Some people get reputations that stick.
The bloke who never buys his round, the lazy git at work, the black sheep of the family. On the other hand, there are people we regard as generous, trustworthy – even heroic. Those reputations may be justified, they may be incredibly unfair, but they are hard to shift.
The likelihood is that if you do have a reputation, it isn’t known outside of your immediate circle of friends, colleagues and family. You could move to a new town and get yourself a new reputation. Some people do.
But if you are a footballer at a prestigious football club, any reputation you get – especially a bad one – can go global. Fans of your club, fans of other clubs, devious managers, the press and every half-witted pundit with a larynx and an opinion, exaggerate your reputation, until even non-football fans know the sort of player you are.
The internet is awash with sites – like this one – where players are analysed, lauded, ridiculed, loved and hated. If a footballer moves to a new town, his reputation goes before him.
Now let’s think of where Aleksander Mitrovic sits in the grand scheme of things.
Forget for a moment that you are a Newcastle fan and imagine you support Wolves. Or St Johnstone. Or Dukla Prague, or no team in particular. It doesn’t matter.
If you know who Mitrovic is, the chances are you see him as a bit brainless, and likely to break the legs of any opposition player he doesn’t like the look of. Now tell me that if you are a referee that is scheduled to officiate in the Championship next season, you think differently.
You watch Match of the Day. You have Sky Sports. You read the papers, you go to the pub with your mates, you have kids who love the game, you do the same things as everybody else. You see the same incidents as every football fan in the country, and you hear the same arguments. It’s unavoidable. And whether you like it or not, you have an opinion about certain players. Not all of them. Just the ones with the reputations. You can’t help it. No one could.
I do believe most referees try to act fairly and never go into a game with an agenda. But do I believe that every single incident in every single game is judged entirely on its merits? Sorry, but no. Opinion is always going to play a part.
Gareth Bale got a reputation for diving in his last season at Tottenham, then started picking up a yellow every time he hit the deck. Replays often showed he was fouled, but his reputation went before him.
Those of you with longer memories will recall the same fate befalling David Ginola when he played for us. Opposition managers accused him of diving, even when he didn’t. Every non-black and white fan would howl with rage if he went down, and before long, his reputation was influencing referees as much as anything their own eyes were telling them.
I’m still mad about him being sent off at Arsenal in the League Cup nearly 20 years ago! Lee Dixon hacked him down, even put his hand up to the ref in acknowledgement, wearing the look of a man who was about to be sent for an early bath. He looked as baffled as everyone else when the red card was brandished in the direction of the Newcastle winger. Inexplicably, Gerald Ashby saw it as another example of our cheating Frenchman taking a dive. The press outside of Newcastle didn’t seem to care that the decision was monumentally unfair. It was seen as collateral damage. If you are a diver, what do you expect?
My fear for Mitrovic is that he suffers the same fate as the likes of Joey Barton and Lee Bowyer, both of whom arrived in Newcastle with reputations as dirty players. They often were – I don’t deny that – but I saw them pick up plenty of yellows and reds that others would never have got. If they went in to a 50:50, the chances are that the referee saw it 30:70.
We could find it’s the same with Mitrovic. We would always go mad when Barton or Bowyer suffered poor decisions. But to me, that isn’t the point. If every official has a notion you are a thug, they will be looking for thuggish behaviour and they will find it. Barton and Bowyer should have factored that in before doing some of the things they did, no matter how unfair that might be.
By the same token, Mitrovic cannot afford to fly into tackles in a manner that others might get away with. If he does, he will be carded when he doesn’t deserve to be, just because of his reputation. We will carry on raging at the injustice of it all, and this site will crash as thousands of Geordies vent their spleens. But Mitrovic’s reputation will get worse with every card, and he won’t be around when we need him.
You can absolutely guarantee that Mitrovic will be the subject of every pre-match discussion in opposition dressing rooms. There will be a couple of Brighton defenders who will spend much of August being told to kick him, wind him up, square up to him or give him a dig when the referee isn’t looking. They think he will bite, and they hope he does.
There will be no such discussions about Perez, Gayle, Ritchie etc al. You look for weaknesses in an opponent, and Mitrovic’s reputation is a weakness whether we like it or not.
Rafa has a lot of work to do with Mitrovic. He is sluggish, his positional play isn’t always great, and he can disappear from games at times. But I think we all see something in the lad worth persevering with. But for me, Rafa’s first priority is to get Mitro to focus on playing football and nothing else.
The boy needs to be turning the other cheek, making tackles solely in areas of the pitch where it matters, and learning how not to get distracted. We need 46 games – sorry, 42 now – and 20+ goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic this season if we want to be back in the Premier League 12 months from now. If that happens, and we get there, he could start next season with a reputation for talent not trouble.
Now wouldn’t that be nice?