Picture, if you will, the quintessential Victorian literary villain. Top hat, long coat, twirly moustache.
And an evil laugh.
If football was ever turned into a pantomime (and you could argue that it’s already been there, done that and said ‘its behiiiiiind you’), then the aforementioned character would play the part of money.
As in all the money that is sloshing around the game and, all too often, sometimes stinking it out. A bit like the bilge deep in the bowels of a ship.
Hardly an original observation of course. Most of all will have, at one time or another, have lamented how much the game has changed, all too often for the worse, because of money’s greater and greater hold on it, the clubs, players and fans.
Yet money is no longer alone. It has begat a bastard child, a dark companion, an inevitable consequence of its dominance.
And it’s strangling the game as well.
It’s the ‘f’ word.
How many people have you heard comment that the recent European Championships was, quality wise, pretty much down there with one of the worse international competitions in recent times?
I thought so. There were some good goals, some incidents that were worthy of a second look but the football as a whole?
The fact that countries such as Iceland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Hungary and Northern Ireland did so well at the competition was mainly due to the fact that they had nothing to lose. They could enjoy themselves, express themselves. No-one really expected much of them other than to make up the numbers.
They all did so much more than that, which means that the legacy of the 2016 European Football Championships will not belong to Portugal but to Iceland and their contemporaries.
Who were all able to play without fear. And it showed.
England? They were near enough crippled by it. Players were afraid to take risks, to express themselves and to take it upon themselves to dominate their opponents and the game.
Dele Alli dances his way around the pitch when he is playing for Tottenham. He has a free role and revels in it; he treats the ball as if it was his lover, caressing it, experimenting with it, trying out new things and ideas, a player who is not afraid to fail.
That goal he got for Tottenham against Crystal Palace last season, can you imagine him doing that in an England game anytime soon?
Had he got the ball in that part of the pitch in the game against Slovakia or Iceland, he’d have been looking to lay it off, pass it back maybe, do anything but take responsibility and, had he failed, taken the flack for doing so.
He plays with his head down and looked, for all the world, as if he was frightened of the stage he was on and the expectation that had been placed on his shoulders.
He, like his teammates, was too frightened of the consequences of failure to do anything other than play it safe, to be cautious and conservative.
As a result, he and England were awful to watch – no flair, no imagination, no courage and no conviction.
‘If there is a risk to be taken then let someone else do it, I’m not going to risk it.’
The stakes are ever higher, the media pressure and presence ever greater, the expectations of the fans all the more demanding.
‘Sod it’, thinks the average England international in response. ‘I’m not having that’. So they hide up. And I don’t blame them.
Now look at Hal Robson-Kanu. He went to the championships without a club for goodness sake, a player mixing it with the elite who had ‘unattached’ next to his name in the squad listings.
Yet he thrived. The man without a club scored twice and made a real impact for both his country and on the footballing public at large, scoring, against Belgium, one of the best goals of the tournament.
That’s Hal Robson-Kanu (unattached) playing for Wales in a European Championship quarter-final against the number two ranked team in the world.
And being a boss.
Why? Because, like the late and very great Robin Friday, once of Reading, a player once described as the greatest player you never saw, he went into the tournament with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Which, as it now turns out, is a multitude of contract offers from home and abroad, including one from a Chinese club reportedly worth £100,000 a week.
He played with no fear and with no reason to be fearful of anything. And it showed.
Unlike Harry Kane who went to the championships as one of the next big things of European football.
And ended up being one of the greatest disappointments of all. This was supposed to be his moment, his stage and his opportunity to stake a claim for a move to Barcelona or Bayern one day.
Instead of that, he’s going to start next season pretty much from square one – all people are going to think of next season when he takes to the field for Tottenham’s first game is not how good a player he has been for the last two seasons but how badly he played for England in France.
Why did he play so badly? Because he was frightened he would play badly. He perceived it, believed it and made it happen.
You can apply that to Raheem Stirling as well. Plus most of the rest of them.
Too much money, too much publicity, too much hype, too much expectation, too much fear of not living up to it.
And it showed. Big time.
There is a Norwich City angle to this in case you’re wondering: Ricky Van Wolfswinkel.
Big money signing, record signing, massive local publicity and a club exercise in marketing him which, in retrospect, must have had him wondering just what the hell he had let himself in for.
Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
As it turned out, no clubs were, no defenders were either. But the Big Bad Wolf? Now he WAS afraid; afraid of the pressure and expectancy that had been placed on him from day one.
An eight million quid footballer who ended up tripping over his own feet and featuring in a short clip that showed him passing to the invisible man. A moment in time that will likely end up as his Norwich City legacy, the thing he is most remembered for.
I feel for the bloke, I really do. He came, he saw, he was conquered.
Conquered by the fear that plays such a big part in the game today, the fear that stifles talent and self-expression, the fear that says don’t play to win, play not to lose. And the fear that is playing its part in helping the Leicester City and Iceland’s of this world win games because fear is, at the moment, not something that applies to them.
Let’s hope it’s not too catching either.