Tuesday 12 December 2017

Suffering for their principles

Chelsea's push to get John Terry's racism trial postponed has backfired on them, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

If you're going to embark on a witch-hunt, it always helps to believe you're in pursuit of a witch.

John Terry is many people's idea of a bad man. He is a serial womaniser, a man who parked in a disabled bay and offered a tour of the Chelsea training ground for which an associate accepted cash although Terry denied receiving any money. He is disloyal, unfaithful, feckless, reckless and, if convicted of the charge against him, many will decide that he is racist.

Because of his unpleasantness, Terry should be the perfect test for people to assess their devotion to principles like fairness and the right to be presumed innocent. Instead of holding to these uncomfortable principles last week, he became the crash test dummy for many to release their feelings of discomfort and project a sense of their own self-satisfaction

The story of his removal as England captain was, at its most generous, portrayed as a clash between two conflicting principles. One was the principle of the presumption of innocence and the other was the vague and ultimately impossible idea that there should be zero tolerance of racism.

Right now, nothing has been proved regarding racism so there was only one principle at stake and that was sacrificed the moment it became uncomfortable. Terry has become the preferred method for the custodians of English football to project their own notion of morality into the game, usually with comically disastrous consequences.

English football thought it was taking a stand against racism last week, but it was merely asserting its own self-importance. Terry was stripped of the England captaincy, a ceremonial position and one that, in the eyes of Fabio Capello, means nothing.

If Terry were a policeman facing these charges, he would have been suspended, one argument went, until the end of the trial. If Terry were a policeman, he would now have been stripped of the responsibility of guarding the prize marrow at the village fete, but he'd still be allowed investigate the break-in at number 83.

A tough decision would have been to suspend him from the England team but instead they took the easy praise which came with a superficial gesture.

The difficult principle of presumption of innocence was abandoned, sacrificed in the 'ecstasy of sanctimony'. This was fused with the ecstasy of posturing and the ecstasy of hysteria. There was more ecstasy than you'd get at the Hacienda.

Ultimately, the decision was taken by the FA, a group that should not be allowed make judgements on an issue as complex, volatile and subtle as an allegation of racism, considering the way they handle straightforward matters.

The FA were forced to make a decision because of a request by Chelsea to postpone his trial until the end of the season.

Just as Liverpool's inept defence of Luis Suarez helped to polarise opinion and develop the unfair perception that this was a club defending a racist, Chelsea have contributed to the latest disgrace of John Terry, something he usually is capable of doing unassisted.

At Chelsea's training ground on Friday, Andre Villas-Boas seemed eager to defend his player and to answer questions such as who had made the decision at Chelsea to pursue this policy. Chelsea as a club were less eager for that to be discussed.

Terry and his lawyers presumably had a say too before chief executive Ron Gourlay's letter was presented to the court and the case was postponed until July. It was a catastrophic miscalculation by Chelsea and one which forced the FA, who have become addicted to posturing, to act.

Terry is injured for Manchester United's visit today which at least spares everyone the agonised debate, conducted with the same solemnity as if we were dealing with occupied territories in Gaza, about whether he would shake Rio Ferdinand's hand in the pre-match ceremony. This is a piece of decorative bullshit which the moment it acquires meaning is abandoned -- as it was at Loftus Road last week -- or ignored, as Wayne Bridge did so magnificently with Terry the last time he was deemed unfit to wear the captain's armband.

Terry retains the backing of his club and his manager Andre Villas-Boas.

In the novel The Art of Fielding, a character rejects the idea of becoming a coach, even though he knows what is required of a coach.

A coach, he says, has to look at his players and ask himself "what story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself?. . . You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasised the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense."

Villas-Boas has spent his whole life preparing for football management but, he says, there is no preparation for a situation like this. "Not really, it comes with the job and as you live past experiences, you know how to deal with it better. In that sense, John has been amazing in not letting off-field events affect his performances."

Villas-Boas sees the spell of Chelsea's season, which includes that day at Loftus Road and the defeat at home to Arsenal in the next league game, as the "tipping point". He says this not because of the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand controversy but because of what he calls "the controversy of Chris Foy". Foy sent off two Chelsea players at Loftus Road.

The rest is beyond his control to some degree. "I think in a Premier League season there is always a pattern of these stories appearing, social stories and what players do outside the pitch, for us and other clubs, I think it's normal. It's an unfortunate event, an event that doesn't dignify British football," he says, referring to the hullabaloo rather than the Terry-Ferdinand incident.

Terry's fate will be decided elsewhere. "We have to let the persons be called to court and let the court make the necessary decision."

His attempt to tell Terry the story he would like to hear about himself was to fashion a tale of unconditional solidarity. This is complicated

because as a young and insecure coach AVB has a story he would like to hear about himself too: it is of the neophyte coach and the weary lag bonding to lead the club to glory.

Last week, Jose Mourinho was making himself available for jobs in England and, through representatives, letting it be known he would have no problem working under Roman Abramovich.

Villas-Boas has had to downgrade expectations and is already talking about "next year's project" while he talks about winning three tournaments this season.

"There is negativity always when you don't reach your objectives. I don't think we will finish below the top four." What would happen if Chelsea did finish outside the top four? "What if I won the Champions League?"

He needs Terry now, he needs the idea that his captain is triumphing over adversity. "It has been like that recently and for us with great benefit. Hopefully for country, it will continue to be the same, although I'm not saying it's fuelling his performance. I'm not saying you need negativity."

Terry will have to cope with it. For all his faults, or perhaps because of them, Terry is free of sanctimony and will never occupy the moral high ground. He is still good enough to play for England and Villas-Boas. Capello is the man being squeezed. Forced to accept a decision from the FA, who were said to be reacting to reports that several players were unhappy with Terry, the manager is the one emasculated.

The fear of being perceived as soft on racism has created its own hysteria. The view that somebody might say something nasty, unpleasant and obscene but still not be a racist can barely be heard above the shrieking. John Terry has very little reputation left but, last week, it was a principle not a person that needed protecting.

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