8 November 2009 ~ It is not difficult to find fault with some of the decisions made in the boardrooms of Manchester United and Liverpool. But the haranguing the clubs have faced for not joining the rest of the Premier League in displaying poppies on their shirts for the weekend fixtures is more disingenuous than the supposed offence. The Daily Mail's Charles Sale has been applying "poppy pressure" on Premier League clubs this week after only 12 of the division’s 20 clubs announced plans to attach a poppy onto their kits.
"Our war heroes deserve better," claims Sale, who blames the decision on "bureaucrats who refuse to see sense". Kay Burley of Sky News waded into the inevitably named “Poppygate scandal” by citing the death of five British servicemen in Afghanistan as further evidence of why the players need to wear poppies. She is “staggered by Alex Ferguson’s stance on poppies”.
What Burley seems to be forgetting is that Ferguson, like all of United’s non-playing staff, will be wearing a poppy at Stamford Bridge today. The club have also been selling poppies at Old Trafford this week. Liverpool have also offered a defence – there will be a minute's silence and a short ceremony featuring service personnel and the Royal Legion before their game against Birmingham City at Anfield tomorrow. The club will hold a collection at the ground and have given up advertising space for the appeal in both their matchday programme and pitchside boards. Liverpool also plan to give their player’s shirts from the game to the Royal British Legion for auction.
The two clubs seem to be heavily involved in Remembrance Day activities. The only way they could be construed as belittling or ignoring the armed services is by framing the debate to include only the poppies displayed on shirts. But this is exactly what the complaining commentators have done. It seems like the Mail want to berate the clubs into changing their minds, not so players wear poppies to honour dead soldiers, but so the paper can gloat about their own influence. When Bolton joined the group of poppy-wearing teams on Thursday night the paper's reaction was gleefully smug: “That makes a total of six clubs who have changed their plans this week on the back of Sportsmail’s campaign.”
The methods of this campaign, as well as the motives, are questionable. The Mail’s tactic of “naming and shaming” clubs who do not comply with their ideas seems awfully dictatorial. As the newsreader Jon Snow remarked a few years ago: "There is a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there: he damned well must wear a poppy." Many of the soldiers honoured today lost their lives at the hands of fascist states. The irony seems to be lost on the pundits who are bullying and coercing clubs into wearing poppies.
The clubs can't win. If they do not wear poppies on their shirts they are "letting our boys down". But if they do wear them they look like they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Surely it is better to abstain than to adorn poppies to deflect media pressure. The choice to wear a poppy is a personal one that should be made by each individual for their own reasons, not because it is expected or demanded by newspaper columnists. Neither should footballers have to wear poppies as they told to by their employers.
Whether or not Manchester United and Liverpool are in "stubborn defiance of public opinion", as claimed by the Mail, wearing poppies to save face, bolster their public relations or to please newspapers is worse than not wearing them at all.