English football’s omertà: a time for Clean Hands
By Brian Baker
I was listening to the radio in the car, driving back after family commitments, when I heard that Aaron Ramsey had been assaulted on a football field in Stoke.
I was emotionally thrown back to the day of Eduardo’s injury, ten minutes after which I told an Arsenal supporting-friend: this has finished our season, and Eduardo’s career. And as on that day, I wondered what on earth I was doing in giving my support to a sport that allows the violence of a Smith, a Taylor, or a Shawcross to take away a year or two of the careers of very bright young footballing talent. In these moments, I’ve had enough of English football. It makes me physically sick.
I read the howls of rage, of disbelief, and of grief too, on this blog and others. Like Arsene, like Tony, and like you too I would guess, I believe that Ramsey’s injury is no coincidence. It is the product of a way of playing, a product of aggression and of the tacit condoning by the authorities, by referees and by the footballing media of an over-physical approach by Arsenal’s opponents because they do not have the footballing ability to match our team. ‘Ramsey was too quick for him’, I’ve heard it said. Perhaps. But being slower than another player is not an alibi for breaking his leg.
Tony Pulis’s reaction, to defend Shawcross the person (‘his Mum took him home’) while refusing to acknowledge the horrible severity of the act, should be placed on tape with McLeish defending Taylor, and the ‘tackles’ on Eduardo and Ramsey. It should then be shown to Pulis, to McLeish, to all players and coaches and managers and administrators in England, to show up their self-deception and expose the recurrence of a self-serving and self-deceiving rhetoric of English ‘honesty’ that seems to mitigate or even cancel out the violent act. ‘Honest’ and good men can do horrendous things, even by accident.
Anger in the Arse-blogosphere has been universal and understandable. However, the usual closing of ranks in the mainstream football media has not been consistent. On Sky’s Sunday Supplement talkshow, which I had previously abandoned for its ongoing commitment to the terminally banal (and unwitting exposure of the empty heads of most football correspondents), Brian Woolnough tried to shepherd the panel towards a familiar denunciation: that Arsene had gone ‘over the top’ in his pinpointing of the physicality other teams use against his team. Patrick Barclay and others refused to follow the party line; no, they said. Arsenal are ‘roughed up’ more than others. Wenger does have a point, and his anger is understandable. Barclay went further, to say that there is a ‘wildness’ in the English game that leads inevitably to injuries like that of Eduardo and Ramsey. Arsenal are too often the victims of this ‘wildness’. As the program went on, Woolnough became increasingly tetchy with this show of independent thinking.
Also mentioned in the programme were Craig Bellamy’s comments after the Chelsea-Citeh match. Bellamy, admittedly a loose cannon, said: ‘I know what JT is like and nothing surprises me about it, so I’m not going to comment on that. I think everyone in football knows what the guy is like, but that’s off the field. On it he’s an outstanding player. He’s a great captain for Chelsea.’ ‘Everyone in football knows what the guy is like’: including the journalists who now express such qualms about Terry’s private life but who were happy to keep quiet to enjoy a chummy relationship with ‘JT’.
Bellamy’s comments, like Bridge’s refusal of the handshake, were a breach in the code of silence that informs what I would call (with a big nod to, of all people, President Dwight D. Eisenhower) the ‘football-media complex’: the FA, the Premier League, Sky, the BBC, the news media, the referees, the clubs, the players. This code of silence, what is called in Mafia terms omertà, is ‘an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority’ based on concepts of honour and shame, that is also enforced by fear: ‘He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace’ (Sicilian proverb).
Such a code of silence protects the individual from immediate further harm but perpetuates the corrupt system: individual acts of vengeance are permitted within the system of omertá but not informing to the authorities, because that would disrupt the system itself. The midfield ‘enforcer’ is the emperor of omertà: if your team-mate is kicked, you kick right back. Harder.
In the English ‘football-media complex’, too many things have been taboo, left deliberately unspoken in the code of omertà. But the cracks are beginning to show. In this spirit, here is an incomplete list that can be diagnosed from this week’s football:
1. The FA and Premier League have been criminally negligent in their financial dealings and practices, encouraging a boom-and-bust economic cycle that is now claiming high-profile victims.
2. The level of understanding and reporting of these matters in the mainstream media has also been negligent in the extreme, and has been left to sites such as Untold to lead the way to a better understanding of the economic morass now threatening to swallow weaker (and some stronger) members of the Premier League.
3. The FA has been criminally negligent in its fostering of an internal footballing culture that would help young men with too much money, and too little developed an ethical sense, to negotiate their way in the world without harming others. JT shitting in his own nest, so to speak, has finally revealed to the population at large what the industry has known for a long time: that football is now up to its own ankles in it.
4. The FA has been criminally negligent in the coaching and technical training afforded to most professional footballers. Aggression and strength covers these limitations but fatally weakens England national teams at the highest competitive levels and ultimately leads to Ryan Shawcross’s assault on Ramsey. Shawcross is so technically deficient in the tackle that he deliberately drove his foot as hard as he could through where he thought the ball was, snapping Ramsey’s tibia and fibula. If you look at a picture of the incident, Shawcross’s studs are not up, but he is well over the ball. He is not attempting to injure Ramsey deliberately, but nor is he trying to win the ball cleanly, with technique; he is attempting to drive through ball and player with crushing force. By contrast, think of Moore on Jairzinho in 1970, the ‘greatest tackle ever’. I’ve just watched this again on YouTube. Moore uses no force. With timing and skill he reaches out his right leg and pokes the ball off Jairzinho’s instep, then gets up and plays on. Or think of Bob Pires on Paddy Vieira at Highbury: knee over the ball, foot on the ground, clean and decisive.
5. The FA, Premier League, and the ‘football-media complex’ pays ironic homage to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’s achievements by reinforcing its exceptionalism (a double edged-sword, as Arsenal’s difference is often used as an alibi for its negative treatment). In reality, in terms of the coaching, culture and financing in place at Arsenal, the club should be held up as a model for emulation.
It’s time, then for ‘Clean Hands’, a thorough investigation into the economics, the culture and the practices of football in England, that lets down players, fans and clubs alike. We need to know what happened at Portsmouth, why Chelsea seems to be decaying from within, why English players are so much less than they could be – and why three of Arsenal’s players have had their legs broken in 5 years. And finally, after the courageous win at Stoke, how about a Premier league title for Arsenal, against the odds, without megastar spending, without unsustainable debts, ‘with kids’? If we could do it, with a different economic and cultural field to play on, why not others?
Meanwhile, commentaries beyond reality
Wayne Rooney has asked supporters of Ingyland not to boo Terry-the-Evil. “He’s a poor lad, with little education, whose mother is a convicted thief, whose father deals in class A drugs, who has it off with the mother of a team mates’ son, who earns £120k a week but sells trips around training ground for £20k a throw, and who helps spread evil rumours about others. But hey, we’ve all done that haven’t we?
Number of radio and TV stations that have admitted that they even might be to blame for encouraging lesser players to kick the hell out of Arsenal: 0
Danny Pugh said: “I think it was a 50-50 tackle. Ryan has not gone in to hurt him. He is not a malicious kind of lad and does not go out to hurt anyone. I think Ryan has genuinely gone for the ball. It is just unfortunate that the lad has been hurt so badly…. Was that ok boss?”
The sound of a billion fans saying “Oh bugger” as the football economy crashes in on itself and destroys the game is © copyright Untold Arsenal
ALL THE STUFF YOU MISSED COS YOU WEREN’T PAYING ATTENTION
The days when football journalists could write, entertain and make us laugh (a true newspaper report about Arsenal in the 1930s)
Tony Attwood immediately after the end of the Stoke game
EPL owes more money than the rest of Euro football combined.
Predictions for the rest of the season: the start of the new golden era.
Appearing soon on Making the Arsenal: Charlie Buchan’s first appearance for Arsenal.