Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE 5th COLUMN


Institutional bias is a heavy phrase to bandy about in these enlightened times of post fact bliss.
Anyone attempting to make a salient point these days is more than likely to be met by a wailing mass of hysterical pitch fork wielders, who question their parentage and ridicule their every word.
The next two and a half thousand words may thus be simply asking for trouble.

***
Manchester City’s coverage in large areas of the press is downright scandalous. The club’s treatment at the hands of referees has followed suit and the reaction of the great unwashed is driven by combinations of the two. Anyone, who mentions this these days has an agenda, is half blind to the truth or has a grudge against Alan Shearer because he's famous.
Even the club itself, driven by a need to be accepted in its new elite position, won’t say boo to a goose.

The moments before, during and after an enthralling City-Spurs game brought things once again into sharp focus. Raheem Sterling unwittingly became the centre of this particular vortex some time ago and, bless him, he's still there today.
When Sterling goes down too easily, he is cheating. When he tried to stay on his feet against Tottenham, running through on goal one on one with Hugo Lloris with a golden chance to put his side 3-1 up in a game totally dominated by City, he did not get what he deserved, or what the rules of the game state he deserved: the award of a penalty. The shove in the back that he had received from a beaten Kyle Walker, described gamely by the Spurs defender afterwards as “I did as much as I could to put him off”, came an instant before he took his shot and critically unbalanced Sterling at just the right moment.

Let’s take the player’s words first: “I did what I could to put him off” is player-speak for “I fouled him”. Fair enough, you do what you can and what he could in this instance was to perpetrate a foul. Every defender in the land, including those lambasted in the sky blue shirts of Manchester City and those given a free ride in Liverpool’s red, would attempt to do the same or something similar.  Now it’s in the hands of the referee to dish out the proper punishment: a penalty, certainly, and quite probably a red card for Walker for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.

The incident was met with a mixed reaction of incredulity from those treating the game to an unbiased view and subjective ridicule from the internet’s teenage warriors and miscreants. City can’t even hold on to a 2-0 lead anyway, was the retort, ignoring the fact that they would have done, had the referee had two functioning eyes in his head connected to a fully functioning brain and –apparently- a workable head set. To lament the malfunctioning communication system between ref and linesman is of course to forget that the linesman in question,  was in the handy possession of a fluorescent flag, which might also have been a useful communications tool had he felt the need to wave it.

City watchers of any great vintage turned around in their thousands at that very moment and said one of two things: “this is going to 2-2” or “we’ll lose this”.

Both of these phrases come originally from a different mindset altogether: the gallows humour so readily found on the Kippax in the old days of thud and blunder at Maine Road, when the club shot itself in the foot so many times its feet looked like colanders. Self-deprecation was rife. It was all that kept many of us going every weekend, as City were relegated twice in the 80s and began a spiral downwards in the 90s that would end in the third division and, for many fans, in the psychiatric wards of their local health centres.

It was in those days of comedy revolution that City’s fans turned up in ever greater numbers, averaging a well-documented 28,000 average for home games in the third division. Turning out to watch Chesterfield and Gillingham, Wrexham and Macclesfield in those sorts of numbers gained City a warm response from fans of other clubs. Like the fumbling megalith that is Newcastle today, many fans felt warm enough about City to consider them a second favourite or at least a club they felt warmth, empathy and positivity towards. In truth – contrary to all the modern day brickbats aimed at City fans – they had long before been noted for their loyalty in numbers, making the modern day shout of “where were you when you were shit” perhaps the most ill-advised chant of them all. Away followings at Leeds in the 1977 and 1978 FA Cup games, at Notts County in the second division and at places like Hillsborough, Ewood Park and the Victoria Ground reached well beyond 10,000 and regularly gained a positive press from media commentators at the time.


And the noise you can still here in the background is from the large mass of travelling City fans, who it must be said have once again backed their side with the usual loud and faithful support…” Barry Davies, Match of the Day commentator, Coventry v City, FAC up 4 round replay 1996.


The City fans amassed in the away end have been standing all afternoon in lusty support of their side” Barry Davies, Aston Villa v City 1995-96, with City one game from relegation.

That has now not just evaporated, but been replaced by a deep hatred from many and ridicule from others. Even the legendary faithfulness of the support has now been swamped by widespread and brainless banter about empty seats and lack of history. The know-nothing brigades, who shout loudest on radio phone-ins and internet forums are having a field day in the Post Fact era Donald Trump and his acolytes have ushered in.

People will say that this sea change comes with the territory. City have been transformed into a side chasing honours on domestic and foreign fronts. And, of course, unlike all the other successful sides throughout history, money is involved. Sunderland (“The bank of England side”), an Everton bankrolled by the pools millionaire John Moores, Real Madrid, levered above the rest of Europe by foul means or fair, Liverpool, Manchester United and many other clubs in the historical spotlight have always relied on cash to push themselves clear of the rest. Now City have done it, just to give themselves a fighting chance, it amounts to some kind of vulgar heresy, of course. Certainly, our culture is to build things up in order to knock them back down again. This is as true in politics and the arts as anywhere else and football has also proved an excellent conduit for this irrational behaviour in recent years.

Sure, I can remember grudgingly admiring Liverpool in the 70s and 80s when they spent two decades rubbing everyone’s noses in the dust, but also hating the fact that they always seemed to get the run of the ball, a blind eye from the referee and the lucky breaks. Part of this is what being a strong side is all about. The more pressure exercised on the opposition and the more possession of the ball you have, the more the number of fouls committed against you will go up and the number of decisions apparently favouring you might be expected to follow. 

Yet curiously this doesn’t happen with City. This season the club has the highest possession stats in the Premier League and is apparently the dirtiest in the division, with red and yellow cards being sprayed around like confetti at a wedding. How does that work? Guardiola certainly can’t explain it.

These things can only work when the bias against a team becomes institutionalised. On the eve of the Tottenham game there were three strands of destabilising bile coming out of the press, led as usual by the Mail, Mirror and Sun. Neil Ashton’s piece in The Sun bore the scarcely believable headline “569 million reasons City need a good kicking”. Now please correct me if I’ve missed it, but I have never seen an article like that aimed at West Brom or Bournemouth, or against Liverpool or Manchester United.  Ok, the trolls will wail that nobody cares about West Brom and Bournemouth and whilst that is clearly nonsense, those clubs are not as newsworthy and therefore do not carry such a high profile in the media. The press greatly ignores them as a result. Liverpool and United, however, do. They are big news. Bigger news than City, thanks to their recent pasts and the continuing genuflecting of large swathes of the media, this is where it all kicks in again.

Liverpool’s 3-2 loss at home to Swansea should, if it follows the pattern of any of City’s recent failures, be met with a wall of criticism from the great and good of the tabloid press. It should receive undercurrent stories attacking their calamity defence, as City have received, and yet more about the obscene amount of money they have spent to create this common failure, as City have done. Then there should follow a series of snidey reports about their manager’s glum and unresponsive performances in the press interviews, as Guardiola has been subjected to in the last month, followed by widespread story-telling of how unsettled Klopp is and how he may either soon be leaving the club or even quitting the game altogether, as Guardiola was reported to be doing in recent releases. If you are truly awaiting any of these to actually appear, you may have to take a picnic and settle down for a considerable wait. Liverpool’s lamentable recent record of 1 win in 6, and that in extremis against lowly Plymouth, does not seem to be attracting the vitriol to their manager, who for some reason is a darling of the press. Strangely, people seem to be falling over themselves in the rush to see if English football can send Guardiola over the edge.

Another of many destabilising strands in the press last week covered City’s obscene spending. The number of times a spend comparison flashes up before a City game is these days something of serious comedy value, as it has been continued in the obvious light that the other big clubs are spending just as much as City and in various cases more, to be competitive. Needless to say, when Liverpool trot out against Plymouth and nearly exit the FA Cup, neither a spend comparison flashes up nor any criticism of their paper thin performance.

No doubts over the shining football disciple Herr Klopp were heard to be uttered.
The money slant escapes all the other big spenders, of course. No spend comparisons when Liverpool show up at Home Park, nor when United play Bournemouth. All is calm and good. Wayne Rooney is a guy who’d play for United for just 50 quid, after all.

Refereeing decisions, of course, can go against absolutely anyone and to suggest there is some kind of concerted effort by officialdom to neuter City’s challenge would rightly be met with equally widespread ridicule. However, the treatment of Raheem Sterling by the press begs a question: can it have a subliminal effect on the referee? The answer most surely to this is yes.

Sterling you see, was, thanks to The Sun (ah here we go again) widely blamed for England’s collective defeat in the Euros, despite being no worse than the rest and considerably better than some. He was then ridiculed in the Sun (“England flop Sterling enrages fans after Icelandhumiliation by showing off blinging house and fleet of supercars”) and the Mirror for spending money on a house for his mother (obscene wealth, you see is something only Raheem Sterling has in these modern times of you’ve-hardly-heard-of-him footballer millionaires).


Curiously when he was later spotted in Poundworld, he was treated to equal amounts of column space. The same has happened to him on the pitch. Because of his transfer fee and the club he plays for, he has been subject to ever-closer scrutiny from the press. Visiting grounds like Burnley and Crystal Palace, you are left wondering what earthly reason the home fans could have for actually singling Sterling out for continued booing. Is it his hair, perhaps? Or are they just following the great example of the press and joining a bandwagon that has been rolling for months since Liverpool fans took the hump that anyone could consider swapping Anfield for anywhere else? Sterling is not only a good target off the field, he “goes down too easily” on it too. A bit like Ashley Young, whose latest dive only managed to register on the amusing Gifs level of internet coverage and didn’t merit comment in the national press.

So, what happens when Sterling goes down these days? Fouled by Danny Rose against Tottenham, he fell to the floor and a possible penalty went unawarded. Fair enough, these things happen. Marginal call perhaps. You win some, you lose some. Next time Sterling stays on his feet, determined to score, to play fair and perhaps in the knowledge that if he does go down he’ll be labelled a diver and again get nothing. Everyone saw what happened. Is Andre Marriner, already infamous at City for “not seeing” Sergio Aguero’s “heinous elbow” on Winston Reid this season that enabled the striker to be retrospectively banned for three games, running down the field with a clear objective mind or is he saying to himself here goes Sterling, he’s a diver?

When City’s game with Chelsea exploded with similar ferocity to the Tottenham match and Aguero and Fernandinho were sent off, not a single line was attributed to the part played in the affair by Cesc Fabregas. The incident even got as far as that august magazine World Soccer, with City’s two miscreants laughably managing to lever themselves in to one of the three slots for the global game’s “villains of the month” alongside Metz fans for throwing firecrackers at Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes that hospitalised the player and caused the game to be abandoned and the Brazilian FA president, wanted for extradition for widespread fraud. Aguero's villainous act was a late high tackle and Fernandinho's na inappropriate reaction to being slapped in the face by Fabregas. They stand accused alongside rioting fans and a major fraudster!

It reminds one of City's UEFA fine for walking out late at Porto for the second half of a Europa League match. Porto were fined half as much in the same game for racist chanting.


The Sun opts for calm objectivity
Against Chelsea Fernandinho and Aguero received red cards at the end of a tempestuous game that had been running strongly in City’s favour, but ended in defeat. Before the internet tribe reaches for its pitchforks again, it was the same game, where, with City in full flow, David Luiz – already booked – took out Aguero with a blatant body charge.

The referee, Anthony Taylor “of Altrincham” showed no card (it would have had to be red) and waved play on. The red mist had been rising understandably for some time. Yes, Chelsea won that match by merit of scoring more goals than City, just how it is meant to be, but yet again the opposition were aided by officiating bordering on the criminally inept. To top it all, Aguero copped for an added 4 game ban, thanks to Marriner’s errant antics against West Ham.
In the old days, we’d have laughed along with everyone else, then gone home to weep into a pillow somewhere. We wouldn't be booing UEFA and their bent FFP attempts to scuttle City on the continent. We wouldn't be steaming and frothing about this that and the other.
The truth is out there somewhere, unpalatable or not.

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