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That Toon Sheikhover : Don’t say the only way is ethics

5 months ago
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My missus hates the expression “You never know what’s round the corner” because it’s usually the prelude to news of yet another mess-up by yours truly.

Let’s gloss over those almost countless indiscretions and look forward to what seems to be happening at St James Park: the replacement of one odious owner by . . .

Well, your guess is as good as, if not better, than mine.

But amid all the talk of sports washing (a term associated with bad guys trying to be perceived as good guys by spending big on the beautiful game), I try to differentiate between the football team / club I have loved since the very early 1970s and those people behind the scenes who decide everything from the location of your seat-for-life (not set in stone, whatever it said on the can) to the content of the so-called half-time entertainment, which makes It’s A Knockout seem as thrilling as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Football’s greatest strengths are its simplicity and its unpredictability. Most matches are eminently forgettable but occasionally you see a right belter, one that gives you goosebumps on the day and memories vivid enough to last a lifetime.

The business of the people’s game is incidental to the ordinary fan. There’s a massive gulf (excuse the pun) separating those in charge of Premier League clubs and those who turn up season after season, through thin and thinner, to support the team. Yes, the owners, directors and other assorted executives might be fans but they are motivated by a lot more than an illogical attachment to the ever-changing blokes in black and white, or blue, yellow, green, whatever the change strip next time around. Selfless benefactors are thin on the ground, in football as in life.

As a supporter, you have to suspend disbelief and forget that the players are, first and foremost, professionals. We may hope they love the club, are prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears for the cause, always give 100% and are proud to represent the Toon. Perhaps they are, though the evidence on many occasions suggests otherwise. Who can blame any player for putting himself and his family before the greater good? Footballers are still little more than hired hands, bought and sold like cattle in a meat market, even though they are paid vast sums compared with the average John Bull.

The skill of the manager is proved by his ability to get more from his players than even they thought they could give. Bobby Robson won nothing in his five years in charge but he honed a team to be far greater than its disparate parts (Titus Bramble, anybody?), a team fit to challenge for honours and a team that provided the fans with some unforgettable memories.

Sir Bobby is reported to have said: “We don’t want our players to be monks. A monk doesn’t play football at this level.” Or to put it another way, as Springsteen had on Greetings From Asbury Park in 1973: “It’s hard to be a saint in the city.” To reach the top of a game that millions play just for fun, you have to be prepared to smash through anything and anybody in your way.

There’s the nub: off the field, a footballer, a manager, an executive, an owner can be what the novelist William Boyd describes as a CAUC (Complete And Utter Cu..) just as long as he does his best when Saturday comes; and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, if the TV gods insist.

Some horribly amoral young men have been cheered to the rafters by the Toon Army in my lifetime. So what? Football ain’t no audition for admission through the pearly gates.

At its greatest it’s a visceral, gladiatorial, beautifully competitive mano-a-mano fight that pits the glorious skill and desire of our team against, if we are lucky, a bunch of useless tossers masquerading as the best thing since sliced bread. Obviously, the boot is sometimes on the other foot…

The meek will not inherit the earth, regardless of what you would like to happen. Likewise, the megarich are rarely shrinking violets. They are frequently uncompromising, unforgiving, remorseless and psychotic individuals with fewer scruples than a serial killer.

(Spoiler alert: the next Newcastle United owners are probably not as pure as the driven snow.)

You might not enjoy spending time with them away from the Cathedral on the Hill (copyright John Gibson). Their views on equal opportunities, regardless of race, sexuality or political affiliation might clash with yours. So what? They don’t intend to sit on the European Court of Human Rights.

Spare me the moralistic hand-wringing. Forget your social conscience when the boys are back in Toon. Give me sinners over saints on any pitch.

And if you are uncomfortable with those thoughts, perhaps the task of supporting a football team at the elite level is not for you.

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