A game under strain: the power of pressure in football

There’s an episode in the second series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the Netflix documentary which follows the Black Cats’ fortunes during the 17/18 and 18/19 seasons, that shows the club’s transfer deadline day pursuit of striker Will Grigg.

If you managed to negotiate lockdown without watching the series, you’ll have missed the 60 minutes of television in which Stewart Donald, Sunderland’s chairman, swings from a resolute refusal to pay £1m for Grigg to spending £4m on the Northern Ireland international.

Donald’s change of stance stems from his desire to see the club promoted (for economic as much as sporting reasons, it should be said) but this is no calculated manoeuvre: Donald simply falls victim to pressure, the force which increasingly governs football’s transfer market.

In an interview on the Beat The Press podcast, Leo Pearlman, executive producer of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, described the panic which led to Donald scrapping his deadline day plans.

“I think what really came across (with the Will Grigg deal), is that for all the extensive planning that goes into it, with options from one to 20, with all the variables, depending on which players you manage to sell and move, it’s amazing that every year it comes down to the last few hours and all those plans get thrown out the window.

“When things start to fall apart and human nature takes over and panic sets in to some degree, you start to lose the head and it becomes about the heart. In those last few hours and those last few minutes, you saw…the heart start ruling, and you almost saw him (Donald) become a fan.”

Donald’s behaviour is far from uncommon. In January 2018, Swansea City spent a club-record £18m to resign Andre Ayew, a player they had sold to West Ham only 18 months previously. Ayew agreed an £80,000 a week deal but failed to score a single goal during the remainder of the campaign as Swansea were relegated. He is still at the club after Fenerbahçe decided against turning a season-long loan into a permanent deal at the end of 2018-19 season.

The investment in players like Ayew and Grigg is driven by the increasingly stark financial realities of relegation and promotion, even between League One and the Championship.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Premier League. Bournemouth, currently occupying the last relegation spot in the table, generated approximately £115m from broadcast income in 2018/19. In contrast, Leeds United, top of the Championship at the time of writing, received just under £1.5m from television coverage in the same season.

Parachute payments may prevent the Cherries from facing a financial cliff-edge if they drop down a division – Stoke City managed to record a £51m turnover from their share of the top-flight’s broadcast revenue in the year after they were relegated – but this aid is a sticking plaster. Stoke received £101m in the campaign before their demotion and Bournemouth could expect to see a similar drop in income.

Coronavirus adds further uncertainty to the mix. Any delay to broadcast payments, as a result of a second wave of COVID-19 cases and another suspension of this or next season, would have a significant impact on a club like Bournemouth, who receive 82% of their turnover from TV rights. Increasing revenue from other sources is problematic: Deloitte are forecasting a 50% fall in gate receipts next season, whilst commercial income is reliant on sponsors who are facing their own financial problems.

A narrowing of the financial tightrope which most clubs tread is unlikely to temper supporters’ expectations though. As a Sunderland fan and witness to the relative parsimony of Stewart Donald’s chairmanship, when set against the spending bankrolled by his predecessor Elis Short, Pearlman is acutely aware of this.   

“Some of our expectations are unrealistic. Do we honestly, hand on heart, think that we should be a top six or top 10 Premier League club year in, year out? We were gifted that for a few years, but there were a lot of clubs, the same size as ours, who have spent time in the Championship and even in League One, such as Manchester City and Leeds.

“Are we special in that respect? No, not really. We don’t deserve anything more than we get, in my honest opinion. I think that fans are never fully satisfied with ownership unless there is success on the pitch. I think it’s impossible for owners to be viewed outside of that paradigm.”

This mismatch is far from peculiar to Sunderland. Part of the lure of football lies in its ability to allow the people who follow the sport to dream. Fans tend to exercise this right to its limit. The people sitting in the stands, imploring their club’s chairman to open his or her chequebook, often tend to exercise a rather more cautious approach to their personal spending.

Whilst the ‘winning takes care of everything’ mantra has led to cautionary tales of executive extravagance in almost every corner of the country, from Leeds to Portsmouth, players are far from immune to the impact of this pressure.

Billy Kee, the former Accrington Stanley striker, retired from football at the age of 29 to focus on a bricklaying career, citing the need to deal with the alcohol problems and eating disorder brought on by the anxiety of playing.

Kee’s testimony is compelling: in an interview with the Guardian he talks specifically about the pressure which led to him forfeiting the chance to take two penalties in a game, despite being the team’s designated spot-kick specialist.

He also speaks eloquently about the spotlight placed on players away from the pitch, referencing trawls through fan forums to gauge reaction to his performance, behaviour that led him to stop using social media.

Kee’s story is the latest in a long line of ordeals laid bare by footballers at all levels of the game, from Aaron Lennon to Kevin Ellison, a former Morecombe player. Ellison suffered from depression for years on his way to becoming the second oldest player in the EFL (at the time of his retirement two weeks ago).

Unfortunately for those suffering with conditions such as anxiety, the psychological support available via their clubs is mixed. In 2019, a Brunel University London survey of 75 clubs across the Premier League, English Football League and Women’s Super League, found the majority offered limited access to psychologists.

In cases where players were injured, the report concluded that clubs typically used physiotherapists – often lacking the appropriate expertise – to provide psychological support for injured players.

Dr Misia Gervis, who led the review, told the Beat The Press podcast that part of the reason for clubs’ apparent neglect of psychology could lie in outdated perceptions of the profession.

“I don’t know whether there’s still fear of the ‘ology’, if you like. One of the things that’s very hard, I think, for people to navigate through, is issues around confidentiality and what that looks like and how that plays out and whether there’s a situation where managers think that they should be privy to everything. Does that become a limiter or a barrier? They don’t want anybody else coming in, who knows things.”

Gervis also believes that the atmosphere often associated with football clubs prevents players from talking about mental health issues.

“There’s a kind of culture within football which papers over the cracks. So, if we’re talking about a kind of hegemonic masculinity, whereby you don’t say what you’re feeling because it’s a sign of weakness and you don’t share those vulnerabilities and you man up and get on with it and all of those kinds of stereotypes, it becomes a lot harder to actually say, ‘you know what, I’m actually struggling here’.”

There are examples of good practice. Athletic Bilbao place a significant emphasis on psychological support within their academy, in part due to the self-imposed restriction of fielding first-team players born or raised in a Basque region containing ‘only’ 2.5m people. It’s harder to neglect mental health when you don’t have the breadth of the global transfer market to fall back on.

Bilbao focus on imbuing their coaches, who are educated by professional sports psychologists, with the necessary skills to track the behavioural and emotional development of players as they progress through the academy.

Other Spanish clubs were similarly attuned to the needs of their employees during the country’s COVID-19 enforced lockdown. With many lower-league footballers facing acute financial worries as a result of the season’s suspension and the profession at large exhibiting characteristics (young, largely male, frequently exposed to adrenaline ‘highs’) that heighten the risk of mental health trauma, teams including Levante, Sevilla and Real Valladolid publicly outlined their support for players.  

If money worries are afflicting the legion of players plying their trade outside of the Premier League or Championship, they find themselves in a similar situation to the people charged with covering the game.

Football journalists – and the sports media at large – are not often the subject of an outpouring of sympathy, but the realities of reporting have been brought into sharp focus by COVID-19. Diminishing advertising revenue, an understandable need to focus on coronavirus and, until recently, the absence of any fixtures, have forced publications to condense their sports coverage.

The remaining content has been largely made-up of nostalgia, reviews of previous seasons and quizzes, which, as Guardian journalist Jonathan Wilson explained to the Beat The Press podcast, tend not to require the attention of freelancers.

“If newspapers are covering less and what they’re covering doesn’t demand that you have to go somewhere, which is the case when you’re doing a historical piece or doing a think piece, where essentially, you have to make a couple of phone calls and do some research, it’s much easier for the newspapers to keep that in house and it obviously cuts their costs.

“I totally understand why they’re doing it, but it means that the freelance contingent really struggles and the nature of freelancing, obviously, is that you don’t have a contract. There’s nothing to fall back on.”

Wilson recently launched The Squall, a bitesize version of football quarterly The Blizzard, which was established with financial support from fellow journalists and funds 11 articles per issue, from a variety of freelancers.

The initiative is perhaps indicative of the spirit within the football journalism community, which sometimes goes unnoticed amidst the slightly higher-profile mudslinging between various broadcast pundits. It’s certainly an ethos that Wilson is familiar with and one he believes has been strengthened, if anything, by the impact of the pandemic.

“Football journalism is a very odd world; in that the people you hang around with are theoretically your rivals. You see this particularly when covering England at a World Cup. Every newspaper sends one or two journalists to cover England and they are with the England squad. So you’re cooped up in a hotel with the guy from the Guardian, the Independent, the Mirror, the Mail, the Express, the Star or whoever, and you’re all going to the same bars, the same restaurants and the same press conferences.

“And so inevitably, those people sort of become your friends. But they are also the people you are competing with and that can be a very odd relationship. But fundamentally there is a camaraderie and an understanding that we are all doing the same job and under the same pressures.

“People have realized in this crisis that we do have a responsibility to try and help each other out. I know of one journalist who made an offer to the Football Writers Association, saying that if they could put him in touch with a freelancer who was struggling, he would pay their mortgage for three months.”

Football is a sport with an unerring ability to bounce back from disasters, and perhaps this will prove a reassuring trait as the fallout from the pandemic continues to be felt. But the root causes of the pressure felt across the game, from the boardroom to the pitch and press conference, are entrenched. Significant changes will need to be made to prevent these long-standing issues from coming to a head in the uncertain future football now faces.