James Lawton: Terry hearing once again highlights game's malaise


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The Independent Online

Many epitaphs have already been written for the end of John Terry's international career and no one, not even his most ardent admirer, can say that this extremely flawed Caesar has not been given his due. Yes, Terry was a fighter, an enduringly competitive presence in a white shirt, but no assessment of his career with England will ever be complete without proper attention to the damage he has done.

Indeed, you could say he has become an ultimate example of football's capacity not only to injure itself but cast serious doubt about either its will or ability to reclaim a good name.

On Sunday night, when Terry announced his intention to retire from the England team before this week's Football Association hearing almost certainly decided to convict him on a charge of racism and leave his international career about as viable as a flickering candle in a rising gale, this injury-prone status was once again threatening to resemble a full blown death wish.

Terry's resolve to walk away had only one marginal merit for football's desperately harassed image-protectors.

It pushed sideways headlines and broadcast news items that had been earlier devoted to the fact that despite massive efforts to make the Liverpool-Manchester United game a symbol of new values, and new decency, the last exchanges at an emptying Anfield involved Liverpool mavericks of the moronic persuasion describing with their hands a crashing aeroplane and United fans, framed by police escorts, chanting again, "Always the victims, never to blame."

Some other images of the game also survived and they rivalled the picture of Sir Bobby Charlton presenting a bouquet of red roses to Liverpool hero Ian Rush. They included the sight of referee Mark Halsey being harried from the field and Jonjo Shelvey, the young player dismissed for a palpably reckless tackle, angrily placing the blame on Sir Alex Ferguson.

Football, wearily, talks of a small minority who besmirch the reputation of the vast majority, but then how long has this poisonous little tail been wagging the dog – and when will the game understand that while the drip-drip of ignominy may not be threatening immediately the next mega-TV contract there is surely a point when the fabric of the national game sustains irreparable damage.

There was certainly a growing sense of this during the nation's enchantment with the spirit of the Olympics and the Paralympics and even within football there was the concession that the game had a fierce battle to win back many hearts and minds. And why wouldn't it be so? The summer glory came after a football season which had shown a near genius for self-hurt.

The FA's insistence that Terry be stripped of the England captaincy provoked the resignation of Fabio Capello, angry that he had not been involved in the decision-making. No one could argue with the case that under the shadow of a racism court hearing Terry hardly made an appropriate captain of a team of mixed race, but where was the minimal energy it would have taken to consult with a manager who was being paid £6m a year to prepare the team for the European Championship?

When the FA decided to press on with its Terry case after his acquittal in a magistrates court there had to be at least some sense of a vendetta pursued rather than a basic search for justice.

You may say that football is merely a victim of the times and that it is trapped in a culture quite divorced from the rigours and responsibilities of ordinary life. Maybe it is true but it hardly takes away the need for a degree of some hard-headed reflection and new levels of leadership within the game.

John Terry could be a ferocious one on the field but that is no good if it is not supported by any understanding of exactly who you are and what you are supposed to represent.

It is his and football's tragedy that no one had the strength to tell him. Not, at least, until it was rather too late.