Sunday 20 August 2017

Comment: No amount of money can justify the abuse James McClean and other Premier League players receive

West Brom's James McClean says he never planned to play for Northern Ireland at senior level
West Brom's James McClean says he never planned to play for Northern Ireland at senior level

Jack O'Toole

It's the 27th minute of the last ever North London derby at White Hart Lane. Dele Alli has just missed a chance to open the scoring with a header from point blank range, while teammate Christian Eriksen has just hit the top of the crossbar with a volley he'd usually bury into the back of the net.

Emotions are high at the Lane, in a game with many ramifications for both sides, but through it all Arsenal come down the other end and win a corner. The Gunners send German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil towards the corner flag to try and swing the momentum back into the visitors favour.

Ozil makes his way over to the corner flag where he is greeted by a section of Tottenham fans who berate the former Real Madrid star as he prepares to take the set-piece.

Seemingly very aware of the abuse that is being directed at him, Ozil takes his time in taking the corner which infuriates one Tottenham fan to the point that he decides to leave his seat, make his way down the aisles, and stand right behind the advertising barriers to tell Ozil what he really thinks of his lack of urgency in taking the corner.

The 'fan' manages to get off a couple of verbal barbs before a swarm of stewards forcibly remove the man from his position and most likely the stadium. However, to some this is seen as fair game.

The 'fan' has paid his money into the stadium and is apparently entitled to say whatever he wants in whatever manner he sees fit. To others this can be an act of war, an intentional attempt to 'mug off' the Spurs faithful, and as such, the fan is well within his right to get one back for the supporters. Terrific.

But to most of us this is seen as excessive, and not in a Mick Barrett, the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay pitch invader who stormed the fields of the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick because he wanted to know exactly  'what the referee was at' type of way, but rather in a style of over-zealous entitlement that is indicative of a league and sport where abusing players is all too common.

Abuse from spectators to players is not exclusive to professional soccer and the Premier League, go to your local GAA ground on any given Sunday and you'll hear all sorts of character assassinations and verbal assaults, but Sunday's incident with Ozil puts James McClean's recent appearance on Football Focus into a greater perspective.

The West Brom and Ireland winger spoke candidly on the show about his departure from Sunderland in 2013 with a particular incident involving 'fans' spitting at his car, for his refusal to wear a commemorative poppy, one of the tipping points in his decision to leave Wearside.

"There's a funny story about one of the last home games of season for Sunderland," he explained.

I always bring my jersey home with me after a match because you never know who might need it.

"But on this occasion, I gave it to a kid at the stadium. His father took it off him and threw it back at me.

"Then, on the way home, my car was stopped at the traffic lights. Another car pulled up alongside us, rolled down their window, spat at my car and just drove off.

"My missus, who was in the car, was pregnant at the time and I thought 'we're about to bring a baby into the world and I don't need all this hassle'."

McClean is right. He doesn't need that sort of hassle. Nobody does. But it's a recurring theme in a league where 'fans' seem to think they can say whatever they want, to whichever player they want, and that the player is supposed to just brush it off because he's a professional athlete and therefore immune to the realms of human emotion.

And this isn't the type of knee-jerk jeering and hollering you commonly hear in the pre-emptive moments before a big penalty in kick rugby, or a crucial 45 in Gaelic football; this is systematic abuse.

When Aston Villa drew 1-1 with Wycombe Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup last year, a section of Villa fans hung around the team bus for more than an hour to intentionally harass and launch a series of tirades at each Villa player as they boarded the bus.

Granted, Villa were an extraordinarily bad football side last year, but does each player really deserve to be the subject of vitriolic abuse as they board the bus? An hour after the game no less?

According to their former manager Remi Garde, the berating the players received wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Asked if the fan trouble had perhaps inspired his side after their 1-0 win over Crystal Palace the following week, Garde said:

"I don't mean I am expecting the fans behave every time in that way. I am not supporting very bad behaviour like we have seen after the game in Wycombe.

"But sometimes we live not in reality always because we are training far away from the fans and going to Villa Park just for the games.

"Sometimes for players they have to touch the reality. Maybe it could have had an impact in the way we played the last game."

It's not exactly a reality you'd willingly want to immerse yourself in however, as the Arsenal players found out earlier this month when they were subject to a similar episode when boarding their team bus after the 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace.

The behaviour of Arsenal fans, and particularly their supporters on the much vaunted Arsenal Fan TV, has almost been as bad for the club as their performances on the pitch this season, but the reality in the Premier League is that abuse from 'fans' is not just restricted to getting on and off the team bus, it tends to follow some players all day, every day, as anti-racism group Kick It Out highlighted in a 2015 study.

The campaigning group discovered that an abusive message is directed at a Premier League club, or one of their players, every 2.6 minutes, with 134,400 derogatory messages identified in just seven months across Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media.

Aston Villa midfielder and former Ireland U21 star Jack Grealish provided a brief insight into this type of abuse online in an interview with the Mirror in January.

"I've had people on social media saying 'I wish you would die' 'I want to break your legs' things like that," said Grealish.

When I realise it's from a Villa fan, that's the saddest part, because I think to myself 'what have I ever done to you?'"

Former Chelsea and Ireland winger Damien Duff also said on a recent appearance on Eamon Dunphy's podcast The Stand, that he lived a cocooned lifestyle during his time at Newcastle United where he was often followed down the street after a loss and where one particular 'fan' abused him while eating dinner at a Wagamama's.

Duff admitted that it turned him into a bit of a hermit on Tyneside and that he couldn't wait to leave the club by the end of his final season. Mostly due to Newcastle's poor performances and his growing list of injuries there, but also because of the constant abuse he'd receive from 'fans'.

However, a lot of these examples can be seen as supporting evidence to a trend that has been fairly obvious to many for the longest time.

It's not exactly breaking news that fans who tear up squares in Madrid, or refuse minorities access to public transportation in Paris, would turn around and hurl abuse at players.

General intuition would tell you that 'fans' who chant 'Gibraltar is Ours' during the midst of quarrels with Spanish police wouldn't entirely scoff at the notion of abusing professional football players. But where does this resentment stem from?

Is it the disparity in wealth? Former Arsenal defender Ashley Cole famously nearly crashed his car when he heard from his agent that the Gunners were only prepared to offer him £55,000 a week to stay with the club, to which he quickly became known among fans as 'Cashley'Cole, before being routinely booed up and down football grounds across the UK for this very reason, among others.

Is it trying to live out their personal dreams through others, and then reacting angrily when the chosen few don't behave in the exact manner that fans wish? Potentially.

But the BBC's Lucy Townsend notes that some Premier League fans exert a sense of ownership over the players, a sense of entitlement.

"There is a sense of ownership among football fans," Townsend wrote in a 2012 column for the broadcaster.

"When a fan invests so heavily in a team - paying for season tickets and travel to away games, devoting weekends and raising their children as supporters - a show of dedication is expected in return."

You can't blame the players when that dedication is not always shown, especially if they've been verbally abused by a cohort of fans after a game.

You also can't blame James McClean for wanting to leave Sunderland after he had his car spat on with his pregnant partner in the passenger seat, for beliefs he displays as a sign of respect for those closest to him.

Premier League football players are overpaid, and can often be spoiled beyond belief, but they are still people and should be treated as such with the same level of decency and respect as any other professional in any other profession.

But abusing players is almost as central to the Premier League as the goalposts and corner flags. It's just that corner flags don't react to mistreatment from the stands. Players do.

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