Thursday 18 January 2018

Player power secures victory without getting shirty

Tommy Conlon

Rio Ferdinand will shake hands with Ashley Cole before the game today but the gesture will be empty and the cold between them arctic.

It will hardly be a moment of reconciliation. In fact, Ferdinand is entitled to feel that it will be another indignity, foisted upon him for the sake of maintaining a charade.

Like the Suarez-Evra handshake debacle last February, there is a somewhat grubby odour hanging over this imminent sideshow at Stamford Bridge. The personal enmity between Ferdinand and Cole has its roots in a racism controversy that has now been dragging on for 12 months. But the disquieting reality is that today's handshake will be exploited by TV networks for maximum voyeuristic appeal. A race row repackaged as entertainment to provide an extra spike in the ratings.

It's a relief therefore that John Terry won't be in the Chelsea line-up when Ferdinand and his Manchester United team-mates come shuffling past with the compulsory handshakes.

For of course it was Terry who ignited this dismal farrago in the first place when he racially abused Rio's brother, Anton Ferdinand, during the QPR-Chelsea match at Loftus Road in October 2011.

Cole became part of the collateral fallout when he gave evidence in support of his team-mate at the court case last July which eventually acquitted Terry. When QPR met Chelsea in September, Anton Ferdinand refused to shake hands with Terry and Cole. Later last month the English FA's own investigation returned a guilty verdict. Terry was fined £220,000 and banned for four games, one of which is the United match today.

During the summer, meanwhile, England manager Roy Hodgson made the decision to bring Terry to Euro 2012 and leave Rio Ferdinand at home. This was done, he said, "for footballing reasons".

But it seemed that all along a cohort of black players had been keeping a close eye on the controversy as it was unfolding. It had been festering beneath the radar. Last weekend it erupted. The annual campaign by the pressure group Kick it Out was about to kick off. As has become tradition, players would wear a T-shirt onto the field, with the slogan One Game One Community.

The Reading striker Jason Roberts was the first to break cover. On Thursday, he told the BBC he would not be wearing the T-shirt. He'd had enough of the platitudes, the token gestures, the lip service. Alex Ferguson, at his Friday morning press conference, was asked about the issue. In a shocking display of ignorance and insensitivity, Ferguson berated Roberts. All the United players, he vowed, would be wearing the T-shirt.

But Rio Ferdinand was making up his own mind on this one. He took to the pitch at Old Trafford without the T-Shirt. A livid Ferguson promised retribution. "He'll be dealt with, don't worry about that," he told the media, apparently untroubled by piffling matters like freedom of conscience or freedom of thought.

Like virtually the entire football industry, Ferguson had completely underestimated the depth of feeling among black players. Stoke's Kenwyne Jones and Manchester City's Joleson Lescott refused to wear the T-shirt. On Sunday, Anton Ferdinand was joined in the boycott by four of his team-mates and three of the opposing Everton players. The Swansea and Wigan players had also refused to co-operate.

It was essentially a passive protest by all the players involved but its symbolism couldn't be ignored. Amidst a wave of coverage in the media, the FA and the Professional Footballers' Association were suddenly scrambling for a coherent response. Over the following days it emerged that the John Terry affair had brought a long-standing well of hurt to the surface. It crystallised for many black players the sense of alienation they feel working in an overwhelmingly white football establishment.

Beyond football, there was the experience in their own lives, the broader societal racism which was part of growing up.

Jason Roberts's uncle is Cyrille Regis, one of the first black players to break through to the top tier of the game in England, back in the 1970s. Regis' generation had been subjected to horrendous abuse, as teenagers and as professional footballers. "Racism is something that has been prevalent in my life," said Roberts. "I've heard stuff since I was a kid. I have three

uncles who played football and the things they told me, the experiences I've seen, I couldn't turn away from this."

On Monday, Ferguson backed down. There would be no action taken against Ferdinand. Then the PFA rush-released a new policy document, a six-point plan that would overhaul their anti-racism strategy. The FA admitted it needed to do more and spend more to tackle the problem.

It has been a good week for Roberts and the Ferdinand brothers. Their protest managed to be emphatic and effective without resorting to angry words or inflammatory gestures. Then, having made their point, they said in statements that they were ready to move on. Rio offered to shake hands with Cole today. Roberts and Anton said they will do likewise the next time they come face to face with Terry.

"This is a different generation from mine," said Regis on Monday. "We had to put up with the abuse. They are more articulate, they have more confidence and they want a clear and vehement message given." They did all of that last week, and they did it with some style too.

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