Much as the stunted performance of Sunderland AFC against Gillingham last Saturday disturbed me, that which disturbed me a whole lot more was a simple picture. A picture, you ask? How could a picture disturb you more than the capitulation of a dubiously chosen team capitulating to yet more mediocre opposition? What could this image possibly contain that might trouble you beyond the sour, familiar taste of defeat?
Well it was the chaps in the photo above this article.
Ordinarily, when you see two grown men sitting opposite each other in a McDonald’s looking thoroughly depressed as they shovel some passable food down their gullets, it’s reserved as a sight for weekday lunchtimes near your local roadworks, and they’re wearing Hi-Vis or the paint speckled trackies of any number of tradesmen.
Fair play to them - haven’t got long, need something cheap that tricks your stomach into thinking it’s full for an hour or so. We all know the great lie that is fast food, even if most of us try to avoid admitting it, but there simply are times when it’s convenient to go get something naff for under a fiver.
But to see two professional footballers sitting down at a Maccy D’s chewing on some sorry impersonation of sustenance, hours after neither of them even featured properly in a dismal loss, robbing them of even the shallow potential excuse of being too burned out to seek a decent meal, is a disgrace.
I don’t use that word lightly. I’m not a purist about this sort of thing. I don’t ordinarily begrudge a footballer their tastebuds or their childlike inclinations, nor do I often even concern myself with the private life of the average Sunderland player. Their life is their life.
It puts me in mind of Di Canio. Along with the public outcry at the appointment of Paolo Di Canio for his personal politics, there was much ado about ketchup.
For those of you not in the know, ketchup is vinegar, sugar, salt, colouring, preservatives and, if you’re very lucky, a sliver of a tomato went in there somewhere too. It’s a superhero in the realm of condiments, particularly here in Albion. Paolo hated it for all of these reasons, he wasn’t wrong, and it’s easy to understand why.
In Italy food is a big deal, far bigger than anything we make of it here. In fact this is the case in many countries of the world, and it is no coincidence that most of those boast more longevity and heart health in their citizens than the average Briton. Beyond that, good nutrition has positive, immediate health benefits that would simply shock many of our countrymen, ranging from the anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties of fresh greens, root vegetables and garlic, to increased mental focus and deeper, more restorative sleep encouraged by general good diet.
You don’t have to be a sports nutritionist to figure out why these easily obtained benefits give a vital edge to an athlete. Equally, it doesn’t take a degree to suss that a bad diet has the opposite effect. A bad diet increases inflammation and chemical imbalance, leading to lack of focus, lethargy, longer recovery time and increased risk of injury. Even eating too much sugar and avoiding proper hydration can cause a rapid onset of cramps and aches, because muscles demand the right fuel to keep them fit for purpose.
Don’t get me wrong - like many football fans old enough to remember, I sometimes lament the loss of the so-called old guard, men who could down a few pints at half time and score a brace with a fag in their mouth. I remember looking up to this machismo as a young boy in the early 90’s, enthralled by the concept of the take-no- prisoners hard man that led the pack. Football draws from all walks of life, but more often than not it’s from the harder walks. Looking at Sunderland alone, the image of Bobby Kerr with a pint in hand is as iconic as lifting the FA Cup. It was a big part of my adulation for footballers growing up.
This was a different time, a time where health and safety - and equality - were concerns shared by precious few. There would be no comparison between the two generations if they competed today.
A professional footballer consuming McDonald’s is like a driver putting diesel into a petrol engine. I’m smart enough to know that, you’re smart enough to know that, and footballers simply know that. So I ask you: who are these utter jobbers to be sitting there, looming over their happy meals, when they couldn’t earn their place in a bad squad?
I was eager to jump down Parkinson’s throat after his selection on Saturday, but images like this add layers to the argument. Is it conceivable that Parkinson deliberately benched the likes of Maguire and McGeady because they aren’t up to par? Has the gaffer stormed the dressing room and pried open the lockers of these cheeky chappies only to be bombarded by an avalanche of empty McNugget boxes and coke cans, with the odd L&B deck amongst it all for good measure?
As I say - no one would care about it in the slightest if these men were fit and sharp and firing, if they were consistently demonstrating their commitment to the hand that feeds them. They aren’t. Both players are capable of producing phenomenal finishes and blurring through groups of players, but they don’t do that 9 times out of 10. Is this indicative of the reasons why? If this is an example of their attitude, who needs bad ownership when you’ve got players like that?
I’m sure I’m not the only one unsurprised by the fact that Maguire runs on McFlurries, and that’s another point here - not only has his weight has been called into question each time he’s come back into the squad having had time away, but staff have been quoted as saying that fitness in the squad is a major issue - do we really have all the facts when we criticise what we see as an illogical choice by Parkinson, when all these little details seem to pass us by?
If I were the man gifted the responsibility of these players, I would fine the pair of them and it would be a hefty one. I’d have them doing more laps and lifting more weight than everyone else, and I’d make it clear why it’s happening. Because regardless of how comfy a shoulder they can have to cry on, a manager should rule over the dressing room with an iron fist, and not a single one of those players should be allowed to believe that they’re not on the clock whenever they’re wearing Sunderland’s colours.
Little slips and the odd idiosyncrasy can be tolerated if it’s coming from top performers; two lacklustre players that can’t make it off the bench, huddled over a table of fast food wrappers, is an image any gaffer should find appalling.
It’s up to Phil Parkinson to call them out, and in so doing make a statement to the whole team that you work your arse off not just on the training pitch but everywhere else you wander to with your club trackies on.
The fact of the matter is that if a player is performing well no one cares what they eat.
When all is said and done, although it seems like a fairly innocuous transgression at first glance, nutrition is a massive part of an athlete’s life and these men are above all else paid to adhere to good practice. At least have the shame to get a drive-thru and snaffle it under cover of darkness. Being a professional footballer comes with personal responsibility, and if you can’t own it then sling your hook.