Wednesday 24 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Moronic inferno still raging

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Eamonn Sweeney

There are times when someone comes up with an idea so magnificently stupid that debating or getting cross with it is a waste of time. The proper response is to get down on bended knee and thank the author for the inadvertent comic genius which has produced this great contribution to the sum of human happiness.

Danny Healy-Rae's rural drink driving scheme is one such idea but the Sartre of Kilgarvan is only trotting after Pat Nevin, the former Chelsea player and ubiquitous media pundit who last week came up with what may be the Maradona's second goal against England of stupid statements.

Commenting on Eden Hazard's sending-off for kicking a ball boy in Chelsea's Capital One Cup semi-final defeat Nevin stormed, "If I was chairman of the PFA right now, I'd be calling for ball boys to be banned."

You could point out that the banning of all ball boys because a Chelsea player had a kick at one of them who wasn't giving the ball back fast enough seems a bit drastic. But that's straying into the realm of logic. Instead we should contemplate its flawless stupidity as we would an objet d'art. It is not of an age but for all time.

The amusing thing about this is that London media bods have long touted Nevin as a kind of thinking man's footballer. The man himself obviously takes this notion seriously as when answering questions he often screws up his phizog into the same kind of portentous expression you see just before Claire Danes bursts into tears on Homeland.

Nevin's reputation for intelligence and perspicacity has been earned despite the fact that I can't ever remember him coming up with any particularly memorable insight. Go on, quote me one. No googling. See? The idea of him as a savant seems to have come about because he wears glasses and during his playing career professed a liking for indie rock rather than the more mainstream stuff favoured by his fellow pros.

There is probably no other field of human endeavour where preferring Aztec Camera to Abba would earn you a reputation as an intellectual. But maybe Pat deserves his rep. Because on the evidence of the past week the Premier League truly is, to use the words of Saul Bellow, The Moronic Inferno.

On Wednesday, with Swansea comfortably holding on to a 2-0 aggregate lead, their 17-year-old ball boy Charlie Morgan held on to the ball when it went out beyond the home goal. When Hazard tried to get the ball back Morgan fell on it whereupon Hazard kicked him. It may be that the youngster fell over because he was spooked by the proximity of the Chelsea player and it may be that Hazard was actually trying to kick the ball from underneath Morgan. It's a matter of opinion.

In any event the Belgian international deserves his straight red card and the three-match ban which will presumably follow. There's no need for the suggestions of police involvement and general moral panic which normally follow a high-profile incident like this one.

The sane position is the one taken by the chief executive of the Belgian FA, Steven Martens, who commented: "No football authority or person interested in football likes to see acts of violence or lack of respect and this is what happened. It might have happened in the heat of the game but professionals are expected to be able to control themselves."

Yet Mr Martens' scarcely controversial suggestion that players should exercise a bit of self-control cut little ice with the horde of footballers, past and present, who defended Hazard on the grounds that he'd been annoyed by the tardiness of the ball boy. Such scions of fair play as Joey Barton, Ian Wright, Robbie Savage, Stan Collymore, Michael Owen and Gareth Bale were quick off the mark to either defend the player or criticise the ball boy. There was a moral panic alright but it was focused on the guy who'd been kicked rather than the one who'd done the kicking.

But, like Pat Nevin's ravings, it was impossible to take these contributions seriously given that they centred in some cases on the players' apparent outrage that the ball boy had been (a) wasting time and (b) feigning injury. Much play was made in the media about the fact that the teenager had sent a tweet suggesting that he would be needed that night for time-wasting.

This fairly typical piece of youthful bumptiousness led to suggestions that it was Morgan who was the villain in the scenario and even that Swansea might have a case to answer. It was left to Glenn Hoddle to point out that home ball boys are never in a hurry to return the ball when the visitors are behind. Hoddle is a subject of much derision among the English press pack but he talks a lot more sense than Pat Nevin. Let's think about it for a second. Premier League players criticising someone for unsportsmanlike conduct. How weird is that?

Even the most routine Premier League game is a masterclass in the act of cheating, a cornucopia of diving, time-wasting, play-acting and gamesmanship. If Premier League players got kicked in the ribs every time they held up the game, there'd be nobody left on the pitch at the end of 90 minutes. Perhaps we should follow the draconian logic of Nevin and ban not just ball boys but players from Premier League football given that they account for almost all the time-wasting. The ones who aren't time-wasting might suffer by this but that's just their hard luck.

The big problem with these controversies which crop up in the Premier League is that to take them seriously you have to forget you're an adult and pretend you're a particularly dim-witted child instead because that's the level at which most of the debate takes place. It's pretty obvious to a grown-up that the contretemps between John Terry and Wayne Bridge is nobody else's business, that Terry and Luis Suarez racially abused their opponents, that Chelsea shouldn't have made an unsubstantiated allegation of racism against Mark Clattenburg and that professional footballers don't have the right to kick teenage ball boys just because they're annoyed by them.

But instead of these things being debated rationally we always seem to end up with an orgy of whataboutery, finger-pointing and

special pleading and the creation of so much bad feeling that the League sometimes seems like a particularly dislikeable episode of EastEnders. No one hews to this ignoble

soap opera agenda more closely than the crew at Sky Sports which is why it was no surprise to see them taking Hazard's part to such an extent that you almost expected a suggestion that the player be rewarded for highlighting the menace posed by recalcitrant ball boys.

What came through most strongly, and most discouragingly, from the reaction of players and former players to this incident was the implication that if someone annoys you lashing out is a perfectly forgivable reaction. Barton's suggestion that Hazard should have kicked Morgan harder was what you'd expect from him but it was only stating out loud what was being hinted at elsewhere.

The culture of the Premier League is a bully culture of macho entitlement where might is right. That was the lesson from the hounding of Mark Clattenburg and it was plain to see last week as well. The understanding attitude of much of the media towards Chelsea stemmed from the Blues being a bigger club than Swansea and Hazard's status as a star name compared to Morgan's as an unknown teenager. The likes of Sky take very seriously the old saying that the duty of journalism is to speak the truth to power. And what they say to power is, "you're looking very well today power. You're great so you are."

Meanwhile, no one asks why exactly it is that professional soccer has cheating inscribed in its very DNA to an extent unthinkable in American football, rugby league, rugby union, Gaelic football, hurling, Australian rules, cricket or any other team sport. And there's another question which also needs to be answered.

Are Premier League players ever going to cop themselves on and grow up a little bit?

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