Devils red­dened by the de­tail

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER -

AS Gary Neville will be able to tes­tify, mak­ing love to Clay­ton Black­more in front of the en­tire Manch­ester United first-team was not the most plea­sur­able ex­pe­ri­ence of his years as an up-and-com­ing player in the club’s ap­pren­tice ranks.

Not the real Clay­ton Black­more, ob­vi­ously. But the play­ers who set up the game called ‘Shag Sunbed’ — maybe you re­mem­ber Black­more’s all-year tan — did their best to make it au­then­tic, stick­ing a life-size pic­ture of him on the treat­ment ta­ble, slip­ping on some Barry White and then watch­ing as Neville, or who­ever else had been called out, had to dance round the ta­ble, se­duce his man and, in front of ev­ery­body, sim­u­late sex, sound ef­fects and all. “I can’t tell you how ex­cru­ci­at­ing that is for a 16-year-old in front of an au­di­ence of his he­roes like Mark Hughes and Bryan Rob­son,” Neville writes in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

In foot­ball, they know this as the cul­ture of the ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony. Or haz­ing, as they know it in the United States. Ex­cept it was not a one-off event, as part of a get­ting to know you process, but more a stan­dard part of life at Old Traf­ford. And, how­ever de­grad­ing it might have been, it was of­ten bet­ter to do what was re­quired than risk one of the for­feits put to­gether by the older ap­pren­tices or first-year pros.

One was known as ‘The Lap’, where the boy would be put on a treat­ment bed, look­ing through the hole, while the play­ers lined up to kick a ball at his face. Some­times it would be a flurry of punches to de­liver a dead arm, or whack­ing some­one over the head with a ball wrapped in a towel, a prac­tice known as ‘The Bong’. One ap­pren­tice was dressed up in sev­eral lay­ers of track­suits and bar­ri­caded into the sauna. Oth­ers were bun­dled into an in­dus­trial tum­ble drier and sent for a spin. There is even the story of one boy, the small­est in his year group, be­ing tied up, gagged and put in a kit­bag to be taken to Old Traf­ford on the bus.

Ban­ter, bul­ly­ing, lad­dish­ness — what­ever you want to call it, it is easy to un­der­stand why even strong char­ac­ters such as Neville and Paul Sc­holes, let alone the ones who might not have been so men­tally tough, are on record say­ing they hated some of the stuff that went on and some­times dreaded en­ter­ing the dress­ing room.

All good fun? Char­ac­ter build­ing? Many peo­ple, in­side and out­side the game, will see it that way, yes, and there is no doubt a lot of the rel­e­vant play­ers tend to share these ex­pe­ri­ences with a cer­tain amount of laugh­ter, too. The sto­ries have be­come part of the United leg­end, widely re­garded as an es­sen­tial part of the tough­en­ing-up process for ev­ery young player who made the grade. Foot­ballers be­ing foot­ballers, lads be­ing lads. “Gen­er­a­tions of foot­ballers must have gone through the same thing,” Rob­bie Sav­age, an­other United grad­u­ate who was put through it, writes in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “and it didn’t do any­one any harm”.

Ex­cept that is not nec­es­sar­ily true. In the last few days I have been made aware of one for­mer player, now in his 40s, who found it such an or­deal he says he is still haunted by it to­day, liken­ing it to post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. An­other has been left with anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, a loss of con­fi­dence and other psy­cho­log­i­cal scars from what were sup­posed to be the most ex­cit­ing years of his life.

The fa­ther of one player, it is un­der­stood, is ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting up some kind of sup­port/ac­tion group for any­body else who was af­fected. Early days, but the idea is tak­ing shape — and not just for ex-United boys when, plainly, this kind of ac­tiv­ity was com­mon­place at other clubs, too.

To be clear, it is not com­pen­sa­tion that is sought — nor even an apol­ogy (as wel­come as one would be), more an ac­knowl­edge­ment that, yes, it should not have been that way, that things went too far and an ac­cep­tance, all these years on, that the en­vi­ron­ment that brought through so many great foot­ballers had pun­ish­ing con­se­quences for oth­ers.

Whether that will ever be forth­com­ing from Old Traf­ford, how­ever, I am not en­tirely sure. Ear­lier this year, the club’s so­lic­i­tor, Pa­trick Ste­wart, wrote to one par­ent telling him there had been a num­ber of “re­views” over the pre­vi­ous decade. Noth­ing had been found to sup­port the par­ent’s al­le­ga­tions, Ste­wart wrote in the bluntest terms, adding that there was no point go­ing over it again un­less new ev­i­dence had come to light.

When I asked United if they would ac­cept there had been a cul­ture of haz­ing — a prac­tice made il­le­gal in some parts of the US — the club did not com­mit ei­ther way, re­spond­ing with a state­ment em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance they placed on the well-be­ing of young play­ers. “While it is dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish the ex­is­tence or ex­tent of these prac­tices in past eras, the club takes these matters se­ri­ously,” it read.

But is it re­ally that dif­fi­cult? Are United aware about the con­sid­er­able num­ber of for­mer play­ers — David Beck­ham, Keith Gille­spie, Ryan Giggs and more than there is space here to list — who have talked openly about what used to go on and, in some cases, de­voted thou­sands of words to it in their au­to­bi­ogra­phies?

If it was so dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish the truth, could the club in­vite Nicky Butt to re­call his ex­pe­ri­ences from those years (he is, af­ter all, their academy coach)? Or, fail­ing that, watch the doc­u­men­tary in which the stars of that gen­er­a­tion talk about it ex­ten­sively? Can United not lo­cate any of the other play­ers who are not house­hold names but have spo­ken pub­licly about their own ex­pe­ri­ences? Be­cause it re­ally should not be dif­fi­cult what­so­ever.

All that can re­ally be said on that front is that when David Gill, then the club’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, wrote to the same par­ent in 2012 he did con­firm he had read the rel­e­vant pas­sages from the au­to­bi­ogra­phies of Neville and Sav­age. The con­tent, Gill said, had prompted more ques­tions in­ter­nally. He had “checked again with Sir Alex [Fer­gu­son] and rel­e­vant staff and they have con­firmed that they are un­aware of ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­monies of this na­ture tak­ing place at the club.”

No­body knew any­thing, ac­cord­ing to United, un­til a par­ent com­plained at the time. But it is a pity that Gill did not spec­ify who he meant by “rel­e­vant staff” when, rather awk­wardly, Neville’s book claims that cer­tain coaches seemed happy to look the other way.

The worst of the pun­ish­ments, ac­cord­ing to Neville, was be­ing stripped naked and hav­ing the whole United kit — the shirt, the shorts, the socks, even the num­ber on the back — be­ing scratched in dub­bin on to your flesh from a wire brush. “I think the coaches must have seen it as part of our ed­u­ca­tion,” he writes, “be­cause they would look out of the win­dows at the Cliff [United’s old train­ing ground] and see an ap­pren­tice run­ning round the pitch in noth­ing but his boots, yet they’d turn a blind eye.”

Ev­ery­thing got out of hand, he adds, when an­other player got so an­noyed by all the pun­ish­ment whacks he started swing­ing back. “Kiddo got wind of it and sum­moned all the sec­ond-years to­gether.” Kiddo, of course, be­ing Brian Kidd, the youth-team coach and, later, Fer­gu­son’s as­sis­tant.

The bot­tom line here is that, whether the staff re­mem­ber it or not, there is so much ev­i­dence point­ing in the same di­rec­tion it is a shame United ap­pear un­will­ing to ac­cept it as fact. Sav­age, for in­stance, re­mem­bers some of his team-mates be­ing so pet­ri­fied about what might hap­pen once they re­turned to the dress­ing room they could barely con­cen­trate on train­ing.

Yet he also makes the point in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that, to him, it was not un­duly sin­is­ter, or out of or­der, just all part of the chal­lenge of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional foot­baller — you got your head down, worked hard and got on with it.

Some got through it, some didn’t, and some turned out to be among the finest play­ers the coun­try has ever pro­duced. The lucky ones are con­vinced it helped the bond­ing process and, to go back to the ear­lier point, it would be wrong to think this is just a United thing — or that it is only foot­ball where the hu­mour is this bru­tal and un­for­giv­ing.

They even made a sto­ry­line out of it on once, with three of the main char­ac­ters go­ing fur­ther than could ever be ap­pro­pri­ate to in­gra­ti­ate them­selves with some stu­dents at War­wick Univer­sity — Neil down­ing a cock­tail of or­angeade mixed with cig­a­rette butts, Jay punch­ing him­self in the face and Will eat­ing a Bon­sai tree.

Ex­cept it is not so funny, back in the real world, when you hear the story of a player at one club who was left with a stut­ter be­cause of the “black­ing” he en­dured dur­ing the 1980s — in­volv­ing the pin­ning down of young ap­pren­tices while their tes­ti­cles were daubed with black boot pol­ish. Or what was meant by ‘The Teapot’, when the vic­tim would be turned over and a hot re­cep­ta­cle placed against his but­tocks.

At United, one of the stunts or­gan­ised by the first and sec­ond year pros in the club’s digs was to gather to­gether the younger boys, put on a pornographic video and the first player to get aroused would have to en­dure the for­feit, usu­ally a bar­rage of punches.

It was a tough school and if United re­ally wanted to find out ex­actly what had gone on it should not be dif­fi­cult. Just ask the rel­e­vant play­ers, read the books, watch the film. But that, per­haps, is the rel­e­vant ques­tion here: do they re­ally want to know?

It got out of hand when an­other player started swing­ing back

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