VERSUS: When I think of Heineken, I think of free time, relaxing with friends and post-match pints. What do you associate with Heineken?
For me, Heineken has always been one of the main brands when I think of things like Champions League football. They’ve sponsored the men's game for about 25 years and then got involved with the women's game more recently, so I associate Heineken with that competition. Also, being fortunate enough to work with them for the past year and see how much work they do, delving into deeper issues in football and really using their platform to highlight the issues and things that football needs to do better. Those are my first thoughts when I think of Heineken.
Heineken has been working to make football a more inclusive and welcoming sport. As a new Heineken ambassador, how does it feel to be working with a company that’s making an effort to change the sport for good?
It's such an honour for me. Whenever you speak about football being inclusive, I always feel like nobody should ever feel like they can't go to a football match and be themselves. It's such an amazing sport and it makes me quite sad that some people feel like they're not entering a safe environment, or for one reason or another they can't go to football matches. It's very important for me to work with them and be part of these campaigns, especially the most recent one,“Cheers To The Real Hardcore Fans.” When you actually look at the campaigns that Heineken are doing, they're really getting you to think differently about football. It's really got me thinking, and I've been in football for a long time, so hopefully it'll get the rest of the public thinking, as well. Inclusivity is key and football should be for everyone.
Heineken’s new campaign is all about subverting the ‘hardcore fan’ stereotype. I know you know a thing or two about being a hardcore player, but what does being a ‘hardcore fan’ mean to you?
Before I did this campaign, I probably did have that image that it was going to be someone who was very angry, who was at every game, and maybe wasn't scared of getting into a bit of trouble. When we think of that word ‘hardcore’ we have this kind of unconscious bias that it's going to be quite a hostile environment when you go up against people who are going to be shouting and swearing. Since doing this campaign, I've realised that a hardcore fan can be anyone. It could be an elderly man, an elderly woman that's collected every single pin badge that's saved a little at the games. It can just be people that are just so passionate about their team, and I think that's what's great. It could be anyone, any age range, any background. It's been great to hear some stories about hardcore fans in the game and passionate fans. It's crazy the lengths that some people will go to to watch their team and see their favourite players. As an ex-player myself, it's really nice to hear these stories.
Since you’ve hung up your boots, what has stood out to you more as you watch from a completely different perspective?
Watching as a fan has been a little bit different. Obviously, when I was playing I was very aware of the fans that were at the games, but I've definitely realised how passionate people are and how hard it is being a fan sometimes. I always thought it would be this enjoyable experience – just go to see your team, see your favourite players. But you actually feel every emotion attached to your team and you kick every ball with them. The biggest difference between being a fan and a player is you don't really have any control over the result, whereas when you're a player you feel like you can affect something on the pitch. I remember one of my first games of the World Cup, I'd been there and watched it as a fan, and when I got home I was so tired because you're so emotionally and physically drained. It's definitely been an exciting experience for me being a fan.
From your playing days, how have you seen ‘hardcore fans’ evolve over the years?
I've definitely seen, especially in the women's game, a lot more fans coming to the game, a lot more families, a lot of friendlier atmospheres and environments. I go back to when I was younger and probably was surrounded with people who sometimes would swear and stuff like that when we were at the football games. As a young child you almost mimic the behaviour that's going on around you because you feel like that's the right behaviour. I've seen it change as the behaviours of people change. I think it's such an important thing because we don't want the next generation to be swearing at football matches or being aggressive to opponents.
Even as women’s football continues to grow in the UK, matches have been able to maintain the positive, family-friendly atmosphere in the crowd that makes people feel so comfortable watching their favourite team play. What do you think it will take for that atmosphere to be replicated in the men’s game?
I think they set the standards right from the off, really. It was always going to be a friendly atmosphere. It was always going to be a family day out. There are activities before a game, and I think the standards were set for me early on of what was expected when we went to a football match. It's the fact that these people have been to matches, they've had a great experience, they fell in love with the game, and now they take their families. It's had a sort of rolling effect. Obviously, there's things people say about the men's game – that sometimes there's more trouble and stuff like that – but this is why we need to keep creating campaigns and banging the drum on what the correct behaviour is. I've been to men's games where I've had a great time. I was at the Tyne-Wear Derby recently, and there was not one bit of trouble. I'd like to think that things are getting better. We sometimes hear about the negative incidents and those are the ones that make the headlines, but I think we need to also keep pushing the positive experiences. Recently I've had some great times going to football matches, and I think if we can focus on them, then as I said before, it should drown out the negative experiences. I'm very proud of women's football for keeping that standard and long may it continue by teaching our next generation that this is how you behave at a football match.
The growing popularity of women’s football with men’s football fans has been wonderful to watch. But as more and more fans become supporters of both their men’s and women’s teams, what steps do clubs and fans need to take to ensure that the inclusive atmosphere they’ve created doesn’t fade?
They need to keep making it friendly. Keep making it inclusive for everybody so that if a woman goes to a football match, she’s not looking around thinking, ‘oh, I'm the only woman here’ because there are so many more women there. I think clubs need to keep working with the right brands, as well. Heineken, for example. I think they really have been a driving force in that. They've got such a big platform, but it's about how they use that platform, and I think they've done that fantastically over the years. It's mostly about keeping things going in the right direction and really focusing on their positive stories and not the negative ones, as I said before. I know how important that is from doing this work with Heineken and listening to some of the stories of people naming their dogs after football players, people changing flights just to get Virgil van Dijk's autograph. Some of the success stories, some of the stories that made you smile, clubs can keep focusing on those because I do believe positivity will outweigh the negativity, and that can affect the atmosphere. People want to go with the positive stories so much more than the negative ones
It feels as though misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry are on the rise in football right now. How do you think the sport can tackle prejudice to make matches more inclusive for players and fans?
Making people aware of these things. Similar to the work that I'm doing with Heineken, I think if every brand can make a small change to the way that people think by highlighting issues, that is one of the main things to make football more inclusive. We have to make people aware of how others are feeling. Obviously, social media is a big platform for doing that and I think that's where brands that support football have a responsibility. That's why it's been so good to work with Heineken. We did a social media talk with myself and Gary Neville trying to highlight the sexism in football, and it's not until these campaigns happen that people say there’s sexism in football, but they haven't really got the research and the results to see that it happens and back those statements. When these campaigns bring those issues to light, people are then more aware. We need to keep educating. As players, we try to do that, and our brands are trying to do that. If we can all just try and work together, then the good behaviours should outweigh the bad behaviours, and that's the most important thing. We need the next generation to go to football games, feel safe, behave in the right way, and then they'll pass it on to the next generation. So I hope that we can stop the numbers from rising and really make a difference by using our platforms, whether it’s Heineken, an ex-player, a current player, or a fan – realise that our actions do change things.
How important is it for campaigns like this one, that focus on promoting inclusivity in football, to resonate with Gen-Z and younger audiences?
It's really important because the next generation is the future of our game, ultimately. I think that's where social media comes into use. It can be through TV ads and stuff like that, but also putting things out on social media because we all know that the next generation are probably more driven by what they see on social media, which can be quite worrying, but it also shows that campaigns like this can make a difference. It's about using the tools in the right way. It's so important that the next generation are aware of what's happening because really they are the future of our game. It's the best game in the world in my opinion and it's really given me a meaning to life. I hope that other people get the opportunity to experience that, as well, because nobody should feel like they can't go to a football match and everybody should be able to give it a try and see if they like it. It's important that we hit every target audience, but I do think that the next generation is a priority.
The internet has made it a lot easier to fuel hatred and bigotry, not only in football, but in society. What role do you think it can have in reversing that damage, whether it’s posts from clubs, leagues or companies like Heineken?
I think that has been one of the sad things with social media, even though there are a lot of positive ways of using it. I think when we speak about the next generation, we also need to teach them how to use it. Education is a massive one. I always say don't put something on social media if you wouldn't stand in the middle of a shopping centre and shout it at the top of your lungs, because ultimately that's what you're doing when you post online. We need to keep educating people around it. I know people can report things on there, but I think serious consequences need to be had because that'll stop people from sharing hurtful comments and posts. That seems quite an easy thing for social media platforms to do. It does get to the point where sometimes you don't check your social media because you know it's going to be negative. And even though I think blocking words and comments is a good thing to be able to do, I also hope we'll get to the point where we don't need to do that. You don't have to protect yourself because there won't be anything to protect yourself from. We know in the world there's things that we have to keep pushing, keep trying to make better. That's life. But I think if we can all – whether we're a brand, an ex-player, a current player – if we can all keep using our platforms to make things better, let's do it. You might just think you're affecting a small number of people, but if everybody does that, eventually the world will be a better place.
You’ve worked with Heineken in the past to shine a light on the misogyny women in football face online. Did that change the way your male colleagues’ view sexism in the sport?
I've worked with some great male colleagues. I speak about them a lot, but Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Ian Wright, Jamie Redknapp, Micah Richards – they’ve been such fantastic people to work with. I feel like when I'm with them, it's not about men and women. I feel like it's just people who love football and are passionate about the sport. I don't think the campaign changed their behaviour or anything like that, because I feel like they were so positive from the beginning. When you've got that love for football, it doesn't matter your background. It doesn't matter if you’re a man or a woman. We can't shy away from the fact that there are people on those social media channels that are negative, but then I think there's so much more positivity that goes on. Hopefully, people might just think twice before posting or commenting on something. I think we need to definitely focus on the people that do back women's football, do back women in sport, because together we can be stronger. It shouldn't be men versus women. Football is for everyone. It was an absolutely fantastic campaign. I was even surprised at some of the messages myself. I remember Gary posted something on my account and somebody said ‘I can tell you're a woman, you don't know what you're talking about.’ I was just chuckling to myself. Some of it was quite funny, but some of it was quite hurtful. I think when we sometimes use humour as a way to highlight issues, sometimes that could work, as well. It was a great campaign to be part of.
What impact do you think this campaign, as well as others you’ve worked on in the past, will have on younger audiences?
I think it will make them think twice. It will hopefully change their unconscious bias a little bit. I know I've used that word a lot, but I think people see something and believe that it's set in stone. Even with hardcore fans, I had a more negative idea of what that meant before working with Heineken. I would call myself a hardcore fan now because I'm so invested in the game. I really want my team to win. I want my team to do well. The next generation will probably look at it like that and also change their idea of hardcore fans. The one that I did with Gary was very influential in changing a lot of people's minds on how they already think. The Heineken campaigns have been fun, which is great, but they’ve really underlined big issues in football and to be able to be part of them has been a massive honour for me, working with some fantastic professionals in Virgil van Dijk and Gary Neville.
What do you think the future of football fandom looks like?
I hope people don't even have to think about safety when they go to a football match. I hope they feel like they can take young relatives. I hope that they look at it as a family outing, really. That's the kind of image I have for the future. That people think ‘could I take my son, daughter, niece, nephew this week to the game?’ And it doesn't even cross their mind that maybe they're going to feel unsafe, or they're going to hear bad language. They're just going to have a great day out with all the hardcore fans and enjoy the game of football. That's what I hope for in the future.