James Lawton: John Terry hearing turns the spotlight yet again on football's multi-layered malaise
You could say he is an ultimate example of football's capacity to injure itself
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?
There was another trial, of course, and if Harry Redknapp was acquitted of tax evasion the practices of football, including that of paying already vastly rewarded managers a cut of transfer fees, were greeted with widespread horror. There was talk, and it was hardly fancy, of a moral wasteland.
Now, no one can complain that racism remains high on the FA agenda – and certainly whatever the polarisation caused by the Suarez-Evra case the effect was surely salutary on anyone who had ever contemplated using the language of another age on the football field – but when the ruling body 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.
Terry hardly left that courtroom unscarred and not least damaged by the chief magistrate's statement that his verdict had most to do with the prosecution's burden of proof that was so much more demanding than the requirements of any FA inquiry.
What was established beyond any doubt, with Anton Ferdinand's admission that he had provoked Terry with a series of references to his alleged affair with a team-mate's partner, was that the dialogue of the average Premier League game was commonly at gutter level. That doesn't relegate the crime of racial abuse but in this particular case it certainly blemished the clarity of the moral view.
Nor did it help that Ashley Cole's evidence on behalf of his Chelsea team-mate, and the implication that he was not supporting a racist, led to the swift agreement by Anton's brother Rio with the claim of one internet warrior that the witness was a "choc ice" – or dark on the outside, white inside.
So was the FA right to return to such dangerous terrain? In theory at least, perhaps it was, but clairvoyance is hardly required in estimating the fresh weight of collateral damage.
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.
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.
Ashton's reputation takes a dive after costly trip to the sin bin
Chris Ashton, who was once the great hope of England's rugby union team, was recently praised for his restrained and responsible behaviour while being attacked in a nightclub.
This was well merited, not least in view of the importance the England coach Stuart Lancaster has placed on personal discipline by his players on and off the field.
Unfortunately, Ashton was less of a paragon of professional wisdom at the weekend when he was absent in the sin bin when his team Saracens conceded the vital try in a match against Exeter.
When he first emerged as an international wing of arresting force, a lot of wasted breath was spent on pleas for him to modify his extravagant – not to say juvenile – "swan dive" celebration when grounding the ball for a try. It showed all the restraint of an agitated porpoise. Given Ashton's inherent talent, we can only hope that a little more maturing will now ensue.
There are reasons to be cheerful for both blue and red halves of Merseyside
There cannot be much doubt in neutral hearts about the most uplifting line in the Premier League table.
It is Everton, poverty-stricken, discounted Everton, in third place, and playing football of a strength and an intelligence that it is a joy to behold not only for the brilliantly committed David Moyes.
The manager's statement that watching his team has become one of his greatest pleasures was a remarkable, though, easily understood declaration. It came, after all, from a man who was working on the shape and the priorities of his team long before many better-off rivals had used up their transfer window budgets. Isn't it a pity football life isn't always like this?
There is also encouragement for neighbours Liverpool, who are residing at the other end of the table despite their impressive performance against Manchester United. It came from Anfield icon, and a fierce critic of some of new manager Brendan Rodgers' predecessors, Ian St John. "Forget the league table," says the Saint, "I'm more encouraged by the way Liverpool are playing than I have been for quite a number of years."
This should be good news for the more distraught Liverpool fans. The founder of their tradition, Bill Shankly, once said of St John: "He is strong enough and intelligent enough that had he not been a footballer he might have been middleweight champion of the world."
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