James Lawton: Bowyer and Birmingham given notice that fans' loyalty to the shirt is not blind

Fan power, we should know well enough by now, can be a dubious force. It can be excessively sentimental and wrong, a point once made by an old pro new to football management who was running into a bit of censure from the terraces.

Fan power, we should know well enough by now, can be a dubious force. It can be excessively sentimental and wrong, a point once made by an old pro new to football management who was running into a bit of censure from the terraces.

"I wonder what a fan would say," he mused, "if somebody came into his workplace and told him how to do his job? Say he's a motor mechanic and he's working away in the pit - and some guy, maybe a bank manager interested in cars, pokes his head down and gives a bit of advice. Don't you think there's every chance he would be told, for want of a better phrase, to push off."

It's a fair point - but only to a degree. Football is not car maintenance. It is not bank managing. It has a moral dimension. It is also true, the old pro has to remember, that the fan pays everybody's wages. If he does indeed push off, the whole enterprise of professional football collapses. So the fan has to be tolerated, with a degree of respect, at all times. Sometimes, he warrants a lot more than that. Sometimes, he has to be listened to very intently indeed. This was particularly true in the affairs of Birmingham City this week, when the moral dimension, quite lost on the club's chairman, David Sullivan, and manager, Steve Bruce, leaped out of the woodwork of St Andrews like a screaming banshee.

Sullivan says that it was only a small minority of the Birmingham fans who would have been scandalised by the appearance of Lee Bowyer in their team's colours. Bruce said he was devastated by the protests which have jettisoned the move. He added, outrageously, "I can't believe that something like this has cost us a really good player."

What, precisely, is "something like this?" If Bruce doesn't know, he should get to do so in a hurry. It is a good feeling of decency when you go to cheer on your team, when you take your family along to celebrate the pleasure of having a set of loyalties. It is not being torn with ambivalence whenever one of your team touches the ball. It is considering what minimum requirements you have of anyone representing you out on the field.

Bruce has already resurrected the career of Jermaine Pennant, who served a spell in prison. He reported his shock at visiting the player while he was doing his time. No one can criticise Bruce for this. Everyone is entitled to a second chance and, fortunately, Pennant, despite terribly irresponsible behaviour, had done most damage to himself. But the Bowyer case is different. Bowyer's track record is an affront to the best values of the game. His career pattern is one of recidivism. At Charlton, at Leeds and then, after a brief hiatus at West Ham, at Newcastle, he has consistently dragged football down. He was found not guilty in the trial of racist-inspired violence which broke apart Leeds United almost as much as the crazed financial policies of the club, but was branded by both a judge and his manager as a liar. His professional standards were exposed at zero in a drunken binge.

At Newcastle he brawled with his team-mate Kieron Dyer in full view of a capacity crowd at St James' Park and a national television audience.

If the fans have vetoed his arrival at St Andrews it is their absolute right to say their loyalty can be stretched beyond the limit. Indeed, what they have done - and their reaction can be separated from the suggestion that the deal was always in trouble because of Bowyer's financial demands - is a warning to all of football. It is saying that there is so much that the average, reasonably knowing fan can take.

This means there are lessons for everyone in the game. Rio Ferdinand is one player who should consider seriously this new - and indeed only - element of fan power. He should remember that everyone who inhabits a football stand isn't a fool. He should know that his performance - on and off the field - has come under a strong critical gaze.

One fan belief is that the players share at least some of his commitment to the success of the club, so what can he think when he hears of Ferdinand's reluctance to sit down and negotiate a new contract with Manchester United after making a demand of £120,000 a week? He can recall some of Ferdinand's indifferent displays, his extravagant lifestyle, the fact that he received full wages during an eight-month suspension imposed for "forgetting" to take a mandated drugs test.

The United fan can only echo the feelings of his Arsenal counterpart in the Ashley Cole case. He can only say that it is time to stop and think about what is happening in the game, and consider whether this is indeed the point where he says he can no longer pursue a loyalty that is so consistently abused.

Sullivan, who built his wealth on soft porn, does not see the Bowyer affair as a hard moral issue which goes to the heart of the club-fan relationship. He says: "It looks like we are going to lose out on a terrific player due to a small minority of fans and I'm absolutely gutted." Small minority? It is one that could swell a lot quicker than he, and almost everybody else in football, might imagine. The fans of Birmingham City should be respected - and listened to - for exerting a precious right. It is to have a little conscience about whom - and what - they support.


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