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Opinion

A few words in support of Ayoze Perez

6 months ago
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I have always liked Ayoze Perez – pretty much since the first time he turned out in black-and-white. There – I’ve said it. At the moment it seems almost like a shameful admission.

I was genuinely quite shocked at the recent game against Watford, when Perez was brought on as a substitute – and was booed onto the pitch.

I’ve been going to SJP for 40-odd years and I’m not sure I can remember that happening before. I can remember people getting booed off the park plenty of times; I can remember subs being greeted with a stony, unimpressed silence, or a grumble; but I can’t ever remember one of our players being booed on –  still less in a crucial game, poised on a knife-edge.

I know we live in an age of ‘fake news’, and some people might be minded to deny that it happened, but it did. I was there. I heard it. It’s important to say that it was a minority who booed – and a small minority at that – but it was a sizeable enough minority to make it noticeable.

More to the point, Ayoze obviously heard it too. Hence, his ‘fingers-in-ears’ celebration when, rather deliciously, he scored the winner.

But sometimes, when people are against you, they’re against you no matter what – and now we see our Ayoze getting stick for his celebration!

So, the way it works is that I’m abused in public by people to whom I can’t respond other than by making some public gesture; I make a public gesture which is clearly intended to say “I hear your abuse, but I’m not going to let it get to me”; and then I’m criticised by my abusers for standing up for myself and responding to their abuse!!

If I was Ayoze Perez I’d be thinking that, maybe, I just can’t win with these people.

The people actually booing their own player are a minority – but the animosity towards Perez is clearly now more widespread. You only have to read the post-match ratings-out-of-ten in the Mag (automated collective player ratings given by all contributing fans), and compare those ratings with the ones of the same game given by football journalists. You can pretty much guarantee that if the view of the journalists was that Perez merited a 7, in The Mag the fans will give a collective 4 or a 5.

Why is that?

Let’s compare Perez with, say, Matt Ritchie. They’ve both been key players under Benitez. They’ve both had lots of game-time over the last few seasons. They both have fairly obvious deficiencies to their games – but Benitez clearly appreciates that they both bring something important to the team. They both work like stink when the opposition has the ball. They both tend to contribute a lot to important moments – if you look back over Newcastle’s key passages of play over the last couple of years, how often will you find a tackle, or a key pass, or a finish by Ritchie or Perez. They both have a lack of quality cover in their positions – so when they do lose form (as all players do) they probably don’t get rested as much as they should.

On the face of it there are lots of similarities but I find it hard to imagine Matt Ritchie being booed onto the pitch. Ritchie is (on the whole) extremely popular and well-liked. Including by me, I might add.

There isn’t any undercurrent of ill-feeling when it comes to Matt Ritchie. His failings, and his mistakes, are more readily overlooked. Even his haircare regime is more easily forgiven.

So why have people got it in for our Ayoze? I wonder. I wonder.

A thought came to me – which I hadn’t even considered before – and which prompted me to write this. Could it be something to do with his ethnicity?

It’s not so very long ago that you could stand at SJP and hear players being called wops, and dagos, and the like. That doesn’t happen anymore – but I wonder if there’s a bit of that going on, because he’s European, you tend not to consider it. But suppose he came from Mexico rather than Spain – his ethnicity could be pretty much the same as it is, but in those circumstances the sort of stick he gets would probably set off alarm bells about racism much more readily.

I’m not saying that everyone who dislikes Ayoze Perez is a racist. I’m not even saying that all of the people who booed him onto the pitch were. But there’s never any harm in examining your own motivations. If he had blond hair and blue eyes and a Scottish father, would he get as much stick for falling over, or for checking that his hairstyle is properly adjusted?

Of course, the obvious answer to that point is that Newcastle have all sorts of players with all sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and it isn’t the case that non-white players get given a harder time by the SJP crowd. I accept that completely.

There was a recent article by Rod Liddle in The Times where he said that he suspected that at his club (Millwall!) non-white players were, perhaps subconsciously, judged a bit less forgivingly by the support. Whether or not that is true at Millwall I can’t say…but in general I don’t think that is the case at Newcastle at all.

But the bile that our Ayoze seems to attract from a section of our support is completely mystifying to me. I have to say, if I was in his shoes I’d be looking for a transfer – and if he does decide to look for a friendlier environment I don’t doubt for a moment that there will be plenty of teams who would love to have him.

It’s not his fault that players in his position are worth a lot of money and Ashley won’t pay the going rate, but it does mean that when Ayoze Perez is out of form (as he has been recently) he still gets played, because we have no one else who can do what he does.

To my eyes, he has been one of our best players over the last few seasons; one of the very few players we have who can do something genuinely creative, who can play a great pass or score a great goal.

Yes, there are parts of his game that are poor, and he is often exasperating to watch  – but let’s be honest, if it weren’t for his failings Ashley would have sold him for a bucketful of money long ago.
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