HARDLY A week goes by in our national game without the media being blamed for irresponsibility. But at Watford on Saturday, something very strange happened: the elder statesman of English football pleaded with the press to put the fans in their place.
Whether Bobby Robson's post-match tirade in defence of Alan Shearer was an impromptu heart-felt outburst or a calculated piece of media manipulation is open to question. It was certainly impressive in its intensity and showed, as if we didn't know already, how much Robson cares about the game he has graced for a good part of his 66 years. But will it work?
"Why are the fans turning on him with foul and abusive language?" asked Robson in a passionate condemnation of those who scream abuse at the Newcastle and England centre-forward at grounds up and down the country. "It doesn't happen to anyone else and it's distasteful and sad. Why do we attack our sporting heroes like that? Alan isn't bothered by it but I have to stand up for him."
Robson continued: "If you write that the abuse is abysmal, you just might get through to the people who do it." A laudable suggestion by the former England manager but a rather naive one. The power of the press has its limits.
Changing overnight the warped mentality of a foul-mouthed section of our football public is pushing it, even for someone who commands universal respect, as Robson does.
He was overlooking something else as well. Some of the very scribes to whom he was pouring out his feelings have been just as culpable when it comes to heaping scorn on the England captain. The language may not be as filthy and unprintable as some of the choice expletives dished out at Vicarage Road on Saturday, one of which Robson repeated several times in his press conference and all of which were inexcusable, but the motive is the same.
Whether Robson likes it or not, there are many who, legitimately, believe that Shearer, since he has come back from injury, no longer presents the same danger to defences and is being given preferential treatment by Kevin Keegan, the England coach. That is free speech. What matters, of course, is the way you express it and in what circumstances.
Certainly, the way Shearer played on Saturday did not merit the torrent of abuse that rained down from the stands and gave the good folk of Hertfordshire, normally the most friendly and tolerant of supporters, a bad name. He was not as brilliant as Robson made out but he led the line with commitment and intelligence and headed against the post in the first half.
Robert Page, who needed to be at his best to limit Shearer's scoring opportunities, sympathised with the England captain's plight. "I heard what the fans were chanting and I'm just pleased Alan didn't take it out on us," said the Watford captain.
Newcastle were stunned into silence when Michel Ngonge, clearly offside, headed home, but their spirits were lifted six minutes later when Nikolaos Dabizas scored his first goal of the season, a right-foot snap shot off the far post.
Goals: Ngonge (53) 1-0; Dabizas (59) 1-1.
Watford (4-3-3): Chamberlain; Cox, Page, Palmer, Robinson; Hyde, Miller, Easton (Bakalli, 45); Noel-Williams, Ngonge (Wooter, 63), Gravelaine. Substitutes not used: Day (gk), Gibbs, Smith.
Newcastle United (4-1-3-2): Harper; Hughes, Marcelino, Dabizas, Pistone; Dumas; Lee, Speed, Maric; Gallacher (Ketsbaia, 8), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Karelse (gk), Solano, Glass, Antunes.
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).
Bookings: Watford: Noel-Williams, Palmer. Newcastle: Marcelino, Lee.
Man of the match: Page