Mistakes not permitted – modern life influences football’s intolerance

GRAEME Souness wasn’t being deliberately dismissive of women’s football, he’s never been a man to shy away from a tough challenge and he’s forthright, opinionated and knows the game inside out. His comment at the Chelsea versus Tottenham game was careless, no doubt about it, but it was blown up out of all proportion like so many comments and attitudes that get pulled apart on social media. Most abuse was, typically, made behind the shroud of anonymity, but as soon as Souness talked of “man’s game” it was only a matter of seconds before the first reaction. He made a mistake, for sure.

Meanwhile, after that same game, Chelsea fans (of which I am one) were getting ready to demand referee Anthony Taylor never officiates another fixture involving their team. True, there were some suspect decisions, but these things level out over a season, don’t they? A petition was created and thousands signed it. Taylor was as popular as a mass murderer among Chelsea’s frustrated followers.

And then we have Martin Tyler, a veteran commentator, who inadvertently linked Hillsborough with the problem of hooliganism in talking about the changes in the game. This was a very unfortunate remark to make even though we all knew what Tyler was trying to say. Liverpool fans were outraged and insisted Tyler should never be allowed anywhere near Anfield. Tyler apologised for his mistake and was going to meet with Liverpool to explain himself. Still the abuse continued.

In each case, errors were made just as mistakes are made on the pitch and in every walk of life.  Football’s audience is unforgiving to the point where nobody seems to get a second chance, apart from the local hero who commits an offence on the pitch. Quite often the fans’ favourite is a clenched-fist, sweat-soaked battler who might well be a persistent offender and a controversial character, but he’s pardoned because “he’s one of our own”.

Today, you are not allowed to slip up, even if you apologise profusely. Some fans still jeer an opponent who once upset the opposition years earlier. They don’t forget. It’s not just football, it’s also in the workplace and in societies – some years ago, I witnessed a top finance professional who had screwed-up a trade get sacked on the spot in front of a dozen people. He was then escorted off the premises with a black bin liner. I’d like to think that doesn’t happen anymore.

But do we tarnish the perpetrators for ever and a day? For example, criminals pay the penalty for their actions by going to prison, but do they get the chance to rebuild? The reaction to any halfway house or rehabilitation centre being placed in the heart of the community is generally negative and comes with opposition from the neighbourhood. Little wonder that we seem unable to forgive mistakes, be it a comment, an action, a misjudgement or an act of self-preservation. We are quick to judge people, but most of us do actually live in glass houses.

People are passionate about football and frankly, they place too much importance on a single incident rather than look at a broader picture. Chelsea against Spurs was a cracking game with plenty of controversy, yet the worst thing that happened was the childish behaviour of two grown caught up in the heat of the moment. Martin Tyler and Graeme Souness have given so much to the game of football over the years, they really deserve the benefit of the doubt. Both should be more careful, but apologies and explanations should be accepted rather than continued drama, accusations and foul-mouthed abuse.

Wearing football shirts – why?

A FEW years ago, my wife and I were at a game in Prague, at the very atmospheric Bohemians stadium, with the famous Mr Panenka sitting high in the stand. The opposition fans were in full voice but most were as naked from the waist upwards as Vladimir Putin on his horse. You could almost smell the testosterone as the bald, stout gang of ultras demonstrated their masculinity in the autumn wind. “Why?”, I asked, shivering away as the trams whirred past the ground. “Perhaps their football shirts don’t fit, so they just strip off?”, replied my wife, tongue-in-cheek.

It was a good point, because at virtually every football ground around Europe, beer-bellies and bald heads squeeze into football shirts, testing the resistance of the fabric and making thin-stripes instantly into broad stripes.

One might say the replica shirt is a garment that makes us all equal, that it introduces a form of democracy to the football experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, football shirts are for the young, they are the costumes in a costume drama. But somehow, the act of putting on a football shirt creates a form of sporting “Dad’s Army” out of most of us.

It is understandable that fans want to show their allegiance, but wearing a football shirt is, if you think about it, vaguely comical. You are basically wearing the uniform of the footballer, a fit, nimble picture of vitality. We all want to turn back time and defy the ageing process, but dressing like a 22 year-old is not necessarily the best way to show that you’re still relevant.

Indeed, when you look at the ways in which designers are decimating club colours, from what resembles blood-splattered away kits to the hideous new kits that include the name of the club and no crest, why would you want to give credibility to some truly awful creations? And then, of course, there’s the unflattering fabrics, showing every hill and vale of the body. Still want to wear that Liverpool third kit?

There’s a moral issue aswell, notably the source of the shirts themselves. Are they created in small sweat-shops in places like Cambodia, Indonesia or China? Are they products of cheap, explotive labour? Most people don’t want to know, but in this era of visible displays of social responsibility by football, shouldn’t we want to be aware of how these products are put together?

Maybe it is time for a kit manufacturer to come up with something very innovative and sensible – the plain blue or red shirt. With more and more people trying to adopt a more simplistic lifestyle, embracing minimalism and basic principles, how wonderful would the plain shirt look in the TV interference that is shirt design? The most iconic strips of all time have included the all-white Real Madrid kit, the Arsenal red with white sleeves, Inter Milan’s blue and black stripes and Brazil’s yellow, among others. I would certainly applaud any kit company that pushes aside the nonsense and says, “here we are, our new look – blue and white (red and white)”. Forget the graffiti, the splashes and the delicate shades, let’s really bring back club identity.

It is quite possible kit producers deliberately make their latest offerings as complex as possible, firstly to justify marketing another shirt for each club and secondly to make counterfeits more difficult to make. The latter is understandable and we have to accept that for clubs, shirt sales are an important part of their commercial activities.

The fans complain about “another shirt for Manchester United”, but they still buy them and queue up to get the latest abomination. In other words, they continue to feed the beast, laying out large sums of money to ensure they remain on trend.

But is it really important? If you want to show allegiance, buy a scarf or a badge. Not convinced? Next time you put on a replica shirt, take a look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Ask yourself which part of your torso looks big in this and I would wager you will be tempted to put that shirt back in the drawer. I know, I’ve tried it.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of Football Weekends.