Desperate Scouse Jibes: Poor Public Relations at Portman Road
There have been so many articles on these pages featuring Ipswich Town recently that their supporters may as well have set up camp out in the woodlands of the estate and waited patiently for the next big story at Portman Road to come along. Paul Jewell, who today celebrates his first anniversary as manager of the club, duly obliged this week with his criticism of female official Amy Fearn following Ipswich’s game at Birmingham City. Regular Suffolk correspondent Gavin Barber drove his tractor back onto The Seventy Two’s land overnight wielding a piece of paper containing these words.
Just before Euro ’96, I was at a conference where a succession of speakers were debating the dynamic between football and television. The first, an academic, attempted to describe the history of the relationship as though it were the story of a marriage. It was crass, excruciating, Partridge-esque stuff – “At first, television fluttered its eyelids at football like a teenage girl at a disco”, etc. – there was something in there to offend or alienate every single person in the room.
He was followed by a man from BSkyB who explained how important football was to his company’s expansion strategy, noting as he did so, with absolute conviction, that 50% of the population would never be interested in watching football on television: “and that 50% are…. WOMEN”.
At the end of all this, the chair of the session — an eminent football writer and sociologist — had the unenviable task of summarising the discussion. “Well”, he understated sagely, “it hasn’t really been a morning notable for the quality of its gender politics”.
I was reminded of this in the chaotic aftermath of Paul Jewell’s comments about a penalty decision not given by assistant referee Amy Fearn, following Ipswich’s defeat at Birmingham on Wednesday evening. 16 years on from when football was, as we were persistently reminded at the time, coming home (incidentally — have a look at the video for the original 1996 version of that song and see if you can spot any female faces in the crowd scenes), some of the game’s male figures still seem unable to mention any issues relating to gender without causing some form of embarrassment.
What Jewell actually said, in response to a perhaps mischievously worded question at a press conference (“Everyone to a man thought it was a penalty”), was “To every man, but not a woman”, going on to add that “the lineswoman, or whatever she’s called, had a great view”.
Is this sexist? Some, including Jewell himself, maintain that the first comment was merely an observation, the second a reference to the awkwardness of the term “assistant referees” rather than anything relating to gender. Others argue the first comment implies, intentionally or otherwise, that it was because of Fearn’s gender that she failed to make what Jewell saw as the right decision, and that the second appears dismissive or even contemptuous towards the notion of a female assistant referee.
In a statement issued through the club the next day, Jewell said he would “argue all day long” with anyone who claimed that his comments were sexist, and indeed those arguments have been raging online for the 24 hours since he gave his quotes. Less debatable are these more important facts for Ipswich fans: St Andrew’s was Town’s 11th defeat in 14 games. They lie three points above the Championship’s relegation zone, have lost seven times at Portman Road already (and face sides relegated from the Premier League in their next two home games), have a squad which lacks depth following the return of key loan players to their parent clubs, and is similarly low on either spirit, fitness or concentration, judging by the ludicrous number of points lost to late goals throughout the season. Jewell’s constant tinkering with the defence has failed to cut out the disastrous errors which characterise every game, the midfield which looked so strong earlier in the season now appears distinctly clunky, and the strikers aren’t scoring. All in all, things could be going better.
Which is why the last thing that the club needs right now is bad PR. So here’s the rub: Jewell didn’t have to mention Fearn’s gender when querying her decision-making. He may not have meant his comments in any offensive way but he’s experienced enough to know how they’d be reported. Some have suggested that Town fans would be more forgiving, and making less fuss about it, if the team was in the top six. Damn right we’d be making less fuss. That might not say much for our principles but the context here is a man piling embarrassment onto misery for supporters of his club. And it could have been avoided.
Jewell’s response to the criticism of his comments has a sense of “what, me?” about it. There’s an incredulity that anyone could regard what he said as being offensive, disturbingly redolent of Spinal Tap’s “what’s wrong with being sexy?” confusion about their album cover controversy.
What Jewell said may or may not have actually been sexist, but his multiple references to Fearn’s gender, the unnecessary and unflattering emphasising of her other-ness, make it hard to avoid the suspicion that his comments betray a certain attitude towards the involvement of women in professional football — one which probably would have seemed outdated even at that less-than-enlightened conference debate back in 1996.
It’s similarly hard to avoid the temptation to see that as a proxy for Jewell’s wider understanding of the modern game. So repeated have Town’s failures been this season, so frequent and so embarrassingly simple have been the occasions when opposing managers have outwitted him tactically, so jarring the contradiction between his claims to have a “long-term plan” and his instinctive resort to the quick fix, that he increasingly seems like a manager without either the tactical nous or motivational skills to move his team up the table.
A managerial change – which must surely be imminent unless something unexpectedly brilliant happens against Blackpool on Saturday – won’t come close to solving the deeper-rooted problems at Ipswich, which have been discussed at punishing length on these pages and elsewhere. What Fearn-gate has proved to an increasingly large number of Town fans is that Jewell is a part of those problems rather than the solution to any of them.