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Life In The Limelight

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Robert Enke, do you remember the name?

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

He’s not an ex-Sunderland man from years gone by, but rather a talented German goalkeeper who tragically took his own life in 2009. In part down to the overwhelming weight of the demands of professional football, Enke decided enough was enough and stepped off this mortal coil. Scoff as much as you want at that utterance about millionaire footballers coping with stress, but the assertion is true - professional footballers and managers don’t have it all their own way, especially when it comes to the very real issue of mental health.

After watching Big Sam and England’s fortuitous win over Slovakia on Sunday evening, I was a little upset that things didn’t appear to have changed overnight. England still looked uncomfortable in possession and couldn’t break down a resolute Slovakian defence. Where was the cutting edge? Where was the verve and swagger that we were all expecting against minnows, Slovakia? I, like many others, was frustrated to say the least.

Yet after a short while I began to think rationally about the lucky win I had just watched. Could we really expect Big Sam to forge a team of world beaters in under a week? Would a minimal amount of training and conversation revitalise Wayne Rooney, catapulting him back into the role as England’s savior? The more I thought about the game, the more I realized that Allardyce would need time to create a team of his own - a team hopefully capable of that cunningness and efficiency we so desperately lack.

As I came to the conclusion that a knee-jerk reaction to a poor display was unnecessary and unwarranted, The British media seemed intent on riding the crest of disillusionment. talkSPORT went with a report, Slovakia 0-1 England: Three Lions players rated and slated! Whilst The Times went with a full page image of Rooney accompanied by the headline, New Boss Old Problem. The illustrious and unbiased Daily Mail explained that:

"The personnel was similar to the European Championship but so, sadly, were the flaws. Slow build-up. Not enough quality around Slovakia’s box. Crosses wasted. Kane isolated. It was a checklist that could have been plucked directly from Hodgson’s out-tray.

At times, it didn’t look too much like Allardyce’s England. It just looked like, well, England. Same old, same old. Yes, team spirit can be built from a late victory, but this team had one of those in the Euros, too — against Wales — and didn’t win a game after that."

Ah yes, I’d forgotten how forgiving, patient and encouraging the British media was.

I understand the newspapers and other media outlets need stories in order to generate money, and that sometimes catchy headlines and cynical views garner more interest than fair, open-minded literature. Yet, surely this is a significant part of the issue fueling our recent international (and domestic) woes?

The media create this fervent buzz of optimism around our teams labeling every player as a ‘star’ or an ‘ace’ and cataloguing every win as a clear indication of upcoming success; yet when players fail to deliver on this mass of media-concocted conjecture, the media tell us that we should be outraged. Do we really see Rooney et al as a group of world beaters? I know I don’t, especially when players are picked on image rather than form.

The harrowing tale of Robert Enke should serve as a warning which we must heed. Enke’s taking of his own life in 2009 provides a real world reminder that managers and players are nothing but human in heart and mind. Amy Lawrence, deputy football correspondent for The Observer, sums up the whole issue of media-driven pressure in the aftermath of Enke’s death; after reading Ronald Reng’s biography of Enke she wrote that:

"There is clearly an important distinction to be made between Enke, whose illness cost him his life, and those in football who are experiencing setbacks. But it is not so terrible to give some thought to the pressure-cooker environment high level sportsmen exist within. Footballer X misses the latest in a series of sitters? Manager Y has lost the game, the dressing room and quite possibly the plot? Referee Z flunks the critical decision in the game? In English football the default reaction is to mock, to berate, to intimidate. After reading Reng's book I have looked in the mirror and felt ashamed about some opinions I have dived into. It is so easy to rush to judgment, to make a cartoon villain of someone or vent spleen from a position of the supposed moral high ground."

Lawrence hits the proverbial nail on the head with her empathetic reflection on the issues raised by Enke’s death. Both the media and ourselves are far too keen on creating a toxic atmosphere in which footballers both nationally and internationally suffocate and wither.

I recently spoke to a German friend of mine, Max, a football fan living in Cologne, who pointed out to me that, "In general the German newspapers try to be more respectful, but sometimes they can be negative, especially Bild. But in general, not as quick being cynical and bad on single players or people (as the British press)." I found his insight telling in all honesty, Max noted he wasn’t an expert on the sporting British press but felt from what he had read that they were quicker to change their tone and chastise poor performances. Enke’s death however, has led to the German press trying to be more sensitive with their views and opinions.

No-one is suggesting that the media should hide their critique or pander to the professionals they report upon, but needless cynicism - and sometimes just downright nastiness - is surely just another negative that does nothing to address the issue at hand.

So next time the lads are slogging through a rough patch, or we didn’t sign the players we wanted, step back and think about the impact you might have on another human’s life with some spurious insult thrown into the big wide world of the web. It just might have an impact.