In a tumultuous year of revolutions, natural disasters and financial crises, one of the most shocking moments came in the final fortnight of 2011 when Chelsea showed some common sense. That is rare at a club whose officials have to pretend it is run as a regular business rather than at the whim of a billionaire. In December, however, they emerged from their cocoon to show an awareness of the world around them. Chelsea players were apparently keen to wear T-shirts showing their support for John Terry after it was announced he will face criminal charges in February for alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand. Manager Andre Villas-Boas had already declared that Terry will get his full support “whatever the outcome”, whereas his employers took a step back, saying: “We did not think that the wearing of T-shirts was an appropriate or helpful show of support.”
Chelsea will have noted the torrent of criticism Liverpool received for their reaction to the eight-match ban given to Luis Suárez over abusive comments made to Patrice Evra. It was bad enough that Liverpool reacted to the announcement of Suárez’s ban – before the official judgment had been released – with a rambling statement on their official website, which included a gratuitous swipe at Evra (for “his prior unfounded accusations” relating to claims he was racially abused by groundstaff at Chelsea). Far worse that the players, including Suárez himself, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Suárez’s face before their next match. A 0-0 draw with Wigan thwarted any innovative goal celebrations that may have been planned.
Suárez admitted calling Evra “negrito” (little black boy) but saw no need for an apology as the term would apparently not be considered offensive in his native Uruguay. Liverpool could simply have said they don’t believe he committed a racist act while accepting he had behaved unwisely. Instead Suárez has been presented as another of football’s many wronged heroes. Players who get into trouble in their personal lives might expect to receive support from their clubs, even if it is misjudged – George Graham made his Arsenal captain Tony Adams sound like a penitent saint after he was jailed in 1990 for crashing his car into a wall when four times over the legal alcohol limit. More often, it is bad behaviour on the pitch that apparently requires unequivocal support. “He just isn’t that type of player” is a manager’s routine defence when someone has demonstrated the precise opposite by injuring an opponent in a violent challenge.
Fabio Capello took this approach a step further recently by telling a UEFA disciplinary panel he blamed himself when Wayne Rooney was sent off for kicking an opponent in England’s Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro. Capello’s failing had been to not withdraw Rooney at half-time after he sensed the player was distracted by the recent arrest of his father. No such worries for the increasingly crass Andre Villas-Boas, who recently marvelled that Terry’s “commitment and concentration has increased since the incident against QPR”. A manager cannot be expected to castigate publicly his own team, but players are not going to behave responsibly if they are constantly indulged.
However delusional it can sound, a manager’s one-sided view of an incident serves a useful purpose in shifting blame. Alex Ferguson will always have an appreciative audience when he claims dropped points are due to the inadequacy of match officials, or implies that his club are constantly battling the football establishment rather than being a central part of it. In contrast, when Kenny Dalglish returned to Liverpool last season after a ten-year break from management, he seemed almost avuncular. Even the odd moment of spikiness could be justified, such as when Arsène Wenger, ranting on the touchline about something or other, was wearily told to “piss off”.
A year on, however, Dalglish’s comments on the Suárez ban make him sound just like his counterpart at Old Trafford, convinced that implacable foes are working against him: “They will not divide the football club, no matter how hard they try.” Liverpool play Manchester United in early February. The current mood at both clubs suggests they will be preparing messages for one another, but it should be impressed upon them that “Kick It Out” T-shirts are all they need.
From WSC 300 February 2012