Homophobic tweeter Andre Gray needs to show the world on camera why he's a changed character
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
The first England squad of Sam Allardyce's reign is named today and whatever you think of Andre Gray - whether you have decided he has all the personal charm of head lice, or you would rather take a more sympathetic view - we can probably assume that if he was ever being considered as an outside choice, or a possible back-up player, a cross has temporarily gone through his name.
It isn't ludicrous, though, to think that Gray will eventually become part of the Allardyce era if he can maintain the forward momentum of his career.
Gray was the most prolific scorer in last season's Championship, scoring 24 times to help bring top-division football back to Burnley. Another nine came in pre-season and the goal against Liverpool last weekend indicates he is not going to have too much difficulty adjusting to the higher league.
Perhaps there might even be a day when he and Jamie Vardy are part of the same national team and can reminisce about that time, in April 2012, when they faced each other for Luton Town against Fleetwood Town in the Conference Premier.
By now, however, you are probably aware of Gray's internet history and the kind of story that makes you long for more innocent days when tweeting was for sparrows, trolls lived in caves in fairytales and football clubs didn't have to worry about the damage that could be caused by players having smart-phones that, evidently, were a lot smarter than their owners. Or, as Mick McCarthy once put it, "twits who tweet".
There is no point going through all the content but the most glaring example contains a level of hashtag hate - "Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #MakesMeSick" - that clearly goes beyond the usual hurling of online abuse and, unfortunately for Gray, a lot of people might think it doesn't wash to offer a template apology, professing to be a changed man, and trotting out the standard lines that defence lawyers use in court when they are trying to get their clients a reduced sentence.
Even ignoring for one moment the pitchfork homophobia, Gray comes across as a difficult man to embrace. "Fumin," he writes. "Stuck in traffic cause some sad weak fool decided to get themselves run over on the motorway. #NoSympathy." There are memories of school ("Ma teacher told me a was a piece of shit.. saw her the other day driving a piece of shit"), a declaration of allegiance to Arsenal ("I hate Theo Walcott") and various other 140-character missives that go against him before we get to the ones that have come to the attention of the FA's disciplinary department.
It might get even worse for Gray now it also turns out the charge-sheet, covering an eight-week period from 9 January 2012, has been extended to include another tweet - beginning with the declaration "I hate lightys!" - from July 2014, shortly after he had signed for Brentford from Luton. A "lighty" is slang, often regarded as offensive, to describe a light-skinned person of mixed race. If you think back to Rio Ferdinand's disciplinary case for retweeting someone who had described Ashley Cole as a "choc-ice" (meaning black on the outside, white on the inside) it is probably safe to assume Gray needs a good lawyer.
Is it fair for Burnley to be punished for something that happened in the past and completely out of their control? Not in the slightest and it is easy to understand why the relevant people at Turf Moor are struggling to understand how the FA can punish tweets going back over four-and-a-half years, starting when Gray was at Hinckley United, yet look the other way when it comes to the night Vardy took exception to the presence of a Japanese man at his local casino.
In mitigation, there is also quite a bit of background to take into account in Gray's case and it is a shame, perhaps, that he did not offer more context in his statement asking for forgiveness and pointing out "thankfully I am not the guy I was back then".
That scar running diagonally from his left ear and all the way across his cheek is the legacy of being slashed with a knife in a street fight in Wolverhampton, around Christmas 2011. The most offensive tweets started a couple of weeks later and if Gray seemed angry with the world that was because he probably was. Gray's autobiography would certainly not be the average footballer's story. He grew up without a dad and, at 13, lost the grandfather, Terry, who had taken on the role of a father-figure. After that, it was a story of gangs, violence and the kind of lifestyle most of us can barely contemplate. Some of the people he knocked around with have ended up dead and it was football, more than anything, that helped him come out the other side. So, yes, maybe he is a better human being at 25 than he was at 21. Maybe we can take it at face value and Gray, in 2016, is not the hate-filled individual he was in 2012.
Unfortunately for the sport as a whole, it is more easy pickings for those armchair columnists who like to lament the elastic principles in Gray's profession compared to those of the people we saw competing in the Olympics. It actually works both ways - there are things football can learn from other sports, and vice versa - but Gray's tweets, historic or not, certainly go against the image the game likes to portray these days and it is not always easy knowing whether Robbie Rogers, formerly of Leeds United, coming out as gay in 2013 has changed everything as much as many people thought.
It certainly did not feel that way, visiting one Premier League club recently, when the various community assignments were being shared out and seeing the horror of one of the squad - a high-profile player - when his name was put alongside an LGBT event. "I can't do it," he said, as if someone had just asked him to bungee-jump off the top of a cliff. There was an attempt to talk him round - "It's anti-discrimination, not pro-homosexuality" - but he looked terrified. To say he froze would be an understatement and, despite one more go to persuade him it didn't mean dressing up as one of the Village People, it soon became obvious it might be better all round to designate somebody else.
It says something that the number of complaints to Kick it Out about homophobic abuse has actually gone up, not down, over three-fold in the last three seasons and you might have heard what happened last weekend when Rogers, playing for LA Galaxy II against Orange County Blues, claimed an opposition player had repeatedly called him a queer.
The player in question? Richard Chaplow, Accrington-born and previously of Burnley, West Brom, Preston North End, Southampton, Millwall and Doncaster Rovers. Chaplow denied the accusation but admitted swearing and was suspended for two matches when a proven case would apparently have meant three. All of which makes an interesting comparison when on the same day Hope Solo, the US women's team goalkeeper, was banned for six months and her contract was terminated because she had complained about Sweden's defensive tactics in the Olympics and described them as a "bunch of cowards".
For Gray, the damage will be twofold. In football, it has always been easier getting a bad name than losing one and, if he is indeed a changed man, it isn't going to be a pleasant experience being tarnished by something he had probably long forgotten about. First, though, there is the likelihood of a long ban - Gray must respond to the charge by Wednesday evening - and it wouldn't hurt if he made efforts in that time to show the world he is sorry, stand up in front of the cameras and explain in detail how he has changed and why we should believe him. Much better that way than being a twit who tweets.
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Ahead of the first international break of the season, I wonder if Sunderland's chairman, Ellis Short, and the club's media department might acknowledge now that it was all rather petty and unbecoming to announce Sam Allardyce had taken the England job in a clipped 49-word statement that did not wish him well or express any gratitude for keeping them in the Premier League.
When David Moyes subsequently took over at Sunderland, it was intriguing as well to see Short's eulogy for the new manager and the clear message that he would rather have had him than Allardyce in the first place. Moyes, he said, was "my number-one managerial target for the last five appointments, but his desire to honour existing contracts meant we were not able to bring him to Sunderland previously".
One problem: Paolo Di Canio was sacked by Sunderland on 23 September 2013 and replaced a couple of weeks later by Gus Poyet. Do Sunderland really want us to believe their top target was a man three months into a six-year contract as Manchester United manager?
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For two clubs who would like us to believe they have high ambitions, it has not been easy understanding the transfer-market movements of Arsenal and Tottenham over the last few days.
That was certainly a curious move, first of all, from Arsene Wenger, having made it clear all summer that he would not be pressured into spending, to go in for Lucas Perez from Deportivo La Coruna when this is a striker who has been on the market all summer without Arsenal thinking it warranted triggering his £17m buyout clause.
Leicester were the first club to explore a potential move earlier in the summer on the say-so of Steve Walsh, their head of recruitment. Everton thought they had a transfer lined up when Walsh subsequently moved to Goodison and Wenger might have to understand the allegations of panic-buying when, three weekends into the new season, Arsenal suddenly ambush the deal.
Even more perplexing is why Tottenham left it so late to move for Wilfried Zaha (pictured) if they were serious about trying to prise him away from Crystal Palace. After nothing all summer, was it sensible to wait until Yannick Bolasie had completed his move to Everton before putting in the call?
Palace have just lost one of their better attacking players. They can hardly be blamed for not wanting another to go, especially with so little time to find a replacement before Wednesday's deadline.
As for offering £12m, did the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, seriously think that might clinch a deal in today's inflated market? Bolasie went for £25m and Zaha, at 23, is four years younger and therefore a more valuable asset.
Levy likes to think he operates by his own rules but it does make me wonder whether this is the best example yet of what he calls "pragmatic player trading" now the club have a new stadium to finance - or, to put it another way, trying to do everything on the cheap.
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