Clearing Up A Few Loose Ends: Celtic, Portsmouth And (Briefly) Wednesday
It’s the football scandal of a generation. And it won’t go away. Colleen Rooney, photographed blatantly sipping a cool drink by a holiday swimming pool… while there’s a recession on!! I mean not one single British passport holder anywhere else in the world has done that in the last week. As to whether that shite really does sell newspapers, that’s a debate for someone else to start. I don’t know enough to offer an informed opinion, so I won’t offer any opinion. Something for Mail columnist Martin Samuel to ponder next time he writes about Uefa’s “financial fair play” regulations.
But elsewhere in football, while the lenses and laptops have flitted back and forth across the M62, there have been one or two real scandals. I’m confident most of you will have someone say that “there’s no use arguing with referees, they won’t change their mind.” Well… wrong. And I’m not talking about Tom Huddlestone at Fulham, where referee Mike Read gave Spurs winner after the hulking Spurs midfielder suggested Read and his assistant ought to have a chat about the use of said assistant’s flag. At Fulham, Read had not decided whether Spurs’ William Gallas, standing in an offside position, was actually “offside” as per the laws of the game. Thus we had a remarkable situation. No, not Read’s discussion with his assistant before giving the goal. But Alan Shearer, on Match of the Day, offering lucid analysis and displaying a knowledge of the offside law which… well… displaying a knowledge of the offside law.
But that weekend, in Scotland (so of minimal interest to the London-based “national” press), a referee did change his mind, and did so because of players’ protests. The key events at Tannadice, where Dundee United hosted Celtic in an SPL fixture, were, in chronological order, as follows: Celtic’s Gary Hooper took the ball past United keeper Dusan Pernis. Pernis crashed into Hooper, knocking him to the ground. Pernis (remember, chronological order) got his fingers to the ball. Referee Dougie McDonald – how Scottish? – awarded a penalty to Celtic. United players surrounded him, protesting that Pernis had touched the ball. The referee went over to his assistant, who had taken up his position for the penalty. He spoke to his assistant. He changed his decision. The incident has provoked controversy for any number of peripheral reasons. The strong reactions of Celtic’s manager Neil Lennon, who celebrated Hooper’s 89th minute winner with such vigour that the Tayside Police complained.
The age-old subject of Celtic paranoia at big decisions going against them – that issue given legs by the debatable (translation: incorrect) penalty decision against Celtic in Sunday’s Old Firm game; a game in which Rangers, not the referee, beat Celtic, as Rangers boss Walter Smith had to remind Lennon in the post-match fall-out. But worse, the linesman involved, Steven Craven, has resigned from football because of the abuse he has allegedly received since the incident. Particularly bad as he was a blameless participant in what happened. Such has the been the focus on these consequences of the event at Tannadice that the actual event itself – a referee changing his decision because of player protests, remember – has been submerged. It should not be.
Football’s Law 5 covers the Tannadice situation in two unequivocal statements. “The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play are final,” and “The referee acts on the advice of assistant referees regarding incidents that he has not seen.” The Law does not make allowances for what McDonald did at Tannadice. It doesn’t say “the referee’s decision is final, unless David Goodwillie says so, loudly.” (I’m not sure Goodwillie was among the protesting players, I just find the name funny). So McDonald’s actions were fundamentally wrong. They do not justify Lennon’s reactions, but they help explain them. Celtic were wrongly denied a penalty in a game they largely dominated and the player fouled grabbed the winner in the last minute. I defy any manager not to have the urge to run down the touchline in celebration, or, as United manager Peter Houston put it, to celebrate as if “they had won the league.”
They do not justify Celtic’s age-old persecution complex, but they help fuel one. I tried to picture the same thing happening to Rangers… and failed. But there’s no logical reason why I shouldn’t have tried to picture Dundee United, or Hearts or…any team, for that matter. I’m guessing that what McDonald did has been done very few times, if at all, which, in turn, means Celtic are one of the few teams to suffer. But there’s nothing to suggest he would have done differently if the incident had been at the other end…even if McDonald sent off Celtic captain Scott Brown in March’s Old Firm fixture at Ibrox for…um…
And McDonald’s actions do not justify what has since happened to Craven…at all. For Craven to be criticised at all, let alone abused to the point of resignation, is just plain contemptible. If Craven did say that Dundee United’s keeper touched the ball, he was only telling the truth and only doing so because he was asked the question. Hugh Dallas, Scotland’s chief of referees, has taken it upon himself to re-write both the events of the day and the Laws of the Game, noting that “Dougie, having given the decision, received information from the assistant referee that the goalkeeper had played the ball” – conveniently erasing all memory of the players’ protests. So the lesson is that, whatever you might have heard, arguing with the referee has a use and referees can change their mind. And the referee can get away with it, as long as idiot fans abuse and threaten officials, and as long as the press focus on the juicy parts of the story, rather than the right ones.
The latter happened at Portsmouth – yet again – this weekend. Pompey’s exit from administration is, in itself, very good news. As I’ve written before, their fans don’t deserve to see their club wiped out because of what happened to them last season (although it was reported that the work undertaken by fans to build “AFC Portsmouth” in the event of liquidation would have been rewarded with a place in League Two). Not everybody shared that view last Saturday evening, when the Pompey debate surfaced briefly in the Non-League Paper offices before being overwhelmed by the huge volume of work NLP staff have to do to produce the paper for Sunday (he says just in time). The view was expressed that Portsmouth had bought success with borrowed money and should suffer the consequences if they couldn’t give that money back. But, of course, that was, literally, only half the story.
The problems encountered last season were nothing to do with Portsmouth buying success with someone else’s money… in fact, they were nothing to do with Portsmouth Football Club at all, beyond being a venue for a damaging business feud. There were two Portsmouth stories, and those who believed they didn’t deserve saving focused on the wrong one. To a lesser extent, the wrong story is again getting the focus. Amid the celebrations of Pompey having a future at all, many fans were prepared to disregard “new” owner Balram Chainrai’s part in its recent past. And, stemming from that, the most important words Chainrai said over the weekend were tucked away in paragraph six of a subsidiary follow-up story in the local News newspaper.
We’ve had months of administrator Andrew Andronikou acting like Chainrai’s agent, claiming Chainrai had the wherewithal to sustain the club and “ticked all the boxes,” while other potential bidders were chancers, borrowers, bullshitters, or all three. On Saturday, Chainrai announced that his team needed to stabilise the club “get a clearer understanding of the business and, the headline comment, “are not going to make any rash promises.” On Monday, filed deep in the “Oh, by the way” column, was what he said next: “We are going to need to borrow money from elsewhere.” In other words, all Andronikou’s wherewithal and box-ticking was somewhere between disingenuous, misleading and plain wrong.
This inspired a mass “I warned you” from the many Pompey fans who remain worried about a situation where present owner Chainrai and former owner Alexandre Gaydamak – two of the major protagonists in the business feud which drove nearly all last season’s bad decisions – are in charge of the club and the land surrounding its ground. The response to these worries from other Portsmouth fans has been curious. Many dismiss references to a business feud involving Chainrai and the Gaydamak family as “without foundation” even though the feud is a recorded fact. Many others simply buy the story that Chainrai loaned Portsmouth £17m last October as a “business opportunity,” even though they couldn’t explain just what that opportunity was. They believe too that Chainrai was a reluctant Portsmouth owner before his company Portpin put them into administration, despite no sign of that reluctance since. And, presumably, they have faith that the investigation into the now-liquidated company that used to run Portsmouth will show that the involvement of so many Israeli business enemies of Alexandre Gaydamak’s father in Portsmouth, at the behest of a reclusive Arab businessman, was a “co-incidence.”
Those of us who have smelled a rat ever since that £17m loan are, apparently, “conspiracy theorists.” The sort of people who think the Texas Book Depository museum is realistic because Lee Harvey Oswald… ”isn’t in it.” The sort of people who thought Munto Finance, who “bought” Notts County with promises of unending finance, were a sham. And the next thing we’ll be accused of, no doubt, is paranoia over the fate of the long-promised investigation into the old Portsmouth company’s affairs. This investigation has been long-promised, especially by Andronikou. It will show who’s right about Chainrai’s involvement in Portsmouth. Yet already it is being described as an un-necessary raking over of old coals, which won’t be worth its considerable cost. The future is the priority, not the past. Let’s draw a line under it and move on. So it is that Balram Chainrai will have to borrow money to keep Portsmouth going, despite assurances to the contrary. And he will get away with it, as long as fans chose to ignore all unpalatable facts about Portsmouth’s immediate future, and as long as the press focus on the uncomplicated parts of the story, rather than the right ones.
Oh… and Sheffield Wednesday’s takeover is “imminent.” On October 8th, the then-potential new owners promised an immediate £2m cash injection, just in time to allow a BBC ‘Football Focus’ feature on the club to publicise the “investment.” It hasn’t yet arrived. Wednesday still owe about £1m in back taxes. They are due in the High Court on November 17th to face a winding-up petition over that long-standing debt. That hearing IS “imminent.”