Friday 6 December 2019

No laughing matter when players don't want to play

Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge: 'Of course people are entitled to opinions, but all I can say is I don’t think anyone will understand how much it means to me to play football'. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge: 'Of course people are entitled to opinions, but all I can say is I don’t think anyone will understand how much it means to me to play football'. Photo: Reuters

Richard Sadlier

Roy Keane wasn't in a good mood when he walked past the physio room at Sunderland's training ground one afternoon. There were several players getting treatment for injuries at the time, which is precisely what happens in a physio's room nearly every day of the year. There was conversation and laughter, which, again, is just what you expect when footballers are sitting together in one place.

Keane saw things differently, though, and summoned the physio to his office immediately. Apparently there were too many people in the room and they were enjoying themselves too much. He was furious that injured players would have smiles on their faces. Were they not gutted they missed training? Don't they care about playing football at all?

Daniel Sturridge must have known the questions he would get when he agreed to appear at a Liverpool press conference last week. I'm sure he knew he would be asked his general views on the club and their progress this season, but that the main line of enquiry would focus on one specific issue. He has had a terrible run of injuries which have limited his game time, but was there something else going on that was keeping him out of the team? Did he have mental issues along with his physical problems? Maybe there was more he could have done to be back in the team sooner.

Sturridge has had his attitude and his commitment questioned by many people this season. Jurgen Klopp's remark about distinguishing between pain and real pain gave people licence to mock his toughness and doubt his desire to play. The problem here was his mentality. We could brandish him weak and soft if we liked. We could question his masculinity and sneer at his preciousness. We could remind him how lucky he is to be in such a privileged position and wonder why he is wasting his career missing games through minor injuries. So many people would love to be in his shoes. He needs to toughen up and learn to take knocks like a proper footballer.

Opening up for the first time about all the criticism he has faced, he gushed about how important football is to him and how difficult he has found his time out injured. "Of course people are entitled to opinions", he said, "but all I can say is I don't think anyone will understand how much it means to me to play football."

In particular, the suggestion he didn't want to play hurt him the most. He called it "the biggest disrespect ever to any footballer". It was an affront. How could a professional footballer be suspected of not wanting to play football?

He may have been right to defend himself, but he is in football long enough to know there are always players who are content not to be playing. I'm sure he knows many personally, as I do. There are plenty of footballers who are happy to remain on the fringes of the squad. In the past, this might have been down to a lack of belief, and I'm sure that is also the case today, but when you can be financially secure without playing, it becomes easier to be content on the margins.

When Keane ranted at that physio almost a decade ago, he was aiming at the wrong targets. Nobody in that room that day needed a nudge out onto the field. Nobody was feigning injury or just fancied a day off training. I was recovering from ankle surgery, and though I can't remember the specifics of everyone else's situation, I don't recall thinking anyone was happy to be unable to play. The fact that Keane reacted that way, though, shows how often you get players who are.

Professional football is a job for many. There are those who will tell you it isn't, but there are many who see it as a means to an end. As in any occupation, there will be those who will get by doing as little as they can. Within certain clubs, their failure to play will be accepted, sometimes reluctantly and often with a joke at the player's expense. This will be the way of things, except for those moments when Roy Keane walks by and wonders what's so funny.

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