The last fortnight has once again done an excellent job of illustrating why English football is such a point of interest all over the world. Controversy, shock results, shock resignations, speculations, goals galore, and of course, two more freak injuries to Arsenal players.
Before talking about the actual chasing of leather spheres, the biggest issue is the return, impact and fallout of alleged racism in English football.
The John Terry case rumbles on with no satisfactory conclusion as Chelsea managed to convince the courts to delay the criminal case until the summer (handily just after the season and the Euro 12 tournament in Poland & Ukraine). The net result of this manipulation of the timing of the legal process for footballing ends was the F.A. being confronted with a situation where someone with an unresolved accusation of racially abusing an opponent might be the primary representative of English football in a major international tournament, which would obviously be a PR disaster of major proportions, particularly given the probability of the Chelsea man being the team captain and central defensive partner of the older brother of the alleged racism victim. All far from ideal. Understandably, between a rock and a hard place, the F.A. suggested to the man in question that voluntarily relinquishing the captaincy to diffuse the situation. Terry may have felt that doing so may have implied an admittance of guilt on his part, or he just continue to be the third-person speaking, self-centered scumbag that he has repeatedly shown himself to be in the past.
With some justification, the F.A. felt compelled to relieve ‘JT’ of his leadership duties, but crucially, either through fear, perceived opposition or just plain arrogance of moral guardianship, declined to discuss this with the England Manager, Fabio Capello. Don Fabio is used to having his own way and being treated with a little more respect, and understandably complained about the questioning of his authority to the Italian Press, which inevitably made it to the English press, and created a major problem for the F.A. ‘Clear the air’ or ‘crisis’ talks were mooted, and by that stage it wasn’t a massive shock when the Italian resigned at the meeting. While I generally maintain the view that the Football Association is an ineffectual and out of date organisation, I have some sympathy on this one. I am also pretty sure Capello knew exactly what he was doing when speaking to the Italian press, and given the paucity of available talent in the England team at present, combined with Rooney’s suspension at Euro 12, was probably not too displeased at being given a sword to fall on.
Conveniently, Capello’s resignation came hot on the heels of Harry Redknapp’s tax fraud acquittal (which seemed to be more a case of the prosecution mishandling the case than any obvious innocence), meaning that the coronation for ‘the people’s choice’, has started in earnest already, without him being offered or accepting the job. Speculation about this affecting Tottenham’s excellent season was quickly quashed by a 5-0 home win over Newcastle, with two from new signing Saha, illustrating that he can score if he plays for a team with decent attacking potential. From an England perspective, Stuart Pearce will be caretaker manager, complete with the embarrassment of having made racist remarks in a game to Paul Ince, and the family baggage of a former paid up BNP/NF brother.
In other racism news, serial cheat Luis Suarez and the equally unlikeable Patrice Evra, had the opportunity to renew their love affair at Old Trafford in the North West’s grudgematch of choice (‘El Crassico’ as it was coined by an e-mail on the Guardian minute-by-minute). Suarez and Dalglish have covered themselves in whatever the most appropriate antithesis to glory is on this one, with the latter effectively providing tacit approval of the former’s attempts to wind up Evra using racially provocative language. Yesterday was a fantastic opportunity to undo some of the damage done by the continued refusal to say sorry for the original offence, but Suarez, clearly feeling hard done by, declined to take Evra’s offered handshake when doing so with the rest of the Man U team. The Frenchman, clearly playing along in a PR exercise at great odds to his personal feelings, felt further insulted, and did a very good job of drawing attention to the ‘snub’ to the watching world.
Rio Ferdinand (fairly vocal in his anti-racism stance, and whose younger brother is the alleged victim in the Terry affair) was also unhappy, and withdrew his hand from Suarez. It was stupid and childish from Suarez and added to the tension and ill-feeling that surround this fixture at the best of times.
The game itself was dull, and was only illuminated by two good finishes from Rooney and the further histrionics of the two protagonists, with Suarez playing like a petulant schoolboy for large parts of the game, and Evra looking like he wanted to kill Suarez on more than one occasion. The Frenchman’s celebrations aimed at Suarez at the end were not massively different from Keown on another serial cheat, Van Nistelrooy, but given the surrounding situation and the immediate post match rebuke from Ferguson, they will wisely be forgotten.
For Man Utd, this situation has galvanised the squad and their purpose further, but for Liverpool it has been a woefully mismanaged situation for all involved. Despite today’s pathetically late apology from Suarez and the club re ‘the handshake’, which makes it clear Suarez disobeyed orders, thus undermining team-mates and his manager, the club still refuses to make any sort of concession regarding the original incident, with Kenny looking more and more out of touch, and the Uruguayan looking more and more guilty. Quite how such a grand old club could make such a cock-up of this whole scenario is mind boggling given the number of options available to them, and has served to remind observers of the levels of racism amongst their fans in the 70s and 80s (cleverly highlighted by Ferguson in his post match interview by referencing the throwing of bananas at John Barnes).
My personal feeling is that Liverpool’s massive reliance on Suarez for goals, given the paucity of the other expensive signings by the returning hero Dalglish (bar Jose Enrique), has encouraged the manager to defend his man far beyond the point of credibility. Perhaps if he hadn’t wasted the best part of £80m on the mediocrity of Carroll, Henderson, Downing and Adam, he would have felt more inclined to follow the public mood on this one. Or maybe he is just badly out of touch. Either way, if they day after the story broke, the club and management had accepted some fault on behalf of their man, citing misunderstandings, cultural differences and linguistic vagaries (as they tried in their official defense), and issued a public apology, the whole situation could have been diffused. Not to mention the likelihood of a shorter ban for the player. The refusal to provide any sort of apology, no matter how forked the tongue being used at the time, sticks in the craw, and has lowered my opinion of the club significantly. The other possible by-product is the fact that the rehabilitation of Suarez will take significantly longer, and with a player already known as a cheat being labelled as a racist, he may be forced out of English football. Certainly he will be a target for fans and possibly some players, and it will be difficult for officials to treat him with equality. Watch this space.
What makes all this worse is that it seems these incidents have fostered an increase in racism amongst fans, both at games and particularly on twitter (more than one black British player has disabled their account following abuse), complete with Chelsea fans signing racist songs on trains. The F.A. and civil authorities are doing the right thing acting quickly and with zero tolerance, because as much as the current government wants to take us back to the 1980’s football and our society as a whole have changed indelibly since then, and defending our positive values publicly is more important than ever in our globalised world, particularly in reference to something as unifying and consumed worldwide as English football. More than one person more intelligent than myself has told me that football is one of the greatest diplomatic tools this country has. In the middle-east, Afghanistan or North Korea, people are far more likely to know about Bobby Charlton, Kevin Keegan, Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs or Thierry Henry than have even heard of Tony Blair, Cameron or your preference of Millibands. Policy makers need to understand that the Premier League, BBC sitcoms, British literature and theatre, and popular music do this country more good in international relations than any secret service, diplomatic core or missiles ever will. When I worked in Morocco, liking Only fools and Horses, Arsenal, Justin Timberlake and having a knowledge of African football opened more doors than money or any form of politics.
In terms of actual football, it has been an interesting time, with Chelsea throwing away a 3-0 home lead against Man Utd in half an hour, before capitulating at Everton, leaving them outside the top four with tough fixtures ahead. More ominously for AVB, the club’s owner has started turning up at the training ground, meaning an exceptional run of form will be needed to avoid the Abramovich bullet in the summer. With the top three pretty much over the hills and far away, fourth is becoming a race between Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle. Liverpool’s rely on Suarez for goals even more than Arsenal do on their captain, and have a stodgy midfield short on quality bar Gerrard. Newcastle remain unpredictable, and are a couple of midfield injuries away from grinding to a halt, but have goals in them. Chelsea can’t defend without their injured captain, and Torres has a a case of the Chamakhs, and Arsenal continue to pick up injuries as quickly as they get players back. Any one of them could take the last Champion’s League place, with injuries and luck likely to be the determining factor.
At the bottom, Mark Hughes has QPR finally scoring goals, but they can’t defend, which is much the same problem at Blackburn, where in the bottom three after losing 7-1 at The Emirates, their main striker Yakubu has more goals than Caroll, Torres, Chamakh and Tevez (I know!) combined, which you would have got good odds on in August. Bolton’s only recent point was at home against Arsenal, where the visitors missed a hatful of chances, and they look poor at both ends. Wigan, as per usual, look dead and buried, but aren’t, and equally safe Wolves look like they should be safe, but aren’t, with two points separating 16th and 20th. Elsewhere, Stoke’s Europa League exertions are taking their toll with the team pretty much only scoring from set-pieces recently, and Norwich and Swansea continue to pleasantly surprise.
In all things Arsenal, February has already yielded more goals, points and wins than January, with the disappointing 0-0 at Bolton, followed by a 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn, and yesterday’s hard fought 2-1 win at Sunderland (who had been the League’s in from side following the arrival of Martin O’Neill).
The match itself was dull for about 70 minutes, where Arsenal had all of the ball against an incredibly defensive Sunderland side, exhausted after midweek exertions and lacking a target man. The main talking point was the pitch, which looked like it had been used to grow root vegetables, the potential danger of which was proved in the build up to Sunderland’s opening goal. Having already had a handball appeal against him by the rapid Mackem faithful in the first half (when in control of the ball he tripped over one divot, while the ball bounced vertically off another into his arm as he fell – with no Sunderland player anywhere near him), the unforunate Mertesacker in fifteen yards of space caught his foot in a pothole, collapsed in agony, whilst the nearest Sunderland player decided that rather than putting the ball out to allow him treatment, taking the ball on and scoring was the best course of action. Sunderland celebrated their gift, the tall German was stretchered off (probably a lengthy injury), and I swore very loudly at the injustice of it all.Happily, following the cock up against Man U, Wenger got his subs spot on today, changing the game in Arsenal’s favour. Rather than risk the recently returned from injury Gibbs on such a minefield, the manager threw on Ramsey, moving Song back in defence, in the knowledge that Sunderland would become even more defensive having something to hold. It paid off immediately, with the Welshman upping the tempo and within five minutes mishitting a volley from the edge of the box off both posts and over the line. The traffic became even more one-way, and late in injury time the other two substitutes combined, with Arshavin clipping in a perfect cross from an unpromising position, and the old master Thierry Henry, ghosting in to volley elegantly past the helpless keeper. The commentators suggested Mignolet in the Sunderland goal should have claimed the cross, but for me the quality and spin on the ball removed that option. A third great assist in five games for the Russian, who hopefully is re-finding some sort of form to help us through to the end of the year.
Obviously the goal itself had all the elements of theatre that Thierry Henry has revelled in during his career (bar cup-finals, where his sense of history was an inhibitor, meaning he tended to miss chances), and a perfect way to sign off in the last League game in the briefest of homecomings. This time next week he will be in New York, but after two winning goals, nobody can question the validity of bringing him back on loan. He was typically misty eyed and modest in his post match interview: Thierry showing Liverpool how to do PR
Arsenal find themselves in fourth, where they want to be, but with the next six fixtures likely to be very Challenging: Ac Milan (a) ECL, Sunderland (a) Fa Cup, Tottenham (h) EPL, Liverpool (a) EPL, Milan (h) ECL, Newcastle (h) EPL.
We can safely say it’s make or break time….