English football’s omertà: a time for Clean Hands

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



The days when football journalists could write, entertain and make us laugh (a true newspaper report about Arsenal in the 1930s)

“Making the Arsenal” – the novel.  The most extraordinary book about Arsenal ever.  And that’s unofficial.  Available from Amazon.co.uk and from the publishers direct.
Why did Arsenal move to Highbury, and not somewhere else?

Tony Attwood immediately after the end of the Stoke game

Almunia: are we being unfair. By ex-keeper now referee, Walter Broeckx

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.

32 Replies to “English football’s omertà: a time for Clean Hands”

  1. Hear, hear! Very well put Brian.

    When you should have the chance of being in the “inner circles” of FA’s over the world and Uefa and Fifa you will find the mafia mentallity and omerta like you describe it so well.
    “If you don’t tell about me, I will not tell about you…”

    I think your comparison football=mafia is veru true.

  2. Lovely article Brian. Thanks. Your mention of the Pires tackle on Paddy reminded me of Goodplaya’s comment:

    The moment really is deserving of being slowed down to about 1/40th of it’s
    normal speed and having David Attenborough narrate over the top of it. You can just see it: “This is the first time cameras have ever witnessed the Robert Pires tackling in the wild. It is truly one of nature’s rarest events.”

    One of the blog’s most beautiful comments.

  3. Talking about money…let us all hope that the judge hearing the Portsmouth case today is either a gooner or a Manc. If he’s a scallie we both lose 6 points and 6 g.d. Liverpool just laugh.

  4. Excellent article Brian. But I don’t seen anything changing soon. The mafia Don aka SAF (who has come out in sympathy with Shawcross) might as well have thanked him for being the enforcer of his vengeance. That will teach that little upstart to choose Arsenal over man u and making me look like a fool.

  5. ddrrrrrrinng


    Shawcross: Hello!

    Caller: Ryan, this is your lord and master…

    Shawcross: Old Sir Red Nose!

    Sir Red Nose: I just called to tell you we’ll back you all the way. By the way good hit on the Welsh brat. Will you be back for the Chelsea game…

    Shawcross: Hackie was saying something….they might get the red card rescinded…mummy was so excited..

    Sir Red Nose: Listen…don’t forget your instructions. Take out Drogba. I want that 19th title. Capisce?

    Shawcross: I’m sworn to obey orders Sir Red…

    Sir Red Nose. Good, don’t forget who you work for. Enjoy England camp…go easy on Wayne. Bye

    Shawcross: Bye, great king of the universal sun

  6. Very excellent piece, Brian.

    I am afraid that we are battling against the tide.

    When England again fail to shine at the World Cup, no doubt Arsene will be blamed for not playing enough Englishmen, rather than……

    “The thing is English football, quite aside from this particular incident, will always be rough, tough and incredibly hard fought. The reason for this is it’s how we play the game as kids. We don’t stand round admiring each others skills and/or torsos, if someone was better than us in the playground, we kicked them until they were less good. Arsene Wenger has built an incredible team, a brilliant team capable of football the likes of which I have rarely seen before, if ever. But what he continually campaigns for is that this team should be allowed to fully express themselves without fear of hinderance from the other team, which is never going to happen in English football, because as supporters we won’t stand for it. We like our game the way it is, as does the rest of the world, which is why it enjoys the successes that it does”


  7. That is the problem in a nutshell Flint. Arsene is not asking for his team to be allowed to play without hinderance, he is just asking for fair play, which a reasonable person would see. If you can’t beat them, kick them is a stone age mentally that will continue to hold the national team back in international competitions.

  8. Brian,

    Sweet perspectives….

    It is soothing to hear such sheer honesty start to bubble after the match in regards to Bellamy.
    Ironically, I wish Bellamy was interviewed after Ramsay’s injury… I am sure shawcross had a go at him as well..

    Seperate and aside from the quiet indulgence “omerta is the insistence that Englishmen have no skill and must resort to physicality… What is that?

    First, it is a load of crap! I think we play honest! That honesty distinguishes itself from let’s say South Americans. Who if touched fall to the ground as though they broke omerta and were paying the price.

    Second, we fight for everything! Whether it be in the air, almost off the pitch… There is never a dull moment! Therefore anything can happen… (I would love to see a statistic on how many games were won or a draw in added time vs another leauge.)

    Third, I have seen even the best English talent adopt thuggery. Lamps vs Alonso. But, even some Spanish have “Thugged Alonso vs Fabregas. It is becoming more accepted and practiced… It’s what hangover’s are about… But, instead of not drinking so you don’t get that hangover… People drink to kill the hangover…

  9. There is a difference between the way we English truly play “That’s my football, my team, I bleed for my team, I die for my team HONORABLY and HONESTLY” and the Shawcross style. Shawcross is anti-English. It is not proud! It is not honorable! It is actually cowardice… Speak out now I say and do not be influenced by this BS.

  10. I wish theyd stop saying it was a “50-50 challenge”. 50:50 presumably means that each had a pretty equal chance of getting the ball.
    In both the eduardo and ramsey injuries the arsenal player was *in control* of it when the challenge occured.
    Taylor was afraid he’d let eduardo go past him and shawcross flew in like that because he’d just given up possession with a heavy touch. It doesnt mean theyr evil people but both were stupid and excessive challenges.

  11. Really good piece – I love this blog!!
    The Guardian Podcast form this monday had a good discussion.
    Keep up the great work here
    all the best

  12. A great article Brian,and i also saw the comments that Flint has mentioned.English football is living in the dark ages.You can hear it already if we fail to win the World Cup”lack of technique etc”.Surprise that.Without the foreign player and Managers we would be like Scotland.
    I coach alot of young players(this is a pt time job)and all i hear from the parents is the word TACKLE.Kids as young as 6,are flying in two footed and worse.I never coach tackling,although all i say is stand up when making a tackle,this will help recovery.
    What really gets to me is all the ols ex players been asked for their comments on the Shawcross tackle.It is old hat.They are living in the past,wake up.You do not see any of that in the Champions League,and likewise in the W.Cup.
    But Guys,it is Arron Ramseys fault for being too quick,and Arsenals fault for the way we play.

  13. Not to pick on you Davi- but why do posters make a point and then put in a disclaimer?

    Your last bit “It doesnt mean theyr evil people but both were stupid and excessive challenges.”

    Can’t I decide that for myself?

    Am I going to think less of you if you left out that disclaimer?

    Actually what if I thought they were evil people? Maybe I think less of you now. Stop hiding these thugs or at least stop throwing out disclaimers. These people are who they are. The less comfort they receive the more accountable they become.

    Everyone for GOD sake stop enabling THUGS. They need to face the music, If after every harsh comment made against them it is followed up with an excuse…Which is mostly incorrect what good is the first point!

  14. Hartwick89 – “Can’t I decide that for myself?” When did I say you couldn’t? It’s my opinion.
    And I dont write “It doesnt mean theyr evil people” because Im afraid people will think less of me. I put it there because many people get carried away with these injuries and focus on the players who made the challenges when this is a much wider problem.
    We won’t get anywhere by being wholly negative about everything. Imo if you want to see changes made it’s better off focussing on the culture of kicking arsenal and the terrible refereeing that encourages it rather than the players who made these challenges.

  15. Davi- Don’t you think Shawcross deserves that? Everyone is defending him right now and saying poor old Ramsay…
    I think Shawcross should crawl in a hole for at least 10 mos. don’t you?

    Right now Shawcross got promoted!

    Where is your outrage? Or are you enabling?

  16. As for as a wider problem and players not being responsible for their actions? WTF man…

    That is illogical.

    So if you have an automobile and the traffic light is red no police around it’s their fault if you go through it?

    Money on a bar for tip no one around you take it it;s OK?

    Shawcross made the tackle not me… He deserves the punishement that fits the crime.. 10 years in the hole.. Just kidding. But at least a three month ban including counseling!

  17. I think a more measured approach to this problem would be more appropriate. If all that comes from arsenal fans is outrage at the individual player, how will we get any changes? People will just say we’re being over the top etc. In a way, being outraged makes you an enabler.
    This is an opportunity to make things better. If all we show is vitriol for the individual player then nothing will be achieved. We will come out looking worse.
    We even have support from the sunday supplement ffs so there is a real chance that things could be changed.

    See how wengers words were twisted immediately after the game. At that point you could forgive someone for being emotional but they take the worst possible connotations from what he said.
    See what we’re up against:

    Most disgusting article Ive read.
    But that’s the point. If you attack shawcross, they turn it against you. They call YOU the animal. It’s all politics and propaganda.

  18. Shawcross should be ridiculed beyond embarrassment so he will stop and it will encourage others to never do it again….

    Instead we have many people who think like you which I agree only partially… It is a widespread problem with the refs but… Players are getting away with it because they committ the slaughter and blame refs for letting em do it?


  19. I agree with your second comment completely. I never said he shouldnt be held responsible. That’s why I said it was stupid and excessive. That is punishable. If you make out-of-control challenges with excessive force then yes, you should be punished severely.

    But just as I wouldnt attack the character of a person who made a mistake and seriously injured someone whilst driving (I might call them stupid, but that’s different) I dont think it appropriate to attack the character of shawcross based on this tackle.
    Maybe he deserves more of an attack for the adebayor challenge because there was clear intent to hurt, but it still wasn’t a proper leg-breaker like keane on haaland.

  20. Your second comment being the one that started: “As for as a wider problem and players not being responsible for their actions? WTF man…”

  21. Hartwick – we cannot change the players on the pitch to be good people who will never commit bad challenges. That’s unrealistic.
    We can change the culture of “it’s ok to rough up arsenal” and we can change the way referees allow it to go unpunished.
    These guys at the end of the day are professionals. They will push the boundaries as much as you let them. If the ref had had control of the game against stoke, I dont think the foul would have happened. In fact he let a lot of little fouls go and sent a message to the stoke players saying “you’re allowed to foul this lot”

  22. Davi-We are on common ground as it pertains to the refs..

    The player in question though will have done this no matter what I’m afraid..

    End of the day we agree “I think

  23. Brian — excellent, well-written article. And it ends in a rallying cry! Our team will prove the doubters and the cheats that they are wrong.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head: “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.”

  24. I think both of you are right Hartwick and Davi and I think you agree on most.
    I think the disagreement is more on how we should act to prevent further incidents like this in the future.

    I think we should punish the player and give him a ban of at least 10 games. But it is not easy to get this out of the game. After the Witsel-Wasilewski incident in Belgium the refs have taken action and have handed out red cards as if it was nothing. Evere dangerous tackle got a red card and I really have the feeling right now that it is starting to work. But to change the mentallity of people is a work that takes a long time.

    I also think that the fact they gave Witsel a ban of 15 games (later reduced to 9 games – a big mistake by the Belgian FA in my opinion) was a signal that you don’t get away with it that easy.

    But besided punishing the player one should also work on other angles.
    I must say that I am not a lawyer and I dont know how the British laws are but in Belgium there have been precedents where injured football players went to court and won their case. Maybe it is not even needed to win the case but if you ask a very high financial compensation at first of several million pounds this could be enough to make those thugs think twice before trying to attack our players.

    Maybe if you can start a law case against the Fa for negligence (they are responsible for the refs and the instructions they give to the refs) and demand an enormous som of money this could also cause the FA to act because if there is a judge that would follow Ramsey and Arsenal it could cost them a lot of money.

    Now I think of it if I would be Arsenal I would go to court against the FA. If I remember right the FA wants to get a world cup to England in 2018 ? But I think that if a club is chargin their FA in court for some reason they could be banned from world cups and from organising world cups.
    So it could mean that the FA gives explicite instructions to the refs to stop the kicking them off the field tactics.

    And at the end of the day that is all we want. 3 players seeing kicked to pieces in 4 years is more than enough and I don’t want this anymore.

  25. As a follow up to my previous posting and if I may take the fifa statutes:
    64 Obligation
    1. The Confederations, Members and Leagues shall agree to recognise CAS as an independent judicial authority and to ensure that their members, affiliated Players and Officials comply with the decisions passed by CAS. The same obligation shall apply to licensed match and players’ agents.
    2. Recourse to ordinary courts of law is prohibited unless specifically provided for in the FIFA regulations.

    3. The Associations shall insert a clause in their statutes or regulations, stipulating that it is prohibited to take disputes in the Association or disputes affecting Leagues, members of Leagues, clubs, members of clubs, Players, Officials and other Association Officials to ordinary courts of law, unless the FIFA regulations or binding legal provisions specifically provide for or stipulate recourse to ordinary courts of law. Instead of recourse to ordinary courts of law, provision shall be made for arbitration.
    Such disputes shall be taken to an independent and duly constituted arbitration tribunal recognised under the
    rules of the Association or Confederation or to CAS.
    The Associations shall also ensure that this stipulation is implemented in the Association, if necessary by imposing a binding obligation on its members.
    The Associations shall impose sanctions on any party that fails to respect this obligation and ensure that any appeal against such sanctions shall likewise be strictly submitted to arbitration, and not to ordinary courts of law.

    So once again I am no lawyer but it seems that is is forbidden to go to a court according to Fifa but they can not stop a club from doing this. It has happened before in Belgium.
    But to avoid this Fifa is punishing the country’s Fa for letting those things happening.

    So maybe if Arsenal threatens to start a legal procedure against Shawcross, the ref and the FA it could put pressure on the FA because it could end that Fifa says to the FA : clean up your mess or we don’t let you have the world cup or even worse they don’t allow England in the world cup this year.

    So it could mean that in this case Arsenal doesn’t even have to win a case just go to court, put pressure up the Fa and tell them that Arsenal is willing to drop the charges if the Fa and the refs start protecting their players.

  26. And a final note on this : Belgium and Holland are also trying to bring the world cup to their country’s.
    Lat month the Belgian Fa had offered one club some outrageous benefits (letting a player play when het could not according to the rules and other benefits) to postponed a game. Later the board of the FA retracted those benefits and the club went to court claiming that a verbal agreement is legitimate and the court followed this ruling.

    Now the Belgian Fa does noet dare to appeal on this because it could make Fifa angry and they could throw Belgium and Holland out of the world cup bid.

  27. Don’t want to plug someone else’s work on Tony’s blog, but this looks like a useful reference:

    “Raphael Honigstein’s book on the peculiarities of English football, Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. Die geheime Geschichte des englischen Fußballs, was published in German by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2006, and the English version Englischer Fussball: A German View of Our Beautiful Game was published by Yellow Jersey Press in 2008.

    I’d also recommend the ‘It’s up for grabs now’ podcast this week. Alan Davies account and reaction to what happened on his twitter feed after he recommended Shawcross be banned for as long as the injured player is out, is interesting.

  28. What goes around will come around.

    Rooney will now be a target for some kicking as team knew that he got a short fuse and easily wound-up.

    Let’s just enjoy the sight of Rooney kick from pillar to post in Europe and in World Cup 2010 as without him, England is toothless.

    Chelski vs Stoke City.
    Lovely to watch both teams kicking lumps out of each other.

  29. I watched the match. I was appalled and horrified and I have been avidly following postings on the issue.

    Firstly, I think the horrible challenge and its effect on Ramsey’s leg has detracted from a detailed analyses of the game wherein I felt Arsenal stop up very well to Stoke and even changed their playing tactic in such a way that the ball spent the minimum time possible in Arsenal’s half. Also, in spite of everything, after Cesc scored the second goal, I thought I saw Cesc face Pulis’ direction and place his finger across his lips (i.e. telling him to shut up). It irked Pulis greatly but it amused me a lot and I thought that it just demonstrated Cesc and the team he leads’ willingness to take the fight to the Stoke Cities of this world and to fight till they dropped.

    With respect to the tackle, the people that should talk about it most (i.e. the FA) have kept very quiet. Is thia the norm? I see that this is the spirit of this omerta contribution but how can they be nudged into taking action – as Spain, Italy and Belgium had apparently done? Some years ago, Italy was well known for its cruncy defence and defenders ending the careers of such great footballers as Marco Van Bersten. These days, the defenders still play hard but there are now fewer injuries…the FA ought to act as speedily as possible before talented footballers international consciously try to give playing in England a wide berth or before the careers of promising British footballers are cut short unceremoniously…what goes around have a bad way of coming around when and where it is least expected.
    Diaby – France, Dudu – Croatia, Ramsey – Wales; the next one a promising or well established English player?

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