To the family of the victim, Aiden Pilkington, killed by Ciaran Dickson, I cannot extend more sympathy. What the ex-Celtic and ex-Ibrox youth player (oh how the media enjoys leaving out the name of the club where his problems began to multiply) did is truly abysmal and unforgivable. That it was not even his first offence is staggering.
He is as much a failure as Pilkington was certain to be a success.
It is a senseless and tragic waste.
All around us in the media are stories of young men behaving badly, young men in football, young men who are hero worshiped in the stands by other young men. People who see their names in the papers and think too highly of themselves, even at the expense of the rights and wellbeing of other people. The inside of football has changed beyond the remotest comprehension of those on the outside of the bubble. There’s something a little insane about it.
How many footballers have you heard being interviewed and thought, “That guy wouldn’t get a job licking stamps if he couldn’t kick a ball”? Dozens? Hundreds? Here in Scotland, they give those people newspaper columns. Are we to believe that the likes of Ferguson and the Village Idiot are actually the smart ones? God help the sport if that’s true.
You don’t even need to reach the top of the sport now before all those involved in it are multi-millionaires, many of them with no interests outside the sport and so have far too much cash and way too much time on their hands.
Dickson wasn’t a multi-millionaire at the point where he crashed into his victim, but he wasn’t driving a rented Honda Civic; it might have been better if he was.
No, this kid barely old enough at the time to legally buy booze was hammered behind the wheel of a high-end Mercedes. Sure, it was a rental. How many of us could afford to rent something like that? Not a lot of us, I’d wager. And he had no self-control mechanisms as all.
Addiction and criminality are a growing concern amongst young footballers. And the really dark side of that, sexual assault, violence, especially against women, these things are more and more in the headlines and this is, in part, because the game allows so much to happen in its aegis that a lot of these lads think they are untouchable.
Even when players are bang to rights – as Mason Greenwood was – the clubs find a way to stand by their man, even if they have to send him out on loan until the dust settles.
These players are, after all, assets and you only cut one of them loose if the reputation of the club itself comes under threat.
And because this is the general attitude within a sport where even David Goodwillie can still get multiple contracts even after civil trials have essentially branded him a rapist, there’s no real or effective deterrent if you are talented enough because you know that even in the worst-case scenario the club will find you a move and you’ll maintain your lifestyle.
Professional players are too rich too young, and a lot of the clubs do not do nearly enough to make sure that they are fully prepared for the spotlight and the wealth and the fame, and it is hardly a wonder that some of them spiral into alcohol, gambling, drug use and sometimes much, much worse. Ironically, although the media is never, ever going to write this, Celtic was one of the better clubs that Ciaran Dickson could have signed for.
And the reason for that will surprise you; it’s Peter Lawwell.
Peter Lawwell spent a couple of years working on behalf of the SFA and talking to young players all over Scotland on the perils that awaited them upon reaching the first teams at their clubs. Amongst the biggest concerns was that some of them, because of their proximity to the celebrity circuit, would enter the orbit of organised crime. But the general lessons they were supposed to learn were about the pressures and temptations of the spotlight.
Dickson was already badly broken when he arrived at Celtic. A supremely talented player – that much, almost everyone accepts – he left Ibrox with a raft of problems. Should our due diligence have been better? Should we have willingly taken on someone who had so, so many issues? Well, you could argue against it, but Celtic clearly believed our systems were robust enough and that we could turn him around. It just hasn’t happened that way.
We do take this stuff seriously. To be fair, I hear that Ibrox is the same. Some people are beyond reach. Some people have an idea of themselves in their heads that just won’t shift and there’s no way that they learn short of some terrible reversal. You won’t get a much more terrible one than this, and with such a tragic impact.
We try to do right by the kids at our club. So do plenty of other sides. We do not do nearly enough. To the best of my knowledge, no club does because deep down they really don’t see this as their problem or their issue to take care of.
That’s short-sighted. Look at the social consequences of this single case. That’s two families destroyed. That’s one life gone and another ruined utterly, and it was preventable, I have to believe that. As a society we all have to believe that and we have to demand that the clubs who pay these kids unbelievable fortunes do so whilst at least trying to teach them things like responsibility and accountability. It’s not good enough to do otherwise.
One way to do that is to put real consequences into player contracts. We know that clubs can terminate for cause, but so few are willing to do that because they know that these kids will just be picked up elsewhere and the clubs lose the asset and the transfer fee. So, football itself has to step up, I think, and create an over-arching code of conduct.
Let me put it in better terms than that; in any other well-paid profession, if you were convicted for some of these sorts of crimes you would be blacklisted.
Even the showbiz industry, once notorious for its own lack of standards and accountability, treats certain things more seriously than football. If you’re a top actor, your high-performance career would be over if you did some of what footballers get away with, and football, as an organised game, should have its own exclusionary criteria.
Which means that governing bodies won’t register you even if clubs will.
Teams need to stop warehousing young footballers as though they were cattle. Because if you do that that’s what you are essentially developing. We need to consider something else too; what happens to those players who clubs cut loose and who see their dreams and ambitions shattered? We have no way of knowing how many of them spiral into depression and end up with a raft of major problems. That should be properly examined.
And more than anything, I think, is that a sea-change has to happen where fans are concerned. During the Mason Greenwood debacle, I listened with astonishment to several podcasts and phone-ins where people were lining up to sound ridiculous contorting themselves into all kinds of perverse logical positions as they sought to justify what he had done.
When the Ibrox club signed Jon Flanagan the number of their fans who wondered whether that was a good decision was vanishing small. They knew he had been a former Liverpool youth with great promise, and with games in their first team, and that was all they cared about.
When Celtic was linked with then Motherwell defender Declan Gallagher, I wrote an excoriating piece about his past convictions for beating a guy in a pub carpark with a baseball bat … for that, I’d estimate that I got a week’s worth of abuse in a single afternoon, much of it from our own fans telling me that they only cared if he had the talent to make a difference in our back line.
Many Celtic fans I spoke to at the time of the Greenwood affair would have been delighted if we had signed him, without ever once giving thought to the message it would send, and it was clear to me that their view was shared by a great many others.
Football needs to grab this problem by the throat. Lives are being destroyed by it, including the lives of players. It has ended one in this case, and that’s where we surely start to get real.
Couple of clarifying amendments in this piece. Nothing dramatic, except that I called the victim Adam instead of Aiden. Thank you to the guy who clued me in on that.