“Football is nothing without fans”. As a statement it became one of the legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein’s most famous quotes.
But having witnessed the classless tormenting of AC Milan’s teenage keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, in The San Siro this week, it is time to challenge what is one of the game’s great articles of faith.
The long-running saga of the young goalkeeper’s brushes with fan ire took its latest turn after a report claimed he’d felt ‘forced’ to sign a deal worth more than £5m a year, in the summer.
In response, Milan fans unfurled a banner in the San Siro during a Coppa Italia victory over Verona that read: ‘psychological violence by giving you €6million-a-season and signing your parasite brother? It’s time to leave… our patience with you is over!’
I see that, and I think: can those ‘loyal’ AC Milan fans really blame the boy for ‘wanting away’?
Compared to this, football as a TV and betting spectacle, minus ‘the atmosphere’, just might be a preferable proposition. For a scout, it would represent one less variable to worry about.
Too often, euphemisms of ‘atmosphere’ or ‘colour’ are used to mask a multitude of sins in the name of fandom. Some of what you see and hear is anti-social, much of it is ill-informed, and the worst of it is counter-productive.
There’s been much said about football’s role as a release for fans’ everyday frustrations, but anyone who thinks that footballers should show good grace towards their tormentors in the stands, in the streets, or online is operating to an unrealistic standard.
Now 18, Gianluigi Donnarumma who broke into the first team as a 16-year-old, has played more than 80 times in Serie A and won four caps for Italy. That’s right the player is a teenager, a kid in most other contexts.
His manager, Gennaro Gattuso has predictably backed his player, saying: “He’s not how some people depict him. His team-mates are backing him too, he’s a very humble guy.”
AC Milan however, appear to be wanting it all ways.
On the one hand they are keen to protect their ‘asset’ as someone they will cash-in on (likely sooner rather than later).
On the other hand they are happy to curry favour with their fans in revolt by creating a scapegoat of the player’s agent, Mino Raiola.
Raiola is the probable ‘evil’ alluded to in the club’s media statement after the Verona game.
Donnarumma, who was consoled by teammates in the home dressing room after the final whistle, posted on Instagram on Friday: “It was a bad night, and I didn’t see it coming.
“I never said that I had any moral violence when I signed the contract. Despite everything I look forward and head to the next game. Forza Milan!”
That game, perhaps predictably, did not go well as Donnarumma was beaten three times as Milan suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to second bottom Hellas Verona, the same side they’d eased past in the Coppa Italia days before.
At various times, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have all been reported to have shown an interest in Donnarumma. It would be hard to believe that this client of the super agent Mino Raiola has not been the subject of informal enquiries from rival clubs from the moment the keeper made his club debut against Real Madrid in a 2015 preseason friendly. You can call this tapping up by any other name but it is simply the rules of the road in football.
While I’d definitely seek to keep school age footballers within a protected category as minors, the issue of tapping up first team players really exposes the hypocrisy of the worst kind of fans. That is those that expect a different standard of behaviour and motivation from footballers than they’d ever exhibit themselves.
I see no difference to a footballer being open to exploring their options in the same way anyone else in a job will send out a CV, apply for vacancies or talk to recruitment agents. After all, if you are ambitious or already emotionally ‘moved on’ in your current role you are no different to the player plotting his next move. And why should they be held to a different standard?
An employer, any employer is buying physical or emotional labour at an agreed price – but only that. They don’t own souls. Footballers are no different to anyone else. Fans, clubs… they have no right to presume ownership of their players.
‘There’s no loyalty in football anymore’, it is a phrase that carries a bitter truth. Not just for fans that see their idols move on, but for everyone involved at every level of the game. Rejection is the only constant, and I am reminded of that fact whenever I am confronted with the human carnage of the beautiful game. Attend any game of note and you’ll see the casualties, old, one-time star players undone by arthritis, shot knees and dodgy hips, picking their way through a stadium car park with barely a nod of recognition, hoping that someone, still in the game, has left them a complimentary ticket.
In Harry Redknapp’s famous phrase: “You’re a long-time dead in football.” And memory and favour quickly fades when the floodlights dim for the final time.
Given what they put in to get there, to stay there and what lies in wait at the end of the line for most of them, I am just not convinced that players owe the game or the fans anything much at all.
But equally, I realise that this line is a hard one to sell for anyone that sees football through the prism of either a romanticised past or a back page present.
So, bearing all this in mind, should we apply the same criteria to a corporate straight goer who gets called up by an old colleague or a headhunter who reckons they’d be a perfect fit for a role needing filled? Or to someone who leaves his work colleagues in the lurch when a better offer comes along? Of course not.
Exploratory discussions are the way of the world. In every walk of life. They’re essential. Not even just a necessary evil. Without them there would be literally no way to effectively succession plan or team build. In any business.
The fact is that no-one in football really cares about tapping up. It’s a sideshow for the fans, manufactured angst, typically used to divert attention from more relevant issues within a club.
When you next hear or read about a Gianluigi Donnarumma, a Virgil van Dijk, an Ashley Cole or a Philippe Mexès, think about what you are actually taking exception to. Honestly, the only legitimate response is to roll your eyes. In real world terms, doing anything else is a nonsense.