MARTIN SAMUEL: There’s a thin line between fat-shaming and actual coaching

When Willian arrived for Arsenal’s pre-season friendly with Hibernian carrying what appeared to be evidence of a good summer around his waist, the judgments were instant and merciless.

The jokers compared him to Eden Hazard; the worriers saw it as symptomatic of Arsenal’s deterioration; the psychics presumed he was retiring; the critics announced he should be paid off and cut loose. Subsequent images revealed the truth. Willian looks to have been wearing a weighted vest under his shirt.

Certainly, photographs that have since appeared suggest his physique is unchanged. He might need to drop a pound or two, hence the equipment. Many footballers do when they return pre-season. Hazard’s 5kg overload at Real Madrid was exceptional, unprofessional and ended up costing him. Yet not everyone is Cristiano Ronaldo. Even Lionel Messi has been known to put on a little.

An allegation was made against Alan Bircher now suspended, that he weighed young athletes

Still, interesting to see how we react to weight gain in footballers versus other sports. Not much backlash over bullying or fat-shaming in Willian’s case, despite the furore being utterly misplaced. It is accepted that with Willian’s £30million contract across three years comes certain responsibilities. One of them is keeping fit and staying fit.

Yet the latest welfare and governance scandal to envelop Team GB includes the allegation that Alan Bircher, a successful open water swimming coach, now suspended, weighed young athletes. As if this was outlandish, allying fitness to performance.

Bircher would have led Team GB’s open water swimmers in Tokyo, and with good reason: three of the team’s members came through the Ellesmere College Titans swimming club in Shropshire, where he was director.

The club is now in special measures following complaints from parents, and an investigation by Swim England’s independent child protection officers. It was reported they found a toxic culture of bullying, fat-shaming, defying Covid restrictions and failing to report safeguarding concerns.

Without detail, it is hard to gauge the seriousness of these findings individually, but the fact there would appear to be a pathway for Bircher to return once Swim England is ‘content that our robust safeguarding and welfare procedures and policies are embedded within the governance of the club’, suggests he is not beyond saving.

‘One of the report’s findings involved the weighing of athletes,’ Swim England confirmed, and a wider review into the practice is underway. Yet there is a thin line between striving for the athletic excellence necessary for elite competition, and what is now termed fat-shaming.

Last year, Dr Alex Culvin, a senior lecturer at Salford University and former women’s footballer, produced a report claiming ‘fat-shaming’ was endemic in the Women’s Super League. Yet surely, the strongest desire around the WSL is to make the women’s game a serious, professional, respected competition? Then weight isn’t about shame, surely; it’s about achieving an athletic goal?

Culvin claimed players feared being placed in a ‘fat club’ if they didn’t reach weight targets. But the men’s professional game has those clubs, too.

Swim England investigation found a toxic culture of bullying, fat-shaming, defying Covid restrictions and failing to report safeguarding concerns

Swim England investigation found a toxic culture of bullying, fat-shaming, defying Covid restrictions and failing to report safeguarding concerns

Pep Guardiola would not let Yaya Toure train with the first team at Manchester City until he reached his target weight.

Was that shaming? Quite possibly. But there were no complaints — indeed most fans would back a manager demanding high standards. Yes, dietary regimes also need close monitoring. Starvation or imbalances are not the answer. But it is bizarre to demand to be taken seriously in one breath, but wish for a free pass on fitness with the next.

Bircher’s regime may have been unjustifiably brutal. Certainly, skirting Covid restrictions is unacceptable and bullying is appalling. Yet more generally, thin lines. When Sir Alex Ferguson recalled the Manchester United regime that created the nucleus of the treble-winning team, he gave credit to youth coach Eric Harrison being incredibly tough on the young players.

‘If you don’t have mental toughness, you’ll never make United’s first team,’ Harrison said. Harrison described having an arm around the shoulder of his charges 90 per cent of the time. The other 10 per cent? He said he sometimes had to apologise for those moments.

Meanwhile Andy Anson, the British Olympic Association chief executive, said there would be confidential hotlines in Tokyo during the Games to allow athletes to discuss instances of physical and psychological abuse.

Pep Guardiola would not let Yaya Toure train with Man City's first team until he reached his target weight

Pep Guardiola would not let Yaya Toure train with Man City’s first team until he reached his target weight

After the horror that surrounded the United States gymnastic team and scandals that have blighted a succession of sports, one can understand why the governing body would establish a channel of communication.

Yet coaches will, on occasions, speak harshly to athletes. Is that bullying? Is that abuse? The number of claimants against British Gymnastics more than doubled in one month this year, from 17 to 37. Did all suffer systemic physical and psychological damage, or are demanding regimes now being recast as something more sinister?

Bircher must have asked too much to be stood down in this way. Maybe his demands were unrealistic; maybe he made them of competitors who were too young or who were not as committed to the programme.

Some young people just want to have fun with sport. They don’t feel driven towards an Olympic podium. And they need protection from the over-zealous, the bullies, those motivated to give everything and demand it of them, too.

There are no excuses for the extremes of coaching methods, even applied to those with elite ambitions. No excuses for physical confrontation, no excuses for threats, for behaviour and language that would not be acceptable in any modern workplace.

Yet, equally, sometimes an athlete needs to be fitter, slimmer, to work harder, to stay longer.

And coaches have to be able to say that, to impart home truths or bad news. Otherwise, it’s just playground supervision and dinner ladies can do that.


Niall Horan is a former member of One Direction and a passionate golfer. He is friends with Rory McIlroy and has his own agency which represents, among others, Tyrrell Hatton.

Horan wants to be a disrupter in the game, a person who challenges norms and conventions. He sees golf’s image as too stuffy. Begin eye-rolling sequence now. Here we go.

‘I feel we can try to get rid of the stigmas around golf with the help of young girls,’ he says. ‘Whatever young girls are into is usually doing quite well.

‘When girls get passionate about something, they really give everything to it.’

But young girls are into golf. Just, it would seem, the wrong sort of young girls. South Korea has three 20-somethings in the world’s top five — who all must have been enthusiastic golfers as teenagers — and the sport has been huge there since 20-year-old Pak Se-ri became the youngest winner of the US Open in 1998.

Niall Horan wants to be a disrupter in the game, someone who challenges the norms

Niall Horan wants to be a disrupter in the game, someone who challenges the norms

Her record was then broken by 19-year-old Inbee Park, also Korean, in 2008.

This year, Park’s record was equalled by Yuka Saso from the Philippines, where a surge in interest is expected.

The implication, therefore, is that some young girls are more marketable than others. Horan insisted there are superstars in women’s golf and cited the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, daughters of two Czech professional tennis players, and his client, Leona Maguire, ranked 59th worldwide. There are 19 Korean women in the top 50, though. Don’t they count? There’s a word for such attitudes. It’s stronger than stuffy.


Pity poor Conor Murray. The miraculous recovery of Alun Wyn Jones appears to have deprived him of the British and Irish Lions captaincy and now Ali Price is being tipped to take his place at scrum-half, too.

Neither call is wrong. If he can last, Jones has to play; and Price looks a considerably better fit than Murray, too. Nothing pulls a rug from under the feet quite like a team-sheet and elite level sport.


They were called Match Facts. To my knowledge, the first comprehensive marks out of 10 that were ever awarded to participants in English football. Now it would be unthinkable to not be told that the left back for Norwich was only worth 5 and the striker 7, but back then, roughly 40 years ago, it was groundbreaking.

The publication was a new magazine, Match Weekly, and the collation of all this information across four divisions was done by Hayters Sports Agency, where I worked at weekends, while still at school.

Saturday evening, the cramped office upstairs in Gough Square was given over to copytakers in archaic headsets, taking down a list of names and numbers from every game in the country. It was easier then, because almost all football took place at 3pm on Saturday, even if Manchester United and Manchester City were both drawn at home in the FA Cup.

My job was to use the squad lists in the Rothmans Football Yearbook to check for spelling mistakes or other tiny errors from typists who could hardly be expected to be across every nuance of Exeter City’s back four. It left me with an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific, brief time in English football. If I hear the name of a player, I can have a fair stab at whether he played for Tranmere Rovers or Halifax Town. Utterly useless, of course, but I know this: Ernie Moss always scored.

Ernie Moss (L), who died last week aged 71 from Pick's disease, scores a typical header for Port Vale against Sheffield United

Ernie Moss (L), who died last week aged 71 from Pick’s disease, scores a typical header for Port Vale against Sheffield United

At the time for Chesterfield, but then for Port Vale and after that, well, I lost track. I didn’t do the ratings shifts any more and Moss moved — to Lincoln, to Doncaster, to Stockport, to Rochdale. And back to Chesterfield, of course, where he was as revered as Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford.

He died last week, aged 71, from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia brought on, no doubt, by his prodigious talent in the air. All of his clubs, 12 as a player, plus seven more as a coach and manager, paid tribute. All did his memory, as a man and professional, proud.

I don’t know if I ever saw him play, but I saw his numbers. No penalties, either. In my imagination, he’s rising above two defenders to power home another header at Saltergate.

A true hero of a game long passed.


Nigel Farage joined GB News and immediately announced he wouldn’t be taking the knee.

Who wanted him to? Any gesture of support for racial equality would be dead by tea-time if Farage adopted it. His employment is a desperate measure by a channel that is shedding viewers daily and has now even lost some of its wingnut target audience, because presenter Guto Harri showily took the knee in support of England’s footballers who had been racially abused.

He was suspended by a network that claims to champion free speech after complaints from viewers. It just goes to show, as this column has long argued, the biggest snowflakes invariably tack right.


Some genius on Twitter calculated that as it is 44,000 days since Queen Victoria died and more than 22,000 since Tottenham last won the title, that achievement is now officially closer to the Victorian age than to now. Using the same process, we can calculate that the 34,415 days which have elapsed since Newcastle’s last title place it nearer to a time when this country had a Whig prime minister — Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey — who had defeated the Duke of Wellington at the general election, and was ruled by a king, William IV, who had fought in the American War of Independence (1775-1783).

Slavery had not been fully abolished and Charles Dickens had only published one work of fiction, A Dinner at Poplar Walk, unattributed. Howay the lads, as they say in Jeddah.


Adidas got the name of Manchester United defender Millie Turner wrong in a promotional campaign.

It called her Amy Turner, also a Manchester United defender until last month when she joined Orlando Pride. Sexism, of course, was to blame.

‘Outstanding player and they can’t get her name right,’ posted former United player Jess Sigsworth. ‘That would only happen to female players.’

Man United's Millie Turner was called Amy Turner in a promotional campaign by Adidas

Man United’s Millie Turner was called Amy Turner in a promotional campaign by Adidas

But that’s not true. Male players have their names misspelled all the time: on shirts, on team-sheets, even by sponsors on occasion. It’s a mistake, no more.

I’d worked at one newspaper for 10 years when an S was added to my surname. It wasn’t the most edifying byline, but it was an accident, a bad day at the office for someone. And that’s really all this is.


Why the fuss about Lewis Hamilton? You wanted a race, you got a race. You wanted needle, you got needle. You wanted entertainment, and are you not entertained?

The FIA made their call, now sit back and enjoy the show.