Byline: Rob Draper
ONE thing still irks Clarke Carlisle about his ground-breaking appearance as the first footballer invited to join the politicians and pundits on the BBC's iconic current affairs programme Question Time.
In a week dominated by the coarse, arrogant and sexist behaviour of one former player, Andy Gray, and in a world in which people's perception of professionals are defined by the front page exploits of the likes of John Terry and Wayne Rooney, the idea that a footballer might even have an informed view, let alone be capable of articulating it, has seemingly come as a surprise.
When confronted with the response, Carlisle sighs with exasperation.
'I've had plenty of people say, "I can't believe a footballer could do that",' he said. 'It's ridiculous and massively frustrating. The perception is wrong. You come across many players who are eloquent, with good, solid mindsets and ideas.'
The Burnley defender is evangelical on the topic, as befits his role as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association management committee. From winning the TV quiz show Britain's Brainiest Footballer to surviving for three days last year in Channel 4 quiz show Countdown, he has long belied the stereotype. So the avalanche of negative publicity that now engulfs footballers is of concern to Carlisle.
'You can't justify the actions that come across on the front pages because it is intolerable behaviour, but if you transpose any other industry into that situation and highlight the behaviour of their workforce, I'm sure you would find the proportionate amount of identical behaviour -- if not more.
'It's not something that is a conscious fight for me but it does become frustrating when it seems that good works and good news is no news in the context of how footballers are portrayed.
'There is no mention of the 35,000 social inclusion visits made by 2,200 footballers last year, or the 600 lads taking academic or manual labour courses, or the charitable trusts set up by individual players. These messages don't get across, so it doesn't counterbalance the unfortunate and thoughtless behaviour that does go on.' RAY, he readily admits, has not aided his cause.
G'No, it doesn't help. If we're making a drive for total inclusion -- saying to a homosexual man that he can come and play football, or for women that there is a career for you in football -- then we have to create an environment where individuality is accepted. It should be standard, a working environment for all.
'The positive to come out of this is that it's been shown that kind of behaviour is not acceptable. We're no longer the man-ruling nation that we were in the Thirties or Forties. We're a liberated nation with equal rights.'
All of which makes it clear why the BBC invited Carlisle in the first place, although debating with a panel of politicians which included Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former director of communications, George Galloway, the anti-war campaigner and former Respect MP, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes was undoubtedly a formidable prospect.
So what is more challenging; marking Rooney or Didier Drogba, as he did in the Premier League last season for Burnley, or appearing on Question Time?
'I think sitting in the midst of a George Galloway-Alastair Campbell conflict is far more nerve-racking than marking Rooney,' said Carlisle.
'Playing football, that's my work. I've become accustomed to controlling my actions and playing against the big names. That's my natural environment but this was something far, far different.'
'When I accepted the appearance I thought, "This will be interesting, have a talk about the topics of the day". But when the line-up was released, the response was ridiculous. I had 30 calls and text messages …