One of the iconic images of the epic 2005 Ashes series captures the moment Andrew Flintoff offers a consolatory arm to Australian batsman Brett Lee in Edgbaston.
If there were voices saying that what Flintoff did was wrong, they weren’t heard. If people thought it revealed Flintoff’s lack of commitment or a failure on his part to appreciate the enormity of the occasion, they weren’t given any airtime. Nor should they have been, for that matter, but in professional football the landscape is entirely different.
Newcastle United goalkeeper Tim Krul was ‘caught’ on camera smiling and joking with Sunderland striker Jermaine Defoe in the tunnel during half-time of the Tyne-Wear derby. Defoe had scored the game’s only goal minutes earlier and Krul appeared to be congratulating him for the quality of the strike. Krul was widely criticised for this, the insinuation being that he clearly didn’t ‘get’ the significance of the derby. In a game of this intensity, he clearly wasn’t as focused as he should have been.
Jamie Carragher led the charge with his macho posturing nonsense on Sky television but he wasn’t alone. BBC pundit Danny Murphy said Krul was out of order and that what he did was a mistake. Plenty of football supporters, journalists and former players would agree. It doesn’t belong in a game of football, apparently, let alone a game involving two teams with as fierce a rivalry as Newcastle and Sunderland. “It’s not good sportsmanship,” said Carragher, “someone without passion for the game might say it is.”
Carragher added that he wouldn’t have done it against Everton, and neither would he have expected it from any of his Liverpool team-mates.
That’s fair enough, but maybe it’s ok to acknowledge that some players have the capacity to interact with an opponent and still want to win. It’s quite possible, even though clearly not everyone is capable of it, to give your all in a game while being occasionally civil to an opponent. Even as you walk off the field at half-time, being friendly to someone shouldn’t be seen as evidence that you don’t care.
In any case, when did acting in a sporting way during a game become a sign you don’t care about the result? Are we really hoping to put an end to such scenes? Is this where football is heading? It’s fine for Carragher and co to say it wouldn’t have happened in their day. Maybe it wouldn’t have, and maybe they’re bursting with pride that it didn’t. But when supporters genuinely feel upset or betrayed by something as innocuous as this, maybe it’s not Tim Krul who should be the focus anymore in this story. Even after listening to him ‘defend’ his actions on television afterwards, I cannot understand how anything he did could be considered wrong.
Footballers are routinely criticised for having lower standards of sporting behaviour but it seems when they raise them they are criticised as well. They’re regularly knocked for failing to behave as good role models, but nobody with any sense can seriously be upset by what Krul did. It didn’t impact the game in any way and that’s what matters.
I see why people are outraged by players who spit, bite, headbutt, punch and dive. You don’t need to be experienced in football to be repulsed by any of those. But are we really saying that players from opposing teams should limit their interactions to crunching tackles and moody glares?
The passion argument put forward by Carragher is regularly used to rationalise a multitude of scenarios from pitch invasions to abusive chants to crowd violence. The Tyne-Wear derby itself has had its issues with some of these in the recent past. But when sporting exchanges are dismissed as evidence that passion is lacking then maybe there are better things than passion to be looking out for. A sense of perspective and basic human decency might be a start.
When Brett Lee retired he mentioned his embrace with Flintoff as a highlight of his career. Even though Australia were ultimately defeated he recalled the epic battle and the sportsmanship. That 2005 series still ranks as one of the most dramatic in the history of the rivalry, but nobody anywhere questioned the commitment of the players involved.
Sportsmanship and passion can co-exist in other sports. They can co-exist in football too. Those who say they can’t are the ones giving the game a bad reputation.
Perhaps a bigger surprise than Manchester United going into this afternoon's derby above Manchester City in the table - the last four Mancunian showdowns have all gone the way of the arrivistes, or noisy neighbours as Alex Ferguson dubbed them - is that London clubs occupy the top two positions and the best the north of England can offer is third and fourth place.