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the square ball week: talking

the square ball week: talking

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There’s a new issue of The Square Ball fanzine out on Sunday; we’ve just been nominated (again) for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, and we’ll be selling the new issue to the biggest crowd at Elland Road in years, so there’s a lot to celebrate. Thanks, by the way, if you nominated us.

Amid all the wild, unfocused positivity and Pontus Jansson posters (really, there’s a Pontus Jansson poster, for the second consecutive issue), the new issue includes an interview with Leeds United’s manager Garry Monk, by our contributor Emma Carrington. Emma was doing some work at the Yorkshire Evening Post and had the opportunity to observe Phil Hay and the BBC’s Adam Pope at Thorp Arch at a press conference, and took the chance and the initiative to grab Garry in the cafeteria and have a chat for our magazine.

And that’s exactly what it is: a chat. There’s no controversy, no gotcha questions; Garry doesn’t give away any tactical plans or training secrets, unless you count the fact that the Thorp Arch pool is still as empty as it became when Massimo Cellino ordered it drained in his first, penny-pinching summer.

What there is instead is a conversation, with some generalities about the work going on to improve the team, but then more about the kinds of things people talk to each other about. For example, where Garry is living, and whether he likes it there; given he uprooted from years in south Wales to come to Leeds, that’s a relevant topic for two people to talk about. Also: personal grooming. We learn that Garry gets his hair gel from the pound shop and shaves according to his mood.

It’s a great read, and well worth the £2 it’ll cost for a copy at the ground on Sunday (£1.50 for a digital copy online, hint hint), precisely because of what a deep breath of clear air it is compared to the high, stifling heat of most controversy hungry football discourse. Every Sunday morning newspapers and websites fill with the stale rancour of post-match misquotes dragged from players and managers before they’ve had the time for thought, generating a need for a cycle of responses until some other controversy takes over, and it’s tiring.

What’s not tiring is two adults having a normal adult conversation about the things people talk about; speaking unguardedly and honestly about things that, to tabloids, might have no consequence, but form the currency of chit chat for all of us, every day. Where do you live? What’s it like? What do you use on your hair?

It’s the stuff of life, and it’s illuminating; it’s an insight into the life of someone we only see either pacing in the dugouts, sweating into a post-match microphone, or guarded behind a media-room table. And it’s actually normal for football people to talk this way to the press; not, perhaps, in the UK, but elsewhere.

Among the many reasons to love Pontus Jansson are his comments to the Swedish press. Was he bothered about being photographed celebrating his goal with Aaron Cawley, supposedly still banned for pushing Chris Kirkland at Hillsborough? “I couldn’t give a shit,” said Pontus, quite rightly, about a situation he couldn’t control and wouldn’t allow himself to be drawn into controversy about.

A calm, wide-ranging interview over coffee with Robert Borjesson of Sport Expressen allows Pontus to express himself a bit more. The love of the fans in Leeds, the anger he feels on the pitch, his future (or lack of one) at Torino, his life in the UK and the difficulties he had when he first moved with his girlfriend to Torino (“We left home directly to Italy together. We had not had an apartment even before. The transition was too large. I took it pretty well, but did not understand that she thought it was harder”), the need to adjust to a more serious style of training, his weight and fitness battles, his opinions on the national team’s performance at the European Championships, supporting kids in the youth teams at Malmo, and the changes football has brought to his life and his bank account, but not to his character.

“The worst thing I can think of is that [my friends] will [say] ‘Damn, Pontus has changed, he do not care about us’ and ‘He thinks he is something now, he’s got air and flies away.’ When I think that someone would have [that] image of me, I feel bad. The only thing I want is for them to know that I’m the same guy. Had I not had the football, I had been just like them, [working for money] and had a crappy job … if that.”

‘What does your dad do?’ asks Robert. ‘What does your mum do?’ “What I earn in a month [my dad] earns in a couple of years,” says Pontus. “When one thinks: ‘Shit, it’s a sick world.’”

You know. It’s all the normal stuff that makes up a life: family, career, money, opinions. Pontus doesn’t hold back on his opinions: he’s forthright about never playing for Torino again, how it was difficult to have his say in the Sweden squad.

It is, overall, the kind of conversation you very rarely see with a British player in the press; and when you do, they’re normally regarded as exceptional cases, or so far up themselves that they’ll be booed for talking about the stuff of life and living with a broadsheet newspaper. Pontus is only one example. After the EU referendum result, Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini’s response — “The main concern should be about an eventual domino effect caused by this decision. I don’t think that a simple UK exit can change the equilibrium of the whole European economy, or the world economy, aside from the heartburn everybody’s feeling these days. This vote is the symbol of a general discussion that you can feel in Italy and all across Europe, but I think that discontent shouldn’t lead to a vote for disintegration” — was perhaps unfairly compared with Harry Kane’s: “I don’t think that any of us know too much about it to comment on it, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens … I don’t know enough about it to be concerned about it.”

And why should he? Chiellini expressed the opinion of a person used to being asked serious questions about current affairs, commensurate with his standing as a person of influence in society due to his application of his talent in sport. Kane gave the answer of someone who has been media-trained to within an inch of his personality as a form of defence against a scattergun media out to splash any wrong word on the wrong subject across the back pages.

Chiellini’s is the discourse of an adult; Kane’s is that of a child, but then, that’s how he’s treated. I have no affection for Wayne Rooney, but this week he was forced to apologise for having a drink at a wedding on his night off, and he’s thirty-one years old. Rooney might not hold his lager with the same elegance Andrea Pirlo holds his wine, but the alcohol is absorbed by the bloodstream the same, and yet one is revered for his sophistication, the other treated like a five-year old sneaking into a grown-up’s party.

England’s footballers get chastised for talking childishly, but who ever asks them a serious question, or even a normal adult question, about how they’re finding living away from home for the first time? Are they adjusting well to the weird life of professional football? Do they have any thoughts or ideas about how the game is played? What do they use on their hair?

It doesn’t only effect their media personas, but the presumption against adult conversation extends its impacts into the way footballers behave in their public and, one presumes, private lives. Wayne Rooney knows he can’t relax for a second, and every player who has ever been in a squad with him has felt the effect of it.

Footballers are treated like unruly kids, so it follows that they should act like unruly kids; kids who prefer the world inside their headphones to a world of hostile questions and tabloid photographers; who are terrified of expressing themselves beyond a non-committing phrase the press officer made them learn by rote, a teenage mumble, a big little kid’s shrug. And is it any wonder that, when their football bubble is burst either by untimely injury or worn-down limbs, footballers can find it so hard to adjust to the adulting demanded of them when they can’t kick a ball anymore?

Talking’s great. Talking make us love Pontus Jansson more and know Garry Monk better. Who knows what more footballers might have to offer society if we let them talk about things that interest them or concern them; or if we allow them to develop interests and concerns, if they want to, without stifling them with hysterical responses.

I’m sure we’ll be accused of overselling the Garry Monk interview in The Square Ball when people hand over their £2 and discover that there isn’t a headline grabbing revelation in there; no shocking, mag-bait quote. We’ll be expected to apologise for not getting him to dish any dirt. But the article tells a story we don’t hear often enough. It’s some people (Darryl Flahavan, Thom Kirwin and Izzy from the canteen are also heard from) talking about some things, and that’s important.

We’re very close to the fifth anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, and we’ll be remembering his life at Elland Road this weekend. What I remembered, as I thought about writing this essay, were the numb days after hearing the news, when friends and colleagues expressed their shock; particularly, that nobody knew anything might have been wrong — Gary never said anything.

It’s not my place — not anybody’s — to speculate on the reasons for Gary Speed’s death. But this is a valid moment to wonder whether footballers in this country wouldn’t benefit from a cultural overhaul that would some of the pressure from their shoulders and allow them to talk more freely, to journalists, to fans, even to each other; to be able to communicate the way Pontus Jansson does with the press in Sweden, giving interviews that, when we run them eagerly through Google Translate, make us understand him and love him all the more. Love and understanding are two powerful things that footballers and fans seem exceptionally keen to have for each other, while cultural forces seem determined to drive them apart.

I’ll be glad if reading Emma’s interview with Garry helps Leeds United fans feel like they know Garry Monk a bit better this weekend. And if you buy the magazine, I hope you enjoy it.

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