When will English football regain its perspective?
As Rio Ferdinand left the field of play following Manchester United’s tumultuous 3-2 victory over Manchester City earlier this month, the bloodied state of the defender’s left eyebrow was a fairly unsubtle precursor to the week of headlines that were set to come.
Within the aftermath of Robin van Persie’s 90th minute winner, Ferdinand was of course struck by a coin thrown from an as of yet unidentified idiot from the Etihad support. For the ex-Leeds United man, it was an unsavoury incident, but one he chose not to dwell on. Rather than fuelling the baying media’s incessant desire to panic, Ferdinand chose to play down the incident, jokingly referring to the culprit as a ‘good shot’.
Predictably however, this was never going to be enough to prevent the monsoon of moral panic that we’ve since been subjected to.
On the back of almost every Monday paper – and the front in some cases – editors chose to immortalize a frenetic Manchester derby with the image of a stricken Ferdinand, rather than that of a celebrating Van Persie. A decision based on appropriate news values? Maybe so, but the ensuing debate offered us something of a hallmark in terms of how far media hysteria has ballooned in the last ten years.
Because contrary to what the reaction to the Ferdinand incident might suggest, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen someone targeted with a missile by one of English football’s moronic minority.
Indeed, it will be 11 years next month since Liverpool lost 1-0 away to Arsenal in a stormy FA Cup fourth-round tie. It was hardly a game that will be fondly remembered in the annals of history, but given the events of the past couple of weeks, it seems strange that many seem to have forgot what happened that day.
There was only around 20 minutes left to play in the game, before a young, fresh faced and decidedly unhappy Jamie Carragher was struck by a coin amongst a couple of other missiles from the Highbury crowd. As opposed to seeing out the rest of the game and delivering a Ferdinand-esque jovial retort, Carragher took matters into his own hands, picked up the coin and proceeded to launch it back into the stands.
It was a moment of madness from the man who went on to lift the Champions League under Rafa Benitez, and it was certainly a far, far more serious incident than what we witnessed in the blue half of Manchester ten days ago. In this case, it was a supporter allegedly left with an injury, as opposed to a Premier League footballer.
Although the difference here is within the immediate aftermath. We didn’t have anyone demanding that the players reign in their celebrations and take responsibility, as Jamie Redknapp did last week. Furthermore, you certainly didn’t hear anyone calling for the introduction of netting at football grounds, as Martin Keown recently suggested in his column for the Daily Mail. As opposed to launching into a moral crusade looking for someone to vilify and someone to change, English football took a step back and viewed it for what it was.
Carragher was widely condemned, forced to apologize and sat out the three-match ban that came with his red card for violent conduct. But there was no mass vilification for either Carragher or English football fans in general. There were no more games heaped onto his initial ban, in an attempt make an example out of him.
The incident was accepted for what it was – an unsavoury moment instigated by a minority and a ridiculous reaction from a player who was dealt with appropriately. Then that was it. Naturally, there was debate and critique within the public forum, but both fans and media accepted for what it was and moved on.
Yet in those 11 years, while the English media has always bestowed a penchant for hysteria, it seems to have developed an inability to move on from an incident without finding some form of closure.
The notion that out of the thousands of people that attend football matches every week, occasionally one or two of them might in fact be bad eggs – as in any other realm of society – is rendered inconceivable. Of course, after one coin hits Ferdinand on the head, the natural reaction is to destroy grounds by placing netting behind the goals and to stop players from celebrating.
What happened to Ferdinand shouldn’t for five minutes be swept under the carpet or sought to be underplayed in any way. It was a serious incident and it could have had some terrible ramifications should it have landed on his retina, rather than his eyebrow.
But as opposed to focusing on the frequency in which players tend to be hit from objects from the crowd, which usually tends to be once in a blue moon, the media have decided to use an undoubtedly nasty, yet generally rare incident, as a yardstick for Premier League reality.
Increased media hysteria might seem like part and parcel of modern day football, but as with any other continued, overzealous dissection of an incident, it only serves to drag the agenda into the public domain. Before the Manchester derby, coin throwing was a condemnable, yet rare practice at football grounds. Now, we apparently need netting up and our players are at risk of getting stabbed, if you listen to Redknapp and co.
English football’s never been known for its famous sense of perspective, but it needs to try and reign in the hysteria before it starts cultivating widespread and potentially damaging changes to the game. He’s made his fair share of mistakes during his career, but perhaps we could do a lot worse than following the lead of Rio Ferdinand’s take on this one. As with all things in life, perspective is key. We’d do well to bear that in mind next time we see a flashpoint in English football.