THE LAW OF THE BUNGLE


(Unpublished article rejected by When Saturday Comes, 1998)

Opposition fans have long known Alan Shearer to be a hard man on the football field but, to date, his reputation as England’s captain and an ultra-bland front man with the media has blinded press and commentators to his less palatable aspects. It came as no surprise to some of us when Opta-index picked out Shearer as the player who, minute for minute, committed the most fouls in the 1996/97 Premiership season.

But just as some players have the reputation – occasionally unjustified – for being nasty and niggling foulers, so too do some players cruise through games on an elevated reputation that sees them escape punishment that would come automatically to their marked brethren. Opta-index again recently picked out Shearer for having received one yellow card since his return to Premiership action, despite a record for fouls comparable with the likes of Batty, Ince, Wise and Jones – accepted hard men all.

All of this took a possible knock with the events at Filbert Street on April when Shearer’s boot made contact with Neil Lennon’s face. Captured in glorious living colour for all the world to see – once Sky had released the tape to other television channels. As clear and blatant an assault on a fellow-player as we’ve seen since the mighty Eric Cantona stood on John Moncur’s chest at Swindon.

But there were two clear distinctions between Cantona’s foul on Moncur and Shearer’s on Lennon. One was that Cantona was promptly sent off and banned, and the other was that he never denied doing it.

In contrast – a contrast so clear that even Jimmy Greaves was able to spot it – Alan Shearer was not even spoken to by referee Martin Bodenham, who by all accounts was wholly oblivious to the incident, even to Lennon lying over the touchline clutching his face.

The press, reacting with commendable intensity for once, pointed up the incident immediately. Nothing escaped their scrutiny, especially not Shearer’s instant and tell-tale glance to where the referee was standing, a sure sign in most people’s eyes that he felt guilty about something.

Suddenly, Shearer’s performances in other games came under scrutiny, especially the previous weekend’s match at Tottenham, when it was alleged that he’d broken Ramon Vega’s nose, not to mention …

It actually took me a week to catch up with the video evidence itself, by when I’d heard Shearer’s explanation for the incident. Merely freeing his leg, somewhat over-enthusiastically. Heard cold, like that, it sounded implausible. Faced with the video itself, Shearer’s explanation became not merely laughable but completely unfathomable. What I saw on the screen could not be reconciled with his account of his – wholly innocent, of course – motives.

After a week of deliberation, the FA invited Alan Shearer to comment on the incident. It was highly entertaining to watch him immediately squeal like a stuck pig about witch-hunts, and the farcical situation where a player can’t be asked for his side of the story before things get this far, when there had been little else but his side of the story since it began. There was the distinct impression of he who doth protest too much.

But where only the most diehard of Manchester United supports were prepared to defend Eric Cantona over his entanglement with Moncur, Alan Shearer immediately garnered the support of all that is best and brightest in English Football: Rob Lee, club-mate, writer of the blandest football column ever committed by a player, Glenn Hoddle, professional Saint and a man who knows that his job is ever so slightly dependent on Shearer’s boots being used to kick things. The presence of Graham ‘Mr Justice’ Kelly on the prosecution side only served to enhance Shearer’s chances of being taken seriously.

Even Neil Lennon, the innocent victim in all this, turned up in Shearer’s camp, loyally declaring that he believed his assailant and wanted nothing but that it should all be swept under the carpet and forgotten. I’m sorry, you’re quite right, he didn’t actually mention the carpet. Not out loud, at least.

Lennon’s performance led Paul Hayward in the Guardian to liken him to the legendary Stig O’Tracy of Monty Python fame, the man who insisted that Dinsdale Piranha had had to nail his head to the floor, he was forced to.

What Jimmy Greaves had to say about the incident summed up most neutral people’s thoughts: that if Eric Cantona, Vinnie Jones or Joe Bloggs had committed that offence, they would have received an instant red card and a lengthy suspension. Alan Shearer, England captain, mainstay of the team mere weeks before a World Cup and a man whose own directors have satirised as Mary Poppins, was a different matter.

What Shearer and his defenders didn’t seem intellectually capable of grasping was that justice, to be effective, has to be seen to be done, and it has to be seen to apply to all players, not merely those whose reputation for this sort of thing precedes them. Nor did any of the defence team seem able to comprehend that Shearer had not been actually charged with anything, merely asked to give an explanation.

So what happened in the end? It is announced that Shearer is to appear before the FA Committee on Monday May 18th. On Tuesday May 12th, without anyone knowing about it in advance, it is announced that Shearer has appeared and been found ‘not proven’. When it is pointed out to the FA that this is a verdict peculiar only to Scottish Law, not to mention one that means, in effect, ‘you’re guilty, we know you’re guilty, we just can’t prove it, you bastard’, the verdict becomes the expected one of ‘not guilty’.

Had this been available in 1994, can we imagine Eric Cantona being let off on the grounds that he hadn’t intended to tread on Moncur’s chest, it was merely an accident whilst he was trying to get his foot free? Can we imagine it being believed?

So Shearer achieves the vindication he’d been angling for from the outset and, in common with all matters in which the noble Kelly takes a ham-fisted hand, the whole thing ends with the maximum amount of egg on the FA’s face for the way they’ve handled it. No-one outside of St James’ Park or Glenn Hoddle’s private confessional believes a word of it.

I can’t help remembering the frantic squeals of rage from Shearer when he thought someone might hold him to account for what he had done. Given the inevitable outcome, it’s perhaps hard to discern what he had to fear. He hadn’t been charged with anything, couldn’t have his Cup Final position or his England status affected and certainly wouldn’t become any less thought of at his club.

But the big danger to Shearer was that if he lost his on-the-field reputation for being hard but fair and was exposed as the sometimes nasty and niggling player that opposition fans have known him to be for several years, he would no longer get the easy ride he enjoys from referees, and would actually start to pick up yellow cards the way that ordinary, non-sainted mortals do.

(The following paragraph appeared in a contemperaneous unpublished letter to the Guardian)

And as an aside to Rob Lee, the whole point of this exercise is not that Alan Shearer or any player undergoes physical contact during the course of a game, much of which is intentional and much of which is illegal. It is that players are not supposed to kick each other in the face and get away with it because they happen to have a clean public image and captain England. For someone who is supposed to be so articulate that he warrants his own column, such ignorance of the principles in operation here is so disingenuous as to appear knowing.

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