They're All Just Headphones!
FourFourTwo UK|February 2017

Chris Waddle's rant was not a lonely one. Today's footballers are aided by an army of player liaison officers, sports scientists and psychologists, with tech on top. Do they have the stomach for a scrap?

It’s a sweltering day in late July and a squad of teenage footballers runs wearily through the Lake District, each member carrying a log above their head. At the end of a muddied trail, the group dives into a river and swims downstream.

The players must rely on their own acumen and the support of their team-mates to overcome each challenge. There are no player liaison officers on hand to solve their problems, nor any sports psychologists present to massage bruised egos.

For three days, contact with the outside world is limited. All electrical devices – mobile phones, iPads and laptops – are banned, with players made to fill their free time by listening to some motivational speakers at mental resilience workshops.

Sheffield Wednesday’s under-18 side are undergoing a punishing boot camp. It is designed to build characters capable of overcoming adversity on the pitch and reverse a worrying trend threatening to spread through English football.

A month earlier, the national team’s humiliating 2-1 defeat to Iceland saw them exit Euro 2016 in the last 16. Critics argued that the team’s pampered millennials were mentally weak and incapable of dealing with difficult situations.

One verbal gem from an exasperated Chris Waddle saw the former England winger lash out at a perceived lack of character. “They’re all just headphones,” he wailed, while wearing a pair for commentary duties as a BBC Radio 5 Live pundit.

But he may have had a point. Wednesday’s under-18 coach, Danny Cadamarteri, tells FourFourTwo: “On my first day at the club, all of the youth-team players were just sat in silence inside the changing room with their headphones on, scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on their mobile phones.”

Modern players can spend more than 10 years being nurtured inside the incubators of state-of-the-art academies. An army of staff is then available to cater for their every need once they achieve footballing adulthood. So, has this cotton-wool existence made footballers soft?

It wasn’t like this in Trevor Brooking’s day. “When I was a player, we made all our own decisions,” the 68-year-old declares to FFT. “Players don’t make decisions for themselves now. The clubs hire people to do everything for them. If you don’t make decisions for yourself off the pitch, you won’t make them on it.”

The tale of Adam Morgan is a cautionary one for players and clubs. The striker joined Liverpool aged five and was described by Reds legend Robbie Fowler as “one of the best finishers I’ve seen for years” after he scored no fewer than 18 goals in 16 youth-team games in 2010-11.

But Morgan’s Anfield story does not have a happy ending. In 2013, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers instructed Martin Skrtel to deliberately rough him up during a training session. Afterwards, Rodgers informed Morgan that he would be released because he was physically too weak. The teenager sat in his car and cried.

He was also unprepared mentally. After joining then-Championship side Yeovil Town, his career went into free fall. Now aged 22, he plays semi-professional football for sixth-tier outfit Curzon Ashton, netting a December treble in the FA Cup Second Round against AFC Wimbledon.

“I’d never lived away from home when I joined Yeovil,” Morgan admits to FFT. “The longest I had been away from Liverpool was for four or five weeks with England. It was really hard and was a shock to the system.

“Mentally I also put a lot of pressure on myself. I had a reputation for scoring goals, and I thought that if I didn’t score 20 goals I’d be a failure. My head went, and I had to drop down the divisions to reassess things.”

Morgan probably would have seen some benefit in receiving the same dose of tough love that former Manchester United chief Alex Ferguson used to administer to starlets like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs during their teenage years.

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