“In recent years sport has achieved an increasingly high profile as part of New Labour’s social inclusion agenda, based on assumptions about its potential contribution to areas such as social and economic regeneration, crime reduction, health improvement and educational achievement. However, these new opportunities … have been accompanied by a potential threat: evidence-based policy-making.”
So began the introduction to Fred Coalter’s 2007 book A Wider Social Role for Sport, which sounded a lone sceptical note at a time when sport was apparently perceived by those in power as a panacea, an uncomplicatedly Good Thing. Coalter’s concern was that while this supposedly self-evident truth may perhaps have been true, it certainly wasn’t self-evident. As the word “assumptions” and the book’s subtitle, Who’s Keeping the Score?, suggest, he argued that – for a variety of reasons – the available research findings offered precious little to substantiate the confident claims being made for sport’s wider social utility.
Subsequent books, such as Daniel Bloyce and Andy Smith’s Sport Policy and Development and Examining Sports Development, edited by Mike Collins, took up the gauntlet thrown down by Coalter, setting out to establish an evidence base upon which government policy could be founded. This research is ongoing, but it seems to be painting a more complicated and ambivalent picture than policy might have hitherto suggested.
Generally speaking, studies have sought to explore the effectiveness of participatory involvement in sport: could promoting such involvement genuinely help to fight not only the obesity epidemic but also less obvious battles – those against social exclusion, discrimination, drugs and criminality, for example? Implicit in the enthusiastic government endorsement of sport with regard to individuals is the belief that it inculcates positive social and moral values, and that sportsmen and women embody a host of admirable traits such as focus, ambition, discipline, determination and drive.
Needless to say, this is not a belief to which the world of top-level football appears to bear much witness.
It’s a world that matters, given that sport is a consumable activity as well as a participatory one, and that football is the undisputed national game. And the evidence to the contrary is splashed daily across the back – and, more often than not, the front – pages of newspapers. Cheating and gamesmanship are rife, “part and parcel of the game“; abuse of officials is commonplace, with clubs paying laughable lip service to the Respect agenda; racist incidents are a depressingly regular occurrence; sexist and homophobic attitudes seem institutionally ingrained to the extent that a Premier League player “daring” to pose for the front cover of a gay magazine is deemed worthy of several media commentaries (all of which hurriedly describe him as “married“…).
Players, meanwhile, are hardly paragons of virtue. Surely policy-makers in the UK cheerily extolling the values of sport must wince when they consider that John Terry and Wayne Rooney are two of the lynchpins of the English national team? Football has a capacious hall of infamy, home to drunks (Paul Merson, Paul McGrath, Paul Gascoigne), drink drivers (Jan Molby, Tony Adams, Jermaine Pennant), violent assailants (Duncan Ferguson, Dennis Wise, Jonathan Woodgate), air rage aggressors (Vinnie Jones), gun toters (Faustino Asprilla), dart throwers (Mario Balotelli), counterfeiters (Mickey Thomas, Peter Storey) and brothel managers (Gunners double winner Storey again). Diego Maradona, George Best and Eric Cantona, much-idolised possessors of what could be diplomatically termed a roguish streak, were all the recipients of criminal convictions, and even the game’s supposed saints sometimes turn out to be secret sinners – just ask Ryan Giggs. While we should guard against tarring all footballers with the same brush, it’s nevertheless clear that the beautiful game is played by some pretty ugly characters, and that setting them up as role models is akin to mistaking the lion’s enclosure at London Zoo for a creche.
In case this sounds too judgemental, I should add that footballers’ misdemeanours are often at least in part the consequence of external factors. Lest we forget, players are often ordinary naive young people who find themselves suddenly thrust into exceptional circumstances on account of a particular ability. “There is no limit anymore, you can do what you want,” claimed former Ajax, Inter Milan and Everton winger Andy van der Meyde, talking about his own off-field indiscretions on Radio 5′s recent two-part series Wasted, which focused on the topic of footballers who squander their talent.
Youth, wealth, arrogance: a combination that is sometimes genuinely fatal.
* * * * *
The early hours of 7th June 2008, and Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper Luke McCormick was returning from former team-mate David Norris’ nuptials in Bolton. He was tired after just two hours sleep and in an agitated frame of mind, under the mistaken belief that his fiancee had been unfaithful. He was also more than twice over the legal alcohol limit. Driving his Range Rover down the M6 like an “idiot” and ignoring pleas from his passenger to pull over, he crashed into another car, killing brothers Arron and Ben Peak, ten and eight respectively, and injuring the four other occupants. Four months later he was convicted of causing two counts of death by dangerous driving and driving with excess alcohol and sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.
At the time of the accident, the 24-year-old McCormick had established himself as the Devon club’s first-choice ‘keeper, ousting fans’ favourite Romain Larrieu, and was already proud possessor of two of the club’s Young Player of the Year awards. That fateful June day had an inevitably catastrophic impact on what had appeared a bright footballing future. At first suspended by Plymouth, he was then set adrift, his contract cancelled by what was euphemistically termed “mutual consent“, even before the custodial sentence was imposed.
Prior to his release in June last year, McCormick started training with Swindon Town and it looked as though that’s where he’d begin to try to resurrect his career. Chairman Jeremy Wray defended the club’s decision to afford him that opportunity: “The guy’s done his time. He wants to come back and give something back to society. The best way we can do that is to rehabilitate, and that’s the role Swindon can play.” Wray even went so far as to say he’d tender his resignation if the club’s reputation was harmed as a result. In the event the two parties parted company without McCormick being offered a contract or playing a game, and while Wray didn’t resign, the incident and ensuing public relations brouhaha was perhaps partly what prompted his removal two months later. Robins manager Paulo Di Canio, it turned out, didn’t share the opinion of the man who appointed him: “We were happy to help a person who had paid his price. But I don’t think it was right to sign him as we are not a recovery clinic.” A bit rich, really, given the Italian’s own not inconsiderable rap sheet…
McCormick has now resurfaced at Truro City, who themselves felt the need to issue a statement in defence of their new signing. Administrator Kate Breese pointed to the club’s league predicament, extreme financial plight and paucity of playing resources, and the fact that McCormick has agreed to play for free, but also took a similar line to Wray: “Certain people may have concerns over Luke’s past, but his past is precisely that. Luke has served the time deemed appropriate by the judicial system and that chapter is now closed. Luke has been extremely remorseful over the cause of his jail term but, as stated, the sentence has been served and there is no benefit to anyone in not allowing him to play the sport that he loves and has great ability at.”
If McCormick was under any illusions as to how hard rehabilitation would be, then the tabloids are doing a sterling job of reminding him. It was the Sun wot instigated the campaign against him finding employment in Wiltshire, indignantly underlining Swindon’s status as the Football League’s Family Club of the Year for the benefit of the children’s grieving mother Amanda Peak. His move to Truro may have taken place under the radar, but when he made his debut the paper was on hand to brand him with one of their damningly prejudicial two-word epithets: “killer goalie“.
It was the Sun, too, wot published paparazzi photos of McCormick having a drink. “Onlookers said he poured two bottles of sweet alcoholic pear cider into a glass filled with ice”,” the rag exclusively revealed. “We are trying to come to terms with everything now and trying to get on with our lives,” commented Mrs Peak. “But obviously that is difficult when we keep being faced with things like this.” Of course, the family wouldn’t “keep being faced with things like this” if it wasn’t for the helpful, crusading Sun and its journalists, tireless in the pursuit of justice.
This is actually a very serious point. As Daniel Taylor noted in his reaction to Swindon’s dalliance with McCormick for the Guardian, such is the unfortunate nature of football and the media, in this country at least. Everyone has a “fundamental right … to be given the chance to rebuild his or her life at the end of a prison sentence”, but for footballers, whose every move is scrutinised by the tabloids, attempting to take that opportunity can be made to appear unforgivably callous, magnifying the anguish of the victims or those they’ve left behind.
As for McCormick, no doubt he continues to suffer too, tormented by the knowledge of that fatal mistake four years ago. One wonders whether online photos of him in a goalkeeping jersey will forever be outnumbered by photos of him as a haunted-looking figure in a suit.
* * * * *
Not that being able to pick up the pieces of a seemingly shattered career and move on is completely impossible. Dutch legend Patrick Kluivert was convicted of a very similar offence at the age of just 19 (though he dodged jail, escaping with a suspended sentence and community service) and yet still went on to become a global superstar with Ajax, AC Milan and Barcelona. Likewise, Adam Chapman was a rookie midfielder at Oxford Utd when, in 2010, he too was found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving. After a spell in a Young Offenders’ Institute, he’s now back on the outside and back in the saddle at the Kassam – still making the headlines, but for causing comical injury to himself rather than fatal injury to others.
Taylor’s Guardian article on McCormick almost inevitably also made reference to Lee Hughes, another footballer who has been able to put the past behind him and forge a modestly successful playing career. In November 2003, the striker not only killed someone through his erratic behaviour behind the wheel but also fled the scene of the crime, only turning himself into the police 36 hours later. The following August Smethwick-born Hughes was jailed for six years and his contract immediately terminated by West Brom, “the team I have supported all my life.”
Released in 2007 after serving half his sentence, Hughes issued a public apology and openly stated: “I hope for a chance to rebuild my life.” Oldham were the club prepared to offer him that chance, director Barry Owen commenting that they did “not condone what happened and we are very sympathetic towards the family of the victim” but that Hughes “has paid the price for what occurred. We would ask supporters and the general public not to pass moral judgement.”
Despite Hughes’ considerable baggage, Owen couldn’t resist claiming that Oldham had landed themselves “a top-class signing“, and sure enough the man who once upon a time cost Coventry £5m was soon rattling in the goals. And yet less than two years later, he hit the headlines again for the wrong reasons, allegedly scrapping with his manager (John Sheridan, newly appointed at Plymouth) on what was supposedly a team-bonding night out at the dogs. When Sheridan was sacked soon after, he insisted the incident had been blown out of proportion: “Lee Hughes did have me in a headlock – but in a jovial way. It was results that cost me the job.”
Hughes’ next employers, after a loan spell at Blackpool, were Notts County, whom he left earlier this month. Again, he proved a regular menace to goalkeepers and opposing defences during his time at Meadow Lane, scoring 30 goals to help the Magpies to the League Two title in 2009-10 – but again he couldn’t quite manage to steer clear of trouble, earning a conviction for common assault last year after a related charge of sexual assault was dropped. As Sheridan had done of the headlock, Hughes’ solicitor trivialised the incident as “an act of horseplay“, even though the female victim was clearly distressed enough to press charges. It’s the sort of language you imagine Keysy and Grayey, those self-appointed High Priests of Banter, might have used in Hughes’ defence.
Perhaps the lesson is that, as a 36-year-old professional footballer and particularly one convicted of so serious an offence as causing death by dangerous driving, Hughes should think twice about mucking about. Nevertheless, he appears to have largely escaped quite the degree of censure and moral opprobrium directed at McCormick. I’d venture to suggest that this might be because his victim was “only” 56-year-old Douglas Graham. Had his crime been to end the lives of two children as they’d only just begun, then the tabloids – the Sun chief among them – would have no doubt judged him more severely.
* * * * *
And then, of course, there is Marlon King – a player who, when it comes to repeat offending, makes Hughes look like a hopeless amateur. To describe his past as “chequered” would be like describing Lionel Messi as “decent enough at football“. The journeyman striker’s list of convictions is even longer than the list of clubs for which he’s played: criminal damage, wounding, drink driving, two counts of theft, two counts of assault on young women, and more. It’s enough to turn even the most bleeding-hearted liberal into a rabid lock-’im-up-and-throw-away-the-key Daily Mail reader.
For his many sins, King has received a smorgasbord of sentences, including two stints in clink. The first of these, five months for receiving a stolen BMW, was served in 2002, and his employers Gillingham decided to stand by their man, with chairman Paul Scally seemingly convinced of his innocence: “He’s been a model professional at this football club. I don’t think there’s a bad bone in Marlon King’s body.” I suspect Scally may have revised that opinion as the years have passed and the rap sheet has lengthened.
When in October 2009 King, by then at Wigan, received a prison sentence for a second time – for committing sexual assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm the previous December – Dave Whelan certainly took a different view: “We will not tolerate football players who get sent to jail for 18 months. As far as we are concerned, he is finished with football at Wigan Athletic. We tell our players they have got to have standards and set standards, particularly in their private lives.” Groping a 20-year-old female student and then punching her in the face was indeed a novel approach to upholding professional standards, as indeed it was a curious way of celebrating your wife’s third pregnancy.
Remarkably, though, Whelan later performed a complete volte-face: “He’s served his sentence. I’m sure he’s learned a lot and I forgive him and wish him well if he gets back into the game. I was very upset at the time, but I really think you’ve got to forgive people because we all make mistakes and if he can get back into the game, good luck to him.” He had a point: we do all make mistakes. It’s just that, unlike you or I – or Luke McCormick, for that matter – Marlon King has made mistakes repeatedly and shown no sign of learning the error of his ways.
His victim Emily Carr waived her right to anonymity to call for King to be banned from football for life, but after serving nine months of his 18-month sentence (against which he had tried to appeal in vain) he was back to grace football pitches up and down the land. This time it was Coventry who handed him a route to rehabilitation – one which he duly seized, finishing the 2010-11 season as the club’s top scorer and claiming the title of Fans’ Player of the Year as reward.
However, while he may not have learned from his mistakes, King does seem to have picked up a thing or two about volte-faces from Dave Whelan, having then promptly reneged on a verbal agreement to sign a new deal with the Sky Blues and jumped ship to Birmingham. Incensed Coventry chairman Ken Dulieu was unequivocal in his condemnation of King’s ingratitude: “We are fuming about this and feel we have been betrayed. … The club and our supporters have fully backed Marlon on his return to the game and I think we deserve better than this. We have shown great faith in him, helped him rebuild his career and were delighted that he was due to continue playing for us.” Dulieu and the Coventry fans are not the first victims of King’s actions – and in all likelihood won’t be the last either.
* * * * *
So what’s it actually like to support a club which chooses to employ a convicted criminal?
For a spell in the early to mid noughties, the Newcastle squad featured Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate, Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer – or, as I liked to call them, Bobby’s Borstal Boys – while in recent seasons strikers Andy Carroll and Nile Ranger have done an excellent job of keeping the nation’s legal system preoccupied. But, of course, it’s the man known to judges as Joseph Anthony Barton to whom I’m referring.
Like Marlon King, Barton has revealed himself to be a committed, enthusiastic recidivist. Google “joey barton” “second chance” and you’ll get “about 124,000 hits“. No sooner has he turned over a new leaf of his copybook than he’s put a bloody great blot on it. With his Newsnight appearances opposite Paxman and appetite for books, he clearly fancies himself as a cut above his fellow professionals, something of a Renaissance man – and yet he’s seemingly incapable of keeping his Neanderthal side in check.
When Barton arrived at St James’ Park in the summer of 2007, he already had plenty of form. Notorious past misdemeanours included assaulting a 15-year-old Everton fan on a pre-season tour in Thailand (Barton’s version of events here) and mistaking youth team player Jamie Tandy’s eye for an ashtray. His exit from Man City had been precipitated by a training ground bust-up with Ousmane Dabo which left the Frenchman scarred. Nevertheless, Sam Allardyce – in a display of characteristic arrogance – evidently believed he could keep the midfield miscreant on the straight and narrow.
So it came as little surprise when the news broke that Barton had chosen to celebrate a spectacularly dismal Boxing Day defeat at Wigan by getting himself arrested in Liverpool and subsequently charged with common assault and affray. He was convicted in May 2008 and went on to serve 77 days of the six-month sentence, during which time he was given an additional four-month suspended sentence for the attack on Dabo. For their part, the club opted to stand by Barton, a decision that was never publicly explained. The CCTV footage meant that it surely couldn’t have been because – like naive, deluded Paul Scally – we believed he was innocent. In the absence of any other plausible explanation, I assumed it was because we weren’t prepared to write off one of our main assets, regardless of any moral scruples.
Barton’s return to action was delayed by the six-game ban also imposed as part of the punishment for the Dabo incident, but when it finally came it was a difficult experience. Having spent the previous few months hoping we’d sack him for bringing the club into disrepute (well, further into disrepute than it usually is), I was then faced with the prospect of roaring on a team of which he was a central component. For some supporters this was no problem at all – reading some messageboards, I got the depressing feeling that a sizeable number of fans would wholeheartedly cheer Pol Pot as long as he was turning out decent performances in black and white. But personally I felt profoundly uncomfortable, much as you might if finding yourself sympathising with Alex Ferguson or chuckling at a Mark Lawrenson joke – the sort of thing that instantly demands you flay yourself red-raw with a cat o’ nine tails before rolling around in a vat of salt. I was repeatedly attacked as being disloyal, “not a true fan“, for saying so.
Upon his release from prison Barton declared (probably not for the first time) that he wanted “to be a role model“, but, given what followed over his remaining three years on Tyneside, it’s to be hoped that impressionable young people were looking the other way: a red card against Liverpool, the subsequent furious four-letter post-match confrontation with Alan Shearer and Iain Dowie, a suspension for punching Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen in the stomach. The club hierarchy’s patience finally snapped in the summer of 2011, when contract talks broke down and Barton, as is his wont, took to Twitter to mouth off, much to the annoyance of the powers-that-be.
Like a well-timed aspirin, QPR manager Neil Warnock was on hand to take away Mike Ashley’s headache, even somewhat rashly appointing him club captain. Of course, it wasn’t long before Barton forgot all about leading by example, earning a straight red for head-butting Norwich midfielder Bradley Johnson and mocking Warnock’s training methods after he’d been given the boot. His piece de resistance, though, was to get sent off for elbowing Man City’s Carlos Tevez in the Hoops’ final game of last season, when they desperately needed points to ensure Premier League survival, and to compound that act of aggression with two more, kicking Sergio Aguero and attempting to head-butt Vincent Kompany. The punishment was justifiably heavy: a twelve-game ban from the FA, stripped of the captaincy by QPR, fined by both.
And yet British football’s best-known philosopher-thug now finds himself not in a Siberian gulag, on loan at Fleetwood or even suffering another season of painful relegation struggle with QPR, but basking in the Marseille sunshine, listening to the Smiths and quoting Noam Chomsky to his heart’s content. Where’s the justice?
* * * * *
The latest addition to football’s rogues’ gallery – alongside the usual suspects profiled above – is Ched Evans, jailed in April last year after being found guilty of raping a 19-year-old the previous May. The court had heard that the Welshman told detectives: “We could have had any girl we wanted. We are footballers, that’s how it is. Footballers are rich, they have got money, that’s what girls like.”
Friends and family immediately lambasted the judgement as a miscarriage of justice, some publicly naming the victim and thereby falling foul of the law themselves. However, Evans’ club Sheffield Utd refused to offer support in his darkest hour, releasing him from his contract – as they did team-mate Connor Brown for branding the victim a “money-grabbing little tramp” (among other defamatory remarks) on Twitter. Those used to cheering him from the terraces, though, seemed somewhat more sympathetic – at least if the Daily Mail was to be believed, when it got itself all hot under the collar at the prospect of some fans holding a couple of minutes’ applause in honour of their fallen idol during a televised match.
An appeal against the sentence may have been dismissed, but Evans will nevertheless be eligible for release towards the end of next year. For the first two seasons at Bramall Lane following his 2009 move from Man City, the striker had struggled to live up to his £3m price tag and £20,000-a-week salary; curiously it was only once he had the threat of a jail term hanging over his head that he found form, notching 35 goals last season until the jury’s verdict brought it to a premature end. Back on the outside, will he be able to pick up where he left off? Only time will tell.
* * * * *
So, what are the take-home messages from all this, then?
Let’s start with footballers themselves. Players need to be mindful – and to be made mindful by their clubs – of the importance of conducting themselves in the right manner off the pitch as well as on it. Being a professional footballer at the highest levels brings with it an extraordinary and almost unimaginable array of privileges – however, it also entails significant responsibilities that shouldn’t be neglected. Thanks to the ubiquity of the media, all eyes are trained on them at all times.
Lapses of judgement of varying degrees are inevitable, but it’s how an individual then reacts that is important. There is a world of difference between Luke McCormick and Marlon King. Those who make a mistake, however heinous, and show contrition should be allowed the opportunity for redemption, whereas those who prove themselves to be chronic reoffenders, with scant regard for their victims or for the support of those around them, gradually forfeit that opportunity.
Meanwhile, clubs’ motives for offering employment to convicted criminals are complex and multi-faceted. Some, like Swindon’s Jeremy Wray, portray the club in question as selfless philanthropists, Good Samaritans stopping to give assistance to someone left battered and bloodied by an encounter with the judicial system – and of course such offers of assistance are needed and to be welcomed if rehabilitation is to be remotely possible. However, others, like Oldham’s Barry Owen and Truro’s Kate Breese, can’t help but concede their delight at securing the services of players who, but for a spell spent at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, would be out of their league.
Whatever their motivation, though, clubs shouldn’t be surprised if the decision to sign damaged goods makes them appear, in some eyes, to be morally bankrupt and can also have few complaints if it subsequently explodes in their face. Newcastle and QPR employed Joey Barton in full knowledge of his past history, while, for all Ken Dulieu’s indignation, Coventry could hardly say that Marlon King’s spectacular ingratitude was out of character.
And then there’s the media. Like the clubs, the press have a responsibility to allow for the possibility of redemption rather than simply damning to eternity any footballer convicted of a crime. Sadly, they seem blissfully unaware that perpetually haranguing a player can actually serve to exacerbate rather than ease his victims’ pain. Or perhaps the Sun and company are perfectly aware, but just callously choose to ignore this inconvenient truth because repeatedly raking over the grisly details of the crime is far more “newsworthy” and sells more papers. Footballers and their clubs actually do a considerable amount of positive work in the community. Unfortunately, though, this usually only ends up being reported on clubs’ websites; if such stories were to appear regularly in the mainstream media, then perhaps the rosy view sport development gurus have of sport in general might not look quite so ludicrous when applied to football.
Which brings me finally back to the start, to the politicians and policy-makers. While I suspect that research on grassroots participation in football will show that it does have significant wider benefits beyond merely keeping fit, it’s worth noting that those who take part at grassroots level often only do so having been inspired by the professionals – many of whom, as I’ve sought to underline, aren’t exactly conventional role models. At times, footballers even seem actively intent on glamourising bad behaviour, rejoicing in vice over virtue. In this context, then, the folly of promoting football as some kind of social panacea is obvious.