A week to depress every football supporter

Sam Wallace, who sat through all the evidence, finds the lack of boundaries and the casual misogyny in the Premier League troubling – and asks if the game is doing enough to educate the players

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The Independent Online

Sitting through the last five days in Westminster magistrates' court, you could be forgiven for thinking you were witnessing the fin de siècle of the modern multi-millionaire, mansion-dwelling, high-spec car-driving English Premier League footballer.

It was at times such a grim journey into a world where insults about wives, girlfriends and mothers were, as John Terry said himself, "part and parcel of the game", that had it occurred in other areas of public life there would be serious questions over the future.

But this is football and it operates by its own rules. The ink is barely dry on the television contracts that will earn the Premier League clubs a record-breaking £3bn over the three seasons starting one year from now and, as for the campaign that kicks off in five weeks' time, well, expectation and anticipation has only been fuelled further by the consumption of this fresh scandal and, of course, a buoyant transfer market.

Welcome to the Premier League in 2012, a sporting phenomenon so big that every dirty little secret disclosed only serves to fatten the beast, rather than diminish it.

For the cynics who think every elite-level footballer in this country is a foul-mouthed thug, each day in court peppered with the use of "c***", "f***", "c**k", "f****** knobhead" and "p****", not to mention the salacious tales about "shagging Bridgey's missus", just served to reinforce old prejudices. For those of us who know that there is still good in English football, that on the whole it is working-class boys from the same towns and cities that have produced generations of players, who strive hard to make the grade above millions of others, it was deeply depressing at times.

Let us be clear that the charge of racially aggravated abuse against John Terry, of which he was found not guilty, was one of the most profound seriousness and, no matter how much football may wish to govern itself, had huge implications beyond the parameters of the Football Association and the game itself.

Among all the bad language uttered, the phrase "f****** black c***" belongs in a different category altogether and no matter how many times it was used it never failed to stir revulsion.

But what of the rest of it? In the formal setting of the new courtroom on Marylebone Road, the swearing was always destined to sound idiosyncratic. The same song sung by Liverpool supporters about Terry's mother that passes without comment now in the press box was a lot more shocking recounted in court. Taken out of their usual setting – as casual insults between players – the words had much greater power to shock.

Shock, horror, footballers use bad language. It is unpleasant and unnecessary but no-one ever suspected that the country's leading players were out on the pitch complimenting one another's passing. There are a few of us in the press box who might occasionally have to admit to the same offence. More troubling was the lack of boundaries and the casual misogyny.

As Duncan Penny, the prosecutor, said when cross-examining Terry, these players were happy to throw around "the oldest insult in the book". "You know, 'I've had yours', 'How's your wife and my kids?', that sort of thing." There was an acknowledgement that there were "no-go areas" but insulting one another's wives and girlfriends were not included in them.

The more you delved into the psychology of the insults – even Terry was forced to admit in the witness stand that it was all "pretty childish" – it was clear that if certain footballers could not be prepared to see what was inappropriate about insulting one another's families, how could they be expected to make the right judgement elsewhere?

Not all Premier League footballers are so misguided, far from it. But no wonder there are so many spectacular pratfalls, no wonder so many are ripped off by unscrupulous hangers-on, no wonder some appear oblivious to the reaction that their conspicuous consumption attracts.

Another legacy of this trial was the schism it will inevitably leave in the heart of this generation of players, especially those who have been in and around the England team for the last 10 years. On one side is the Ferdinand family, Anton and his more famous older brother, Rio, and their allies; on the other is the Terry camp including, most notably, the likes of Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard.

It was Cole who duly offered up corroboration in court of Terry's version of events that Anton Ferdinand had uttered something along the lines of "black c***" during the game in question. When Cole was later referred to as a friend of the Ferdinand family, Anton and Rio's mother, Janice, in the public gallery, snorted in derision and shook her head.

There was a statement too from Lampard, an old friend of Rio from their days together as YTS boys at West Ham United, in support of Terry. The England Under-21 defender Ryan Bertrand went as far as issuing his own extensive homily to Terry's virtues, describing himself explicitly as a black footballer, over and above the standard "John Terry is not a racist" statement to which 17 of his Chelsea club-mates had put their signatures.

And what of those notable names missing from the Chelsea squad's collective Terry statement of support? There was no Didier Drogba or Florent Malouda on that list despite the fact that it was formulated and signed in April. John Obi Mikel was precluded from signing it because he was required for a witness statement.

This case will define a significant group of the so-called English "golden generation" and certainly as the years go by and playing careers end the dividing lines will not be easily forgotten. Old pros are usually able to put aside their grudges but these five days in court, and the enmity they have caused, will linger a lot longer.

The last 15 years of the Premier League have been a boom time. They have also been marked by their moments of bad judgement and occasional downright stupidity by certain individuals, some of whom featured in this week's proceedings. But nothing has opened up the secret lives of some of our leading footballers quite like this week's revelations.

The swearing and the fighting in the tunnel after the game has been going on for generations, much longer than most people who glorify the players of the past would care to admit. It is, however, the modern-day blurring of the boundaries between what is reasonable and what is not to say routinely to another person that has been most unedifying over the last five days.

When analysing on Thursday the finer points of linguistic debate, the precise role of one "f***" to another "c***", district judge Howard Riddle reminded the Crown that "we are talking about everyday speech from people, we are not talking about Balzac".

He is right there. These are men who grew up in football, whose dedication to the sport in their formative years left little scope for education, upon which there is not placed much of a premium in the hot-housing of elite young footballers. That is a reality that many media commentators seem to ignore in their sneering at the lives of these wealthy young men.

Certainly the likes of Terry, Ferdinand and Cole do not need to have a working knowledge of Balzac in order to do their job, at which they excel. But that does not exempt them from a responsibility to make the right judgements in the things they say and the things they do. The question that last week posed was: does English football equip its stars to make those judgements?

Terry timeline

September 2001 Terry is one of four Chelsea players fined two weeks' wages for drunken behaviour toward American tourists in a hotel on the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

August 2002 Terry and team-mate Jody Morris are charged – and later cleared – with affray and assault after an incident in which they allegedly brawled with club doormen.

November 2006 Charged with improper conduct by the FA, for comments about the referee Graham Poll after being sent off in a 2-1 defeat at Tottenham.

December 2009 Accused of facilitating behind-the-scenes tours of Chelsea's training ground in return for cash. A video appears to show Terry accepting cash alongside a known ticket tout.

January 2010 Named as the sportsman behind a gagging order to protect details of an alleged affair with Vanessa Perroncel – girlfriend of Wayne Bridge. Loses England captaincy.

February 2010 Reports claim Terry is "touting" his private box at Wembley for hire.

June 2010 Attempts to lead player revolt at World Cup, highlighting disharmony within Fabio Capello's squad.

October 2011 Denies making racist slur toward QPR's Anton Ferdinand in a match at Loftus Road. Loses England captaincy for a second time – having regained it the previous year. Capello resigns over the issue.