15 July ~ The rest of us tutted disapprovingly at Manchester City fans for accepting Thaksin Shinawatra as their owner in 2007, vowed we wouldn’t want Lee Hughes playing for our club, no matter how many goals he scored for Oldham and Notts County, and shook our heads in despair at Chelsea supporters holding up “Team Terry” banners in support of their disgraced captain last season. But are we capable of making objective moral judgements when one of our own sins?
For Bradford City supporters, such a dilemma occurred this week after the revelation new striker Jake Speight had been convicted of assault, just nine days after signing from Mansfield Town for £25,000. Instead of spending pre-season getting to know his team-mates and the tactics manager Peter Taylor wants to employ, Speight will be locked up in prison on a three-month sentence.
Neither Bradford nor Mansfield had any idea Speight was facing criminal proceedings following an incident last February. The 24-year-old had kept details of the charges secret because he feared it would scupper his chances of completing a move to the Football League. The first Taylor knew about the situation came after Speight’s agent called him Friday morning to explain his client couldn’t take part in a friendly that evening as he was due in court.
Speight will miss the start of the season and a clearly angry Taylor has declared he will go without pay while behind bars. Given it will take time to gain fitness upon release, Speight may also have his wage capped until he is considered ready for first-team selection. But Taylor has promised to welcome him back to the club – he is likely to only serve half the sentence – and displayed some compassion for his deception: “I should have been told but I do understand a little bit why I wasn’t.”
Which is where the moral judging begins. Bradford fans are split about whether the club should sack the former Sheffield United trainee, with some even suggesting they sue the player for the £25k paid to the Stags for his services. Meanwhile winger Gavin Grant, signed on a non-contract basis last season, is currently on trial at the Old Bailey for alleged murder in 2004. While Grant is unlikely to earn a proper contract, the negative publicity City are receiving from this, and now from Speight, has left many supporters fearing the good image the club tries to uphold in the local community has been badly damaged.
But others reason that while Speight has clearly made serious errors of judgement, he deserves a second chance to prove himself. They point out that some of City’s most popular figures of recent times – such as Jamie Lawrence, Peter Beagrie, Robbie Blake and Chris Kamara – all received criminal convictions either prior to or when playing for the Bantams. It’s also argued that Speight’s crime is relatively minor compared to other well-known players’ transgressions. After all, we’re not talking about a Lee Hughes situation.
What is clear is that Speight has a lot to prove to a sceptical Bradford public. We’ve yet to see him play, but some have already suggested they’ll boo him when he eventually makes his debut. Others believe he’ll be quickly forgiven if he goes on to do the business for City, but that’s perhaps where we football supporters in general show our hypocrisy. If a moral judgement has to be made over the off-the-field behaviour of players who represent our club, surely is shouldn’t be based on their performances on the field? But as Man City, Chelsea and Notts County fans would probably acknowledge, for Bradford fans, ultimately only other clubs’ supporters will be able to form an unprejudiced view of Speight’s misdemeanour. Jason McKeown