Football, in my time as a dedicated support, has changed dramatically.
Nowadays, the Premier League is a global industry, reaching across the globe and entertaining an audience of billions.
As a consequence, the make-up of the Premier League squads has changed significantly over the years, clubs, these days, draw upon a squad that is pulled from all quarters of the globe.
But, has anybody who frequents the stadium thought about one aspect of the game that is developing fast?
Let me enlighten you.
Anybody who has worked abroad, for a significant period, will know the problems faced upon arrival. After the initial period of excitement relating to being in a brave new world has died down, the realisation hits that somethings remain unfathomable, things that the locals take for granted.
I remember sitting with a Chelsea supporting friend, enjoying a few pints, when the subject of the Italians in their squad, back in the late nineties, arose.
He told me that Chelsea had a member of staff, Gary Straker, who looked after the new arrivals, introduced them to the way of life in this country, generally preparing them for living in a strange environment, something that can be very off-putting if allowed to fester.
Now Straker started off, at Chelsea, as a steward, but his ability to speak fluent Italian, saw his role evolve, as Chelsea welcomed the likes of Di Matteo, Vialli and Zola to their squad.
Returning to the modern day, the situation has evolved somewhat.
At West Ham United we now have a complete department that looks after what is termed Player Care, a department headed up by Hugo Scheckter, who joined the club from Southampton.
Scheckter has a dedicated team working under him who work towards integrating those who the club signs, from foreign cultures, into the British way of life, whether it be language influenced, the tax system or even the simple things in life like crossing the road.
Talking to the Betway Blog Scheckter said: about his departments’ role in the modern game;
“I believe that player care is the new wave of difference-making in football.
“In the ‘90s it was medicine, more recently it’s been video analysis, and I think player care is the next area where clubs can really get an advantage over each other.
“By having players who are set up properly and looked after, it means they can focus on nothing but football as soon as possible after they walk through the door.”
A very interesting analysis.
But, continuing and in trying to illustrate the purpose of the Player Care group, Scheckter, further emphasised its goal, adding;
“We’re trying to make sure that everything is not just taken care of, but taken care of in the right way.
“It’s our ambition to have one of the best player care departments in the next two years.”
Precisely, if you are going to do anything then make sure it is done properly.
This summer has proven to be a summer unlike any other for the Hammers, a plethora of summer signings, geared up to take West Ham United Football Club to another level, means the workload, for the Player Care group, has increased, something Scheckter has his views on;
“We try and sort the six main things: the house, the car, the bank account, the family, the phone and languages. Once we’ve got those basic things, everything else falls into place.
“Player care sometimes gets seen as like running a concierge or nanny service.
“But if you or I moved to a foreign country aged 20, we wouldn’t know what to do because we haven’t grown up in that environment.
“When someone comes here, we need to make sure that everything’s explained.
There are some pretty decent points there, as a youngster I went to work in Germany and after being taken ill, it was a real wake-up call that I had to suss things out for myself, a far cry from just picking up the phone and popping into the doctors surgery, things out of the norm prove to be major stumbling blocks.
A typical example of the sort of things the Player Care group need to contemplate is provided by Fabien Balbuena, a centre-back who signed for West Ham recently. Balbuena has never lived anywhere outside of South America, causing Scheckter to comment;
“Someone like Fabian Balbuena, for example, has never lived outside of South America.
“There’s so much different stuff that they have to get used to, it’s about trying to work out the gaps in their knowledge.
“Whether it’s council tax – we’re the only country in the modern world that has a council tax-style system – or even knowing you need to stop at a zebra crossing.
“A lot of the time, we’re just translating English into English, when people speak with an accent or use flowery language, so they’re not confused and know what they’re signing up to.”
From my own experience, working abroad brings a whole range of problems when it comes to the native language. You can have all the guidebooks in the world in your bag but the complexity of sentence structure allied with the speed at which the language can be spoken can be very daunting. Like in the case described when I was taken ill in Germany, I’d have been lost if the medical staff didn’t speak English.
Living abroad, I found that communication was the key to surviving, being able to adapt to a life where the mother tongue isn’t a familiar one can be a daunting experience.
Illustrating the point, Scheckter further remarked;
“We go for some of the best players in the world, some of them do speak English and some don’t.
“We found that even in a couple of weeks of being here, players pick up the language really quickly.”
That is exactly the case, after a month in Germany, whilst I didn’t have the confidence to have a conversation in German, I could understand what was being said. Over time, my adaption to life in Germany did include conversing in their mother tongue, albeit at a slower pace than them.
But often, it is what can be perceived as a small problem can be a major one. Returning to my Chelsea supporting colleague, he recalled how Di Matteo had problems with his water supply, simply because he wasn’t aware of the way it is paid for over here, something that affected his demeanour until it was sorted.
Something Scheckter can relate to:
“I think the biggest skill is empathy and understanding that, just because a problem doesn’t sound serious, it might be to them.
But, as well as the player, consideration also needs to be given to the players family who, like the player himself, are venturing into a new life that can be pretty daunting, especially in an alien environment, with Scheckter adding;
“A player can be really happy, but if the family’s not settled, it won’t work out. Eventually it’s going to crack.
“It’s a full-on job – my phone is on 24 hours a day.”
Yes, it is, it is something that goes on behind the scenes, something that probably isn’t recognised by the supporters but something that is essential in our ever-evolving game which is getting more demanding and more high-profile every season.