how the world really works. It makes them cynical. It does moral harm.
As for the grown-ups, we just feel a little bit stupid, not just because we got jilted, but because for a moment we actually believed that we had found that rare thing, a good man in public life.
In the words of some other well-known west Londoners, we won’t get fooled again.