If Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino is proven guilty of racial abuse, the Football Association will know exactly what to do with him. There is a process, there are precedents, there will be a severe punishment.
The system is not perfect, but it exists. Luis Suarez received an eight-game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra. If guilty, Firmino’s punishment will be in the ball park of that, as it should be.
If, on Tuesday morning, Firmino was in hospital with a broken back, however, the FA would be scrambling for direction. Bobby Madley, the referee, plainly saw him pushed at speed towards a concrete obstacle by Everton defender Mason Holgate. Yet he awarded no punishment, not even a yellow card.
Mason Holgate needlessly pushed Roberto Firmino off the pitch and over a concrete obstacle
So the incident was witnessed, and dealt with. The fact it could have ended a player’s career, or changed his life irrevocably, is not the point. The FA have plenty of procedures to deal with words, it is deeds they cannot handle.
This is no defence of Firmino, if Holgate heard him correctly. However angry he may have been, there are plenty of epithets he could have used to express his feelings without mentioning race. He does not get a free pass, no matter the provocation.
Yet, equally, to underplay Holgate’s behaviour because of the aftermath does every footballer, black and white, a disservice. There is a duty of care on the playing field, which Holgate spurned. As the FA, too, have no way of addressing this, they have also failed in their duty towards professionals.
Make no mistake, what Holgate did at Anfield was at the extreme end of recklessness. He delivered a firm, two-handed push to the back of a player travelling at speed towards the touchline, which propelled him into and over the walled barrier surrounding the pitch. We hardly need to speculate further about any injury that could have resulted because the potential consequences are limitless.
Firmino found himself with his own supporters following the push from the Everton defender
There is a reason a mid-air hit or a spear tackle in rugby is at least a sin-bin offence, because the consequences of a heavy fall can be so great. Holgate had no control over what happened to Firmino after his push, he did not know whether he was going to nimbly leap the obstacle or career head first into it. He did not know if he would land on the other side with a bruised ego or a broken neck.
That was why, in the part of Firmino’s outburst that can be understood, he asked Holgate, ‘Es maluco?’ It means ‘Are you crazy?’
But Holgate isn’t crazy. He’s not even that exceptional in a sport that has never taken violence as seriously as lesser acts. All anyone needs to know about football’s tolerance of violent play is that Roy Keane received a heavier ban (five games) for writing about an atrocious tackle on Alf Inge Haaland in his autobiography than he did for actually perpetrating it (three games).
David Elleray having issued a straight red card, the FA thought they could take no further action at the time. But when Keane detailed the incident in lurid terms, admitting he meant it, they sprang into action.
Holgate has alleged that Firmino racially abused him after the push in the FA Cup clash
So while a panel now sits to pore over accusations of simulation, there are no repercussions for behaviour that could have consequences considerably further reaching than a dodgy penalty.
Outsiders new to our game are mystified by this. Ask Pep Guardiola whether he is more vexed by Wilfried Zaha going to ground easily or the Jason Puncheon tackle that could have broken Kevin De Bruyne’s leg.
Yet, once the final whistle blows, incidences of violence are considered to be over. Even when a player, Iain Hume of Barnsley, ended up in an induced coma, the FA could not bring themselves to consider further action against Chris Morgan, his assailant. What are they frightened of? And if brain damage did not challenge this flawed reasoning, what will?
So now, while an investigations team grinds into action to unravel the claim and counter-claim of what Firmino said to Holgate, an open and shut case against a player who could have caused serious physical injury to an opponent is ignored. And, yes, racism has been responsible for extremes of misery and suffering through the centuries and must be addressed. But mindless acts of violence are no lesser crime.
Roy Keane received just a three-game ban for his atrocious challenge on Alf Inge Haaland
Reckless brutality is what blights our town centres at the weekends, casually changes lives with one punch, scars and scares at random. The irresponsible, witless lack of concern from one human being for another is a curse, even at its most apparently trivial level, on the sports field. And that is what Holgate displayed at Anfield.
As refereeing standards decline there is more chance of players getting away with wild acts, more chance of the extreme being missed, or at least underplayed. The FA act or, ultimately, the worst one day happens. Firmino may be banned, but he was still a lucky man on Friday night.
David Pleat tells a story about scouting a young striker, playing for Hayes in the Isthmian League. Cyrille Regis had been scoring prolifically throughout the 1976-77 season and a number of clubs were on to him. Top clubs, too. Back then it wasn’t unthinkable for a player to move directly from non-League to the old First Division.
On the night Pleat, then with Luton, watched Regis, so did a dozen or more managers, coaches and scouts. He didn’t have a good game. With about 10 minutes left, the talent-spotters were looking at their watches. A steady trickle made their way towards the exit. Pleat says he was down the stairs on his way out when Hayes’ winger put in a cross and Regis rose four feet above any other player on the pitch to head it into the net.
Cyrille Regis’ West Brom career shows if a player can be the best at just one thing, he has value
The bosses froze. This was a player with value. Within days, Regis had signed for West Brom, where he scored 112 goals in 301 matches. Pleat uses the story to show that if a player can be the best at just one thing, he has value. Certainly, a player who can leap like a stag will always have his admirers — as Shawn McCoulsky, a 21-year-old forward on loan from Bristol City to Newport, may be about to find out.
You can teach a player to become a better footballer; you can’t teach him to jump a torso higher than the rest, and nail a last-minute winner against Leeds.
There is a sad truth about speed skating. Nobody cares. Not really.
Chances are, you don’t know anyone who does it, or even where you can do it. Yet Great Britain has one of the best speed skaters in the world, Elise Christie, a brilliant multiple world champion. Placed in the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist, however, she came last of 12 candidates, with just 6,504 votes.
If she wins a gold medal in the upcoming Winter Olympics, she will briefly become very famous, as happened to our gold medal skeleton sliders, Lizzy Yarnold and Amy Williams. And then things will go back to normal, because that’s winter sports for you. Every four years, they matter.
Elise Christie is one of the best speed skaters in the world but nobody really cares for the sport
Yet last week, Christie was recalling the 2014 Olympics when she tangled on the ice with some South Korean skaters, and subsequently received death threats. ‘I thought people did actually want to kill me,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I was worried.’
And that is what it can be like, social media, for sports people. In the eye of that storm, a person can think the whole world is talking about them. Actually, few are. One per cent of Twitter users account for a fifth of all tweets, and 15 per cent generate 85 per cent of total traffic.
A quarter of verified accounts belong to journalists. It’s a bubble. Yet, on Friday, when Alan Shearer said Liverpool’s penalty should not have been given, he quickly felt under siege from the negative reaction.
Shearer was particularly upset that his wife and family were mentioned in the abuse. This is where we are now. Extremes of opinion, extreme reactions — fans at the ground who think Jake Livermore’s dead son is fair game, fans at keyboards who wish horrible circumstances on a man’s family, just because he disagrees about a penalty call.
Sports people can feel like the whole world is talking about them when they use social media
In reality, most good people are far too busy to pay attention.
Eddie Izzard realised this, on coming out as transvestite. ‘Eighty per cent of the country don’t give a monkey’s,’ he said. ‘They just go, I’m cooking eggs, I don’t really care.’
It’s the same with social media. The sensible ones aren’t bothered enough to issue death threats or insult families, and the ones that do aren’t worth entertaining in the first place.
Alvaro Morata took plenty of criticism after missing three one-on-one attempts for Chelsea against Arsenal last week. His conversion rate in such circumstances or similar – clear opportunities from which he is reasonably expected to score – stands at a measly 39.1 per cent.
This sounds poor, unless one considers the competition. Mo Salah, one of the most prolific goalscorers in the Premier League this season, scores from a big chance just 40 per cent of the time, Alexis Sanchez 44.4 per cent, Sergio Aguero 45.4.
Alvaro Morata took plenty of criticism for missing three one-on-one attempts at Arsenal
Even Harry Kane only scores from 61.9 per cent of his major chances, meaning he misses around four in 10. The deadliest player, one on one, in the Premier League right now? Raheem Sterling at 66.6 per cent. He has to start for England this summer.
The owners of Liverpool are venture capitalists, and everything has its price. For that reason, once the bidding reached a certain level, the transfer of Philippe Coutinho was always going to go through, whether in January or the summer.
Considering the player cost just £8.5million, to sell for £145m represents an incredible deal for Liverpool – yet the timing is open to debate.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are fourth, three points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham, but were those positions reversed by the end of the season, selling the club’s most creative player will be considered a contributory factor. In those circumstances, take at least £30m off the fee, more if long-term ramifications take effect.
If Liverpool finish fifth then Philippe Coutinho’s sale will be considered a contributory factor
Tottenham, returning home to the new White Hart Lane next season, are trying to cement a place in Europe’s elite. Having kept a Champions League berth for the first time this season, they are desperate to make it three in a row, not least because it could be key to keeping Harry Kane.
So these are high stakes. Liverpool have made a lot of money. Yet if selling Coutinho causes them to falter, gives Tottenham a leg up, and allows them to come home with European football and all their best players present, the decision to sell in January will have been flawed, no matter how many noughts are on the cheque.
Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte are claimed to be a poor influence on football, requiring a mediating presence.
Anyone who thinks this is a problem worthy of adult consideration is not paying enough attention to the world in which we live.
Jose Mourinho’s spat with Antonio Conte is not a problem worthy of adult consideration
In the column last week, I gave Hull City’s average attendance in the Championship as 15,826. And that is the official figure.
Matthew Rudd at the Amber Nectar podcast, however, has helpfully pointed me in the direction of a Freedom of Information request submitted in August, showing the true toll taken by relegation and the conflict between Hull fans and owners the Allam family.
This shows that while 15,504 was the announced attendance against Bolton on August 25, the actual gate was 12,834 with 898 travelling from Bolton. Against Wolves on August 15, the actual attendance was 14,459, not the 17,284 given — and 1,358 of those were away fans. If this has carried on throughout the season, Hull are inflating their gate by roughly 20 per cent each week.
Hull’s attendance figures make a mockery of the Allams’ attitude towards the club’s fans
A ground that is one fifth closed – the Upper West Stand isn’t currently open – is now barely half full. Even if the official figures were accurate this would still be Hull’s poorest average since 2002-03 when they were in the fourth tier.
Of course, there is no rule that says crowd figures have to be accurate. Clubs are entitled to include season-ticket holders whether they turn up or not — the ticket has, after all, been sold — and Hull would not be the first to brazenly overstate their popularity. Manchester City, in the days of Peter Swales, were famous for it.
However, Hull’s numbers do rather make of mockery of the Allams’ dismissive attitude towards supporters during the Hull Tigers debacle. If fans really are so irrelevant, why not be honest about how many have been lost over a misguided, baseless spat?
After winning the Brisbane International, the tiresome Nick Kyrgios was in typically self-effacing form. ‘It’s like a tap,’ he said of his talent. ‘I can turn it on when I want to.’
Nick Kyrgios said he could turn his talent on ‘like a tap’ after winning the Brisbane International
We can only presume, then, that he has never fancied winning a Grand Slam – for in 21 of them, he’s never got further than two quarter-finals.
Of the 15 clubs who made seven or more changes for the FA Cup third round, only four won.
There are an awful lot of ordinary players in Premier League reserve teams, it seems.
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