Foot­ballers’ yes men: the li­aisons who cater to the stars’ whims.

The pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of pro­fes­sional foot­ballers as pam­pered prima don­nas is over-sim­plis­tic and wrong... ex­cept when it isn’t. Meet the player li­aisons who must cater to their ev­ery whim

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Nick Moore Il­lus­tra­tions Jason Pick­ers­gill

The judge­ment that rained down upon them was Old Tes­ta­ment Bib­li­cal in its fury. Eng­land had been elim­i­nated from Euro 2016 by Ice­land, and the na­tion’s pun­dits – ex­pert or oth­er­wise – sharp­ened their tongues against all of the play­ers in­volved. Ra­dio rager Danny Baker went ba­nanas about “use­less, over-in­dulged, mol­ly­cod­dled sh*ts”. Rent-a-gob Ju­lia Hart­ley-Brewer, who should per­haps in­vest in a dic­tionary, fumed about them be­ing “over­paid nonces”. (She later con­firmed she meant ‘ponces’.) Of the ex-pros, Chris Wad­dle bizarrely said the play­ers were “all just head­phones”, while Ryan Giggs called them “robots” and Paul Sc­holes claimed they were “treated like world cham­pi­ons be­fore be­ing suc­cess­ful”. Jamie Carragher then dubbed to­day’s play­ers “the academy gen­er­a­tion”, adding that they are “soft phys­i­cally and soft men­tally”. The for­mer Liver­pool de­fender ex­plained: “With per­sonal as­sis­tants, Player Li­ai­son Of­fi­cers, nan­nies and agents or­gan­is­ing ev­ery de­tail, play­ers don’t even know how to book a hol­i­day or a den­tist’s ap­point­ment.” Our brave Li­ons, it seemed, were hap­less, help­less man-ba­bies. Sev­eral no­to­ri­ous sto­ries have been told over the years to re­in­force such sen­ti­ments. Pa­trice Evra – who, it should be noted, made it to the fi­nal of Euro 2016 de­spite be­ing what some might dub mol­ly­cod­dled – once praised Manch­ester United fixer Barry Moorhouse by say­ing: “Whether you have a prob­lem with your car, jacuzzi or the light, he is there.” And, sug­gest­ing it isn’t a new phe­nom­e­non, Bolton’s Player Li­ai­son Of­fi­cer (PLO) was once tasked with help­ing new recruit Les Fer­di­nand find some­where to plonk his helicopter so that the striker could com­mute from Lon­don. PLOs them­selves have pro­duced some fine yarns of player id­iocy, too. Manch­ester City’s Lay­achi Bousk­ouchi re­calls be­ing phoned by one who had been stopped by the po­lice for driv­ing at 130mph, ask­ing whether he should give a false name, and an­other in­struct­ing him to walk his Golden Retriever, adding that the dog “only spoke French”. Per­haps, most fa­mously, Alain Goma once called Ful­ham PLO Mark Maun­ders be­cause his gold­fish was “swim­ming round the wrong way”. But is it fair to blame a new gen­er­a­tion of help­ful em­ploy­ees for foot­ballers be­ing able to score a worldie but not plug in the telly, or are they per­form­ing a vi­tal func­tion? Are we get­ting our­selves close to the diva-hell realm of a co­caine-era El­ton John, who once or­dered his man­ager to stop the wind blow­ing out­side his ho­tel win­dow? And what’s it like to be the per­son who the foot­ballers keep on speed dial? Tak­ing a rare break from their round-the-clock pam­per­ing, a few of them sat down with FourFourTwo to ex­plain.

“Even on my day off, I get a thou­sand calls. It’s end­less”

Bournemouth’s PLO, Pe­ter Barry, sug­gests things have been blown a lit­tle out of pro­por­tion. “I’ve got a smash­ing group of boys,” he says. “There’s no doubt that foot­ballers do live in a bit of a bub­ble. It’s not a bub­ble of their own cre­ation, but it’s there nonethe­less. There are times that they just can’t do things that you or I can. But they get a bad rap. A large per­cent­age of them are nor­mal guys try­ing to do a high-pres­sure job. “You have to re­mem­ber that they live on the edge. Right now, there are play­ers who think they’re cer­tain­ties to stay at this club. But then sud­denly, overnight, they’re gone. That’s hard. It can be a crazy lifestyle. Their fam­ily have to move to a new city. They need schools, ac­com­mo­da­tion, doc­tors – all that nor­mal stuff. Their wel­fare is para­mount. If they aren’t happy at home and their fam­ily is stressed, they cer­tainly aren’t go­ing to play well. Get­ting things right as a PLO helps the whole team. It’s an area that is only slowly be­com­ing val­ued for its im­por­tance.” Asked for a snapshot of his typ­i­cal day, Barry laughs. “I’ll send you a chart,” he says. Open­ing the email at­tach­ment about his ‘roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties’ is enough to bring on an im­me­di­ate ten­sion headache. Barry must co-or­di­nate travel for away games, tours, vis­it­ing of­fi­cials, tri­al­ists and guests. He’s the guardian of visas and pass­ports. He books ho­tels. He’s the first point of con­tact for squad mem­bers with the me­dia, com­mer­cial teams, re­cruit­ment, com­mu­nity projects, fi­nance, the PFA, Premier League and FA. He li­aises with the chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive. He sorts out rentals, mort­gages, re­lo­ca­tion ex­penses and re­pairs. He ar­ranges lan­guage lessons, ca­reer devel­op­ment and per­sonal is­sues. On match­day, he ar­ranges ticket al­lo­ca­tion, ap­pear­ances, in­ter­views, mas­cot vis­its and even car park­ing. “You have to be a jug­gler, a plate-spin­ner, and ready for any­thing,” Barry ad­mits. “You can pre­pare for a day, but then some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent comes up. A plane breaks down. A dish­washer doesn’t work. It hap­pens at all times, day and night. I don’t ad­ver­tise my­self as be­ing avail­able 24/7, but I am.” Pa­tience is a key as­set, too. “You can do a thou­sand things right, but one thing goes wrong and you get crit­i­cised,” says West Ham’s PLO, Tim De’Ath. “You need a thick skin, and you have to learn that you can’t please ev­ery­one at once. You’re deal­ing with 28 squad mem­bers. They’ll have a punc­ture, or a player will call who doesn’t un­der­stand the Con­ges­tion Charge, or can­not get car in­sur­ance be­cause com­pa­nies won’t touch young foot­ballers, or they’re on hol­i­day and want to move ho­tels. Even on my day off, I get a thou­sand calls. It’s end­less.” Sort­ing out hous­ing is­sues hap­pens at the start and the end of the sea­son but travel, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and wel­fare is­sues oc­cur all year round, adds Barry. “I even help out with wed­dings,” he says. “We have had four this sum­mer, so I’ve been deal­ing with suits, cars, or­gan­ists, mak­ing sure the church is booked...” Life is un­pre­dictable. Noth­ing, for ex­am­ple, could have pre­pared him for the be­reave­ment that Harry Arter and his part­ner went through in 2015 af­ter los­ing their baby daugh­ter. “It com­pletely blind­sides you,” says Barry. “It was tragic and it needed to be han­dled very sen­si­tively. But we all pulled to­gether – the play­ers, wives, man­ager and staff. We pointed Harry to some­one who had ex­per­tise in the field of be­reave­ment, and our club chap­lain did a great job. There was a gen­eral feel­ing of ‘right, Harry and his girl­friend re­ally need us now’. Fam­ily came first and foot­ball sec­ond in that sit­u­a­tion. It af­fected ev­ery­one. It still makes me emo­tional now, but we pro­tected him, and the group stayed tight. I’m sure it helped them get through it.”

“I’ll get play­ers call­ing to say: ‘The lights won’t come on’. And of course, the bulb has gone”

PLOs are a rel­a­tively new breed – many clubs still don’t have them – and if some think they’re a scourge, we can blame an­other favourite English whip­ping boy: Gra­ham Tay­lor. In 2002, the then-As­ton Villa boss cre­ated the po­si­tion to help look af­ter Juan Pablo An­gel’s wife and son, who both be­came ill af­ter the player moved over from River Plate to the Mid­lands. Lorna McClel­land got the gig. “Gra­ham was in­flu­en­tial,” she said at the time. “He un­der­stands the lay­ers that make up a foot­baller, and he knew that good sup­port can pre­vent home­sick­ness and anx­i­ety, thus a player can per­form well.” McClel­land went on to face the full gamut of PLO chal­lenges, in­clud­ing an in­di­vid­ual who called pet­ri­fied from his ho­tel, con­vinced that it was haunted be­cause the bed had been made while he was out. It’s a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of player naivety. “A young lad phoned me once and said – and these were his ex­act words – ‘There’s a rat in my kitchen; what am I go­ing to do?’” Wolves PLO Paul Richards tells FourFourTwo. “I col­lapsed laugh­ing. Of course, he’d never heard the [UB40] song, al­though ev­ery­one sings it at him now. It wasn’t even a rat; it was a tiny field mouse. He had a ru­ral prop­erty, and we ex­plained that this would hap­pen if he left his doors open.

“I’ll also get things like: ‘The lights won’t come on’. And, of course, the bulb has gone. Or the ket­tle isn’t plugged in. But you need to re­mem­ber that these are of­ten young kids who have been in the foot­ball sys­tem since they were nine. The club want to keep them, so that they are guided through life, and they don’t need to learn about reg­u­lar things. They get bet­ter with time, though. With most of them, you only have to show them once.” Na­dia McAu­lay is en­ter­ing her 10th year as a PLO at Sun­der­land, and says that the ar­rival of a new man­ager usu­ally causes the big­gest up­heaval. “They have dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing, and like to recruit from dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the world, so you’ll end up with in­di­vid­u­als from new cul­tures,” she says. “The key thing is to get to know them. I sit down and find out whether they’re mar­ried, if they have kids, what’s im­por­tant to them. They may want a city apart­ment, or a vil­lage and pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren, or they may want to lo­cate a mosque. I tend to ac­com­pany them to look at places. “You learn not to as­sume any­thing. I had a for­eign player who spoke great English, but couldn’t write it, which was an is­sue when he made out a cheque or filled in forms. As you learn these lit­tle things, it makes deal­ing with wel­fare eas­ier.” McAu­lay’s even be­come a plumb­ing ex­pert. “‘I’ve got no hot wa­ter’ is such a com­mon com­plaint,” she says. “They prob­a­bly don’t know what a boiler is, let alone where it is. It’s got to the point that I will know their apart­ment in my head, so I can guide them to the boiler and get it fixed over the phone.” Such is the mun­dan­ity of many sit­u­a­tions, says McAu­lay, that she of­ten for­gets she’s deal­ing with a celebrity: “I’m around them all day, so I end up think­ing about them as work col­leagues. It’s only when I see a starstruck child who wants a photo that it hits home that they're idols.” The po­si­tion is, in many ways, the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the old-school ‘fixer’ – who was of­ten the club man­ager them­selves, or one of their close staff. “We’re just tak­ing is­sues out of the man­ager’s hands, re­ally,” says De’Ath. “It’s about mak­ing their life eas­ier so they can fo­cus on foot­ball.” For Richards, a for­mer po­lice­man, it’s so­cial me­dia that has changed his job the most. “Foot­ballers are un­der a mi­cro­scope,” he says. “They’ll retweet some­thing in­no­cently, but if you look be­hind the tweet, there might be a group of peo­ple they shouldn’t be as­so­ci­ated with. We need to be on top of what they’re do­ing on Twit­ter, Snapchat, Periscope – and who they’re fol­low­ing. “You’ve also got them be­ing put up on the in­ter­net by fans. What looks bad in a pic­ture might not be the re­al­ity. And it’s es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult af­ter the team lose. Sud­denly you’ve got a photo of a player in a night­club. They might just want to go out and for­get about the game, but fans are pas­sion­ate and ask why they’re so­cial­is­ing when they should be at home re-run­ning the game in their heads! “We’ve all had pic­tures where you don’t look your best – and a photo might be months old, any­way. But they have lives, and the right to some down­time.”

“The play­ers say I’m like a dad to them”

Amid such 24/7 mad­ness, why be a PLO, whose salaries are rarely above $100,000 per year? “It’s the buzz of be­ing in foot­ball, of look­ing af­ter peo­ple, and see­ing those peo­ple that you have helped do­ing well,” says De’Ath. “Take some­one like Dim­itri Payet, who has been such a plea­sure to deal with. It’s ex­cel­lent when some­one comes to West Ham, maybe un­able to speak English, but they learn the lan­guage slowly and in a few months’ time they thank you for ev­ery­thing that you’ve done. It’s very re­ward­ing. And the play­ers are great. I have never met one that I didn’t like.” McAu­lay agrees. “When you get a par­ent com­ing over, say­ing: ‘Thanks for look­ing af­ter our son so well’, it re­ally means a lot. They’re gen­er­ally all lovely guys. In 10 years do­ing the job, there’s only been one player that I would never work with again.” For Barry at Bournemouth – a fa­ther of three – be­ing a PLO is very sim­i­lar to be­ing a par­ent. “Some of the lads do say I’m like a dad, and that’s a real com­pli­ment,” he says. “PLOs tend to be above 40, with some life ex­pe­ri­ence. The rise of this club’s been ridicu­lously quick, and we’ve all been through a lot to­gether. So I ap­pre­ci­ate it.” And McAu­lay in­sists that the en-masse slam­ming of English play­ers as un­in­tel­li­gent is a cliché, too: “It’s un­fair,” she says. “We have got a lad with an hon­ours de­gree in our squad. They are all dif­fer­ent.” Per­haps, then, if the peo­ple who bear the brunt of the prob­lems foot­ballers face, and who work with them day in, day out, have noth­ing but praise and af­fec­tion for their em­ploy­ers, we should be slower to con­demn all foot­ballers as spoilt brats? Af­ter all, that Goma gold­fish story was, in fact, no more than a prank. “Alain thought it would be funny to ring up and say that,” ex­plains Ful­ham’s Mark Maun­ders. “I replied that he’d have to wait, be­cause I was out walk­ing the ter­rap­ins. The press jumped straight on the story, us­ing the an­gle that foot­ballers are all mol­ly­cod­dled, but it had all been a joke.” Just don’t tell Danny Baker and Chris Wad­dle.

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