“We had one player who had quite high-profile struggles with his performances. I remember he had a particularly bad away game, and I was sat next to him on the bus. His phone was pinging with messages – ‘You’re a disgrace’, ‘Get out of our club’ – and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you just turn your social media off?’ He just said, ‘It’s part of being a footballer.’”
Hugo Scheckter paints a vivid picture. The former West Ham and Southampton player care specialist is recalling an incident which seems to sum-up football’s struggles with social media. For Scheckter, it’s an issue that is leading players to leave online platforms, creating a growing divide between footballers and fans.
“I think a lot of players are moving away from social media and have been doing for a couple of years now,” he says.
“I think they are turning away (from social media) because it was started as something nice to try and reach out to fans to try and make them closer.
“But whether it’s criticism of old posts from 10 years ago, or something misconstrued or players being stupid or fans being abusive, I think the players, in my opinion and from my experience, are moving away from social media because they’re not seeing the benefit of it.
“Even the pre-season Premier League-FA briefing is about, ‘If you do this on social media, you will be banned’, so why would they bother? I think it’s a shame because you’re creating more distance from the players.”
Scheckter’s line of work leaves him better placed than most to gauge footballers’ feelings on the subject. After spending two and a half years as West Ham’s Head of Player Care, a position he took-up after occupying a similar role at Southampton, Scheckter is familiar with the day-to-day concerns of Premier League players.
At both clubs, the founder of the Player Care Group – a consultancy he setup after leaving the London Stadium – was responsible for helping players with everything ranging from paying council tax bills to bonding with teammates, as well as acting as a sounding board for squad members.
“I think player care is basically everything, that’s not football or medical-related, within a football club,” says Scheckter.
“At West Ham, I was doing team scheduling, team communication, team travel, player relocation, player appearances for sponsors, partners, charities, all that kind of stuff.
“I know them (the players) personally pretty well…sometimes they just want to chat. Often the focus on mental health is on the severe side – suicidal thoughts, severely depressed – but actually, the majority of people live in some sort of spectrum away from that. So sometimes, it’s just, ‘You know what, can we grab a coffee?’ They want a chat or they want a distraction and we just play poker for an hour on the bus or something like that.”
The need for clubs to support players away from the pitch seems obvious, but as Scheckter points out, “there are normally 45 people looking after the players for three or four hours at the training grounds and then one or no people looking after them for the other 20 hours a day.”
However, the player care profession is starting to gain wider recognition and already has some significant managerial advocates, with Scheckter highlighting David Moyes’ decision to include him in leadership team discussions during his time at West Ham.Embed from Getty Images
“Under David, working with him, his coaches and his head of medical, it was kind of like ‘We are going to make this decision as a group’”, says Scheckter.
“That was the first time a manager has really bought into it (player care) one hundred percent. It doesn’t mean that the other managers I worked with had a disregard for player care, it’s just that some are like ‘I’ve got so much on my plate with football, you just crack on with your side of things.’”
Scheckter’s spell at West Ham saw the club narrowly avoid relegation last season, although the Hammers might not have escaped the drop had anything been riding on their final home game of the season, against Aston Villa.
“The night before the game, the government changed the restrictions to take Spain off the list (of countries exempt from travel restrictions),” says Scheckter.
“We had about 12 guys booked to go to Ibiza. We had Spanish players who now couldn’t go and see their families. It was absolute chaos. Luckily, we didn’t need to win that game really to stay in the league because basically, it was absolute pandemonium. We had players in tears, and it was like, ‘What has just happened here?’
“People will say, ‘Boo-hoo, they’re footballers’, but as people, we’ve all looked forward to things in the last year that we’ve not been able to do.”
Scheckter’s empathy for the players he supports is evident. Returning to the subject of social media, he draws a distinction between the online abuse footballers suffer and the barracking dished out by supporters during a game.
“If you’re in the stadium and someone shouts something, out of 60,000 or 70,000 people…it’s separate. It’s like they’re over there in the crowd.
“When it’s sent to your phone and every time you open your phone up, you’re getting abuse, why would you want that?”
With limited progress, at best, in preventing the type of online toxicity which has recently engulfed football, it’s a question that many players will be pondering in the months to come.