Saturday, 7 January 2012

How Kenny Got It Wrong

Last night Liverpool became the first team to make it into the 4th round of the FA Cup by beating Oldham Athletic 5-1 but there will be surely little celebrating amongst the club’s players and management this morning. The alleged racist abuse by Liverpool supporters of Oldham player Tom Adeyemi means that the club will have to take a long hard look at itself and, in particular, its conduct in the aftermath of the Luis Suarez affair.

The game was Luis Suarez’s second of an eight match ban imposed upon him after being found guilty of using racist language against Manchester United defender Patrice Evra in a match earlier this season. Despite compelling evidence and a 115-page legal document outlining the reasons the FA felt confident in imposing such a sanction, Liverpool continued to complain that their player was a scapegoat.

Shortly after the original verdict was handed down, Liverpool’s players made a misguided show of unity by wearing t-shirts depicting their apparently martyred colleague’s face in the warm-up at Wigan Athletic. These t-shirts have become quite a sensation on Merseyside and, initial witness accounts report, were prevalent in the section of Anfield that Adeyemi was abused by last night.

The end result is that a once great football club now finds its reputation absolutely ruined this morning. Their manager, Kenny Dalglish, a man whose compelling dignity and compassion in the months and years after Hillsborough elevated him to an almost godlike status in the city, now finds himself besieged within a fortress partly of his own making.

The club’s refusal to accept the independent commission’s report into the Suarez affair and Dalglish’s apparent approval of his players wearing what, for some people, amounted to t-shirts depicting the image of a proven racist cannot wholly be responsible for the idiotic behaviour of a small number of supporters last night. But there can be no doubting that, for many people, by refusing to accept the punishment quietly, by publicly questioning the commission’s judgements, that the club has done itself a massive disservice.

The commission made it quite clear that they did not believe Luis Suarez to be a racist. By punishing the player with an eight-match ban, they effectively endorsed that opinion, it is a mistake rather than a prejudice, let us move on. Liverpool’s misjudged reaction to the commission’s findings mean that Suarez is now wrongly vilified by some as a racist, and furthermore, means that some scumbags now feel they can identify with this player as someone they wrongly believe to share their hateful views.

The FA Cup will come around again. Banning Liverpool from this season’s competition as punishment won’t mean anything. A multi-million pound business empire will comfortably survive such an arbitrary sanction. Liverpool’s own punishment should be the uncomfortable silence one hopes Dalglish et al find themselves sat in this morning. The efforts of several Liverpool players to comfort Adeyemi last night should be applauded, but their own conduct helped inflame this situation in the first place.

The reputation of Liverpool’s supporters has withstood many dark hours in the last thirty years. Many of them will have understood at some level that the chanting of Suarez’s name will have been a provocative gesture. On internet message boards this morning, there is still a great deal of denial and conspiracy theorising going on, a feeling that the club and its supporters are themselves the victim.

The only way forward now is for the players and manager to publicly condemn, not via some PR-managed press release, the abhorrent nature of racist behaviour, racist language, and racism full stop. Furthermore, they should also apologise for their reaction to the commission’s findings and draw a line under the matter. If the FA fine or punish the club in any way, it will only add fuel to the fire. The Suarez situation has been handled, to my mind, perfectly. The player made a mistake and has, admittedly belatedly, apologised.

In the last twenty years we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the image that football, with its safe family-friendly stadia, has cured itself of it’s former ills. The Premiership era of multi-cultural football teams with worldwide support was kindly supposed to have kicked racism, if not quite out of football altogether, then at least into some small corner where it could not quite be seen or heard. Compared to other countries, particularly those in eastern Europe, we have come an especially long way. Campaigns such as Let’s Kick Racism out of Football have been seen to have had a massive positive effect. The days when a Liverpool legend such as John Barnes would be pelted with bananas seemed to have been banished forever.

I know many Liverpool fans. Not one of them, to my knowledge, is racist. I imagine them to be entirely representative of the vast majority of the club’s supporters. It’s important that this isn’t seen as a one-club issue. The Suarez incident was a situation the FA could not be seen to get wrong, it is tempting for some Liverpool fans to see that his guilty verdict was inevitable, but it’s the wrong reaction. If the legal investigation was flawed, we’d have heard about it by now, the club’s refusal to appeal against the 115-page findings would certainly seem to say as much.

England captain John Terry will soon be facing criminal proceedings for alleged racist outbursts. The powers of this particular inquiry far exceed those of the FA. How Chelsea, and their supporters, conduct themselves during this investigation will be of great significance to the ongoing rehabilitation of football’s reputation. How all of us, as individuals, as fans, conduct ourselves in future, will be of greater significance still.