by Susan Gardiner
The news that the overrated Martin O’Neill has been sacked by Sunderland has meant that the Keyser Söze of modern football, Paolo DiCanio – a relatively recent addition to the managerial Usual Suspects – has been touted as his replacement.
Di Canio is a self-confessed fascist and admirer of Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, describing him as a “principled person [who was] … much misunderstood.”
Fascism is a misused word and it’s not appropriate to discuss its meaning here, but it’s an ideology that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe in. Since Di Canio became a football manager at Swindon Town in 2011, I have often wondered how I would feel if he was appointed as manager of my football club. I have been forced to conclude that I wouldn’t be able to continue to support Ipswich Town although I’d return when he – inevitably – parted company with us. Of course, I don’t think it will happen. I hope it never does.
Thinking about this has brought a further question to the forefront of my mind. Is there anything else that could be a “last straw” when it comes to supporting Ipswich Town? Is there something – anything – that would make it simply impossible for me to carry on as a fan or would I persuade myself otherwise?
To be honest, it’s an issue that has been placed on the back burner since Mick McCarthy came to manage our team. What’s not to like about MM, after all? Ever since Jim Magilton brought Ben Thatcher into the side, however, I’ve been concerned about how far I would allow myself to equivocate. With Thatcher, I convinced myself that his reputation for thuggish behaviour – he was notorious for the vicious elbowing of an opposition player when he was at Manchester City – was something that we could not afford to be fussy about. He had, after all, apologised in writing to Mendes for his actions and Town sorely needed some toughness on the pitch at that time. Anyway, I told myself, I was probably just prejudiced by his name.
Paul Jewell brought other players in that I was not happy with, Lee Bowyer being one. I’d disliked him for all kinds of reasons to do with his behaviour, on and off the pitch. Yet again, I convinced myself that it was all right. After all, I believe that human beings can reform and redeem themselves. The actions that people take when they’re young are often foolish and not the result of deep-seated character flaws. I sought out newspaper articles that seemed to show that he was indeed a reformed character.
Once again, I found myself altering my values in order to accommodate a player or manager just because they were part of my club.
So I began to wonder exactly who I might object to. Who – if anyone – was such an affront to my personal morality that I wouldn’t be able to convince myself that it was all right? Marlon King springs immediately to mind. A talented player who was sentenced to eighteen months in prison in 2009 for sexual assault and grievous bodily harm against women, the court case revealed he had a history of similar behaviour. I often wonder whether the chants by opposition fans against him that are heard up and down the country now that he has returned to football are because those supporters actually detest what he did – or whether those same fans would – quite literally – change their tune if their own club signed him? Get behind the lads and all that.
There are several other examples of footballers and managers who have convictions for domestic violence or other criminal offences which make them seem pretty reprehensible to me. Generally, I’m not very interested in people’s private lives and I don’t like to be judgemental, but when it comes to racism or violence I feel that a line should be drawn. After all, what we’re actually saying here, by tolerating such behaviour, is that football’s more important. More important than racism, more important than violence against women, more important than ethics.
We continue to excuse players simply because they’re good at football.
Ched Evans, now serving a prison sentence for rape, is a good footballer. What would I do should Ipswich Town sign him upon his release? One look at the #justiceforChed hashtag on Twitter was enough for me but it’s a clear example of how our passion for football can overrule our logic. It’s not just moral relativism, it’s a form of self-deception. I’ve been guilty of it, but hopefully only to a lesser extent. I hope I could still do the right thing, despite my addiction to Town. Sometimes I wonder.
Away from individuals, I also wonder about other things that would perhaps be a turning point for me. In modern football, where teams can be owned by people who aren’t either knowledgeable or particularly interested in the game, stadia can be sold or moved, or renamed. Perhaps it won’t be very long until teams in the English leagues are named after their sponsors as they are in other parts of the world. I think that many fans would accept it as being part of the reality of the 21st-century game. Once again, I ask myself how much would I be willing to put up with before I decided to go and watch Stowmarket or Needham Market instead.
Of course, it’s necessary to adapt to the modern world. The game’s come a long way since the 19th century and the era of the Corinthian spirit – a leading light amongst those players, incidentally, was W. M. Cobbold, from Long Melford in Suffolk, apparently known as “The Prince of Dribblers.” The age of the amateur footballer and the public school ethos is thankfully long gone. It’s a mistake, anyway, to imagine that those amateurs were the only people who had a monopoly on fair play and decency.
Money has changed the game so much that many supporters seem to feel that winning, at all costs, is everything. I’m not sure that winning with a team or a manager that I had no respect for would feel very much like winning at all.