The trial of Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Duberry has thrown an unflattering light on the values of Leeds' young players. John Williams argues the club should bear some of the responsibility
In one sense, of course, the coverage of the trial of Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer et al in Hull has been faintly ridiculous. Since when did a post-nightclub brawl, of a kind which takes place pretty much everywhere in this country every weekend, become the stuff of front page tabloid stories, day after day? Even with the suggestion of racial overtones – unfortunately by no means unusual either – this hardly stands up as a big spread. Except, of course, that these young guys are already B-list celebrities, actual or prospective England international footballers. Well, here’s more than a start: in a celebrity-fixated, reality-TV culture, this already offers enough for the full media treatment.
But there is more to it than that. Regardless of its outcome, the case raises questions about the nature of the cultures inside some English clubs, the lengths clubs will go to to protect the value of their assets (the players) and the dangers for anyone who steps outside the boundaries which maintain that prized commodity known as “team spirit”.
Some would have us believe that the recent commercial and cultural transformation of the game has already converted our raw young men, otherwise council estate “lads”, into the disciplined athletes and sophisticated aesthetes demanded by agents, sponsors and the new professors of advanced international football coaching who have set down in England. But the tensions here are huge. For one thing, change is slow and often reluctant. When Leeds played in Barcelona in September, Frank de Boer and his fancy mates were truly shocked by what they saw as the violent antics of Alan Smith and one or two others in the Leeds ranks. In Spain and Italy forwards fall about for fun, the cheating is gross, virtually institutionalised. But professionals slyly going out to kick or elbow opponents for satisfaction and entertainment is not a regular feature of top European football these days. This was something new.
Bowyer is from the same school as Smith, talented but often in trouble with referees. When already facing court he elbowed Liverpool’s Gary McAllister full in the face, drawing easy blood and the usual euphemisms from TV commentators. McAllister carried on after touchline swabs. (Markus Babbel said recently that fans in England expect you to get up even if you have broken your leg. He was only half joking.) Mysteriously, there was no video trial of the incident by the FA’s supposedly hawkish new disciplinary panel. De Boer had said darkly after Leeds’ visit that young Smith and his buddies needed a good lesson. He does, and so do others like him in England, but who is to provide it?
When France’s Robert Pires first arrived here he sat on the bench for Arsenal at Sunderland and positively squirmed at the physical side of the English game: at its legitimate violence. Stupidly, he said as much, pronouncing himself “shocked” and, worse, “frightened” by what he had seen. David O’Leary picked this up, and when Pires later came to Leeds with Arsenal, O’Leary blew him a sweet kiss during the match and told him to “fuck off”. Too soft; too French. Pires was enraged, but also dumbfounded. How could this be a coach, this man who was goading and abusing an opposing player in this obscene, this crass, way?
Yet this kind of thing is still part of the context in which many young English players are raised. Add to this the poor guidance often offered by clubs, the impossible sums some of the top players are now earning and the limits of their abilities to find interesting and satisfying ways to spend it out of the media glare – and with people they can really trust – and turning back to old buddies and the bottle, to the ways of the street, must seem like a blindingly obvious and attractive release. And so it was, apparently, here.
For Leeds United, the stakes are huge. For one thing, and despite the fact that no evidence was offered that the attack on Sarfraz Najeib had a racial motive, the club’s recent attention to relations with minority ethnic communities has been compromised. For another, like it or not, these young men are commodities, with real value. They are part of the same system that recklessly trades young Africans across international boundaries, has top clubs setting up player nurseries across the globe, and allows international scouts to pay fat fees to dislocate 10-15 year olds in the hope that, one day, maybe they’ll become a player.
The human wastage in this global football market is wanton but, for those who make it, their skills offer a certain protection against their own misdeeds. Woodgate came through the Leeds junior ranks, while Bowyer has piled value on to his name since arriving with a “wild but talented” tag from Charlton. These young men are important investments, and business dictates Leeds must realise their worth if they have to leave the club after all this is settled. The British football marketplace would not be shy of bidders, of course, even for this possibly stained stock.
Peter Ridsdale, the popular Leeds chairman, has tried to act with dignity throughout the affair, but on apparently shifting sands. He seemed unequivocal at the start: a guilty verdict would mean the players would have to leave, irrespective of cost. This seems less certain now, though the headstrong and wayward Woodgate already looks expendable, having been criticised by his manager and effectively replaced in his absence. Bowyer has played on regardless between appearances in court, signalling the football pitch as a retreat, a welcome if turbulent haven, in difficult times.
Ridsdale battled honourably after the awful events when Leeds visited Istanbul last season, a painful journey for both himself and the club’s supporters. But surrounding so many incidents when English fans go abroad are the same ugly language and cultural inarticulacy of the confrontation outside a nightclub in Leeds which apparently pitted a group of drunken, affluent, young, white men against spiky, but ultimately overrun, British Asian targets. All of them, of course, definitively Made in England.
Ridsdale might have found a way to salvage his club’s reputation despite this case and Leeds’ continuing on-field disciplinary problems. But Michael Duberry’s stunning evidence poses a whole series of new challenges, and not just for Leeds, whose solicitor and club director in charge of discipline, Peter McCormick, was accused of advising Duberry to lie in court. Duberry, knowing full well how clubs and fans cohere around such events, fears for his future at Elland Road. He probably has good reason, and not just because injuries and indifferent form have left him well out of the first-team picture. A black guy who exposes local white heroes carries its own risks in virtually any English city.
But how will the rest of the game now treat a player who has given such explosive evidence? Or, as Woodgate’s defence counsel knowingly put it, someone who was willing to “shop” his own team-mate? Letting down “the lads” and thus letting in the light ranks only ⌦with suspicions about sexual identity as a hanging offence in football circles. The FA and the PFA might offer public support here. You ⌦feel Duberry is going to need all the help he can get.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month