Having spent the last 4 months digging numerous holes for themselves, the football community just needs to stop and listen for a moment, reflect carefully and then develop a constructive way forward.
Just when you thought that a little light might have been switched on - as Ched Evans, encouraged by the Professional Footballers’ Association, offered the first hint of an apology - they both managed to switch it off again as Evans stupidly described Oldham’s rejection decision as being the result of ‘mob rule’ and Gordon Taylor then made unfortunate comparisons with Hillsborough, for which he has sensibly now apologised.
David Conn’s article in the Guardian on Friday 9th was a welcome breath of fresh air in a debate which has been characterised by an awful lot of hot air.
It has also been characterised by large sections of the football establishment displaying sheer bewilderment with having to contemplate that there might be a different view from their own. They seem outraged that a small group who had a different perspective turned out to have broad support. Why are they so out of touch with the feelings of most fans, let alone most people?
One might argue that it is all the money and the desire for success at all costs that has turned heads, although it is clear that the football insiders, who have been the most attuned to public opinion, have been the sponsors who have threatened to withdraw their support.
Of course, there have been individual players, managers and directors who have been trying to bring a little realism, often behind the scenes. Others – like former professional footballer Rick Holden who played 189 games for Oldham – have been prepared to go public with their reservations and concerns. His measured words on the World at One about the need for contrition and remorse , and about how it was difficult to properly deal with these issues while an appeal was pending, made admirable commonsense.
It’s time to take stock.
For Ched Evans, he must now realise that the prospect of him being re-signed by a professional club in the UK in the near future is unlikely. The conditions of his sentence mean that professional football overseas is also off the agenda. His limited apology was a start, but 4 months late.
For league club boards, you would think they have all now learned the lessons from Sheffield Utd and Oldham. It will be a long time before both sets of directors and their advisers will be able to regain their reputations.
But, perhaps, it is the failure of the key stakeholders to grab hold of the issues that is the most concerning.
The Football Association has done, and is doing, some excellent work with its anti-homophobia and race equality agenda and programmes, but has shown little willingness to pick up this baton in a committed fashion. Greg Dyke now says
“……….there is no basis for us to intervene directly in this particular case. That said, it is important that we continue to look at the issue of behaviour and attitudes within football, and recognise the unique privileges and responsibilities that come with being a participating member of the national game.
"I would encourage the game to consider and discuss this matter and the prospect for future guidelines or codes of conduct. The FA will certainly be considering it in line with our own ongoing review of what constitutes public or private communications and behaviour."
The Football League has been generally conspicuous by its absence. When it has spoken, it has lacked urgency and scope. In November, it said that
“The Board of The Football League considered the implications for football's reputation of club's employing players following their release from prison. The Board has asked its Independent Directors to consider the matter further before reporting back to the Board at a future meeting and then our clubs at an appropriate point.”
The Premier League has kept its head down, presumably on the grounds that no-one felt that Evans would become a Premier League player, unless Harry Rednapp’s or Steve Bruce’s unhelpful interventions this week suggest otherwise?
The PFA, which is usually in the driving seat for progressive change, has represented itself as a simple trade union, rather than a professional body with the wider interests of its membership at stake. Encouraging this particular union member to understand the need to relate to the widespread public concern appears to have come rather late in the day.
As for the Minister for Sport, Patrick Collins in his Daily Mail column got it spot on when he wrote “She might have been expected to lead this particular debate. And yet she had nothing to say.” One can imagine some previous sports ministers would have taken the initiative when they saw the vacuum.
This simply is not good enough. Heads need to be taken out of the sand, and quickly.
So, having castigated everyone, am I just being too optimistic by proposing a way forward and thinking that others might listen? There are after all many in the FA , PFA and other key bodies who have got track records of taking on and resolving such issues.
The FA should take the lead and pull together a Commission involving all the stakeholders, which is charged with delivering clear recommendations and programmes for:
· the advice and support for young players about the changes that will happen in their lives, what lots of money & adulation will do, if they become professional footballers
· the standards of behaviour and conduct that are expected of professional players
· the necessary preparation for players who don’t make the grade or get injured
· understanding relationships with colleagues, fans, management, the media, and a real understanding of the equalities agenda
· guidance to be followed by all clubs in the management of offenders and the particular responses and sanctions that are expected for particular types of offence.
Meanwhile, Ched Evans should reconcile himself to not playing professional football this season. He must learn from others about demonstrating regret and remorse and, almost certainly, get himself some new advisers who will not hold back in telling him how far he has to travel if he hopes to resurrect his career. If he learns and acts quickly, there may still be a chance.