In the small hours of last Wednesday morning, somewhere in Glasgow, David Goodwillie and two of his Dundee United team-mates were arrested for (allegedly of course) their part in a donnybrook. On Saturday, having been relegated to the bench as a result, Goodwillie came off it to score the only goal of the game against Hamilton Accies. It was his eighth goal of the season and his sixth in consecutive games in the SPL. Last season he was voted SPFA Young Player of the Year, and at age of 21 his current streak has only added to his growing reputation and to the talk of full international honours.
But, while it should be said he has not been charged for last week’s little rammy, it’s not his first brush with the law. In 2008 he was convicted for glassing someone, and in 2009 a further assault conviction followed after punching someone unconscious, again in a nightclub brawl. (He hails, incidentally, from the same Raploch estate as such other prominent intellectuals as Billy Bremner and Duncan Ferguson.) In a country that has been starved of decent forwards since, well, Kenny Dalglish probably, such talent is not to be tossed aside lightly, but do we really want to invite someone into the international fold with such an inability to keep themselves out of trouble?
The issue is a live one in England this week too, with much speculation surrounding Newcastle centre-forward Andy Carroll. By what might be seen as an unfortunate coincidence of timing, Carroll’s terrific form in the Premier League this season has coincided with both his arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, and with his conviction for an earlier assault charge resulting from his own nightclub contretemps in January. Somewhere in the interim there was also that mysterious incident which left his team-mate Steven Taylor with a broken jaw.
Both countries have friendlies coming up next week and thus the opportunity to have a look at some younger players – Scotland host the Faeroes at Pittodrie while England have rather weaker opposition in the shape of France. If the press have got it right, Carroll will indeed be in the England squad, which will cause the usual parts of the press to go apoplectic and complain about the lack of morality in the game, and will cause rather more people to at least feel a little bit uncomfortable about it.
There are no easy answers here. To some extent the simple fact of supporting a team – club or country – involves, it not abandoning such moral decisions, then at least derogating them to someone else most of the time. All of us, inevitably, have supported and cheered on some player, at some point, who we’d find thoroughly dislikeable if we met them or knew more about them. And yet most of us feel there has to be some limit to this, football is not a morality-free zone and we all think or hope that our clubs will draw the line somewhere, and stop short of employing someone who is a complete and irredeemable cunt. (For want of a better word.)
At national level there has traditionally been an expectation, at least in theory, that a player ought to be even more upstanding. Representing your country is a very special privilege and you are indeed a representative, of a sort.
But inevitably it hasn’t always worked that way in practice and part of the reason we’ve become a bit sceptical of imposing any sort of moral standards at all is because such morality has proved to be a bit of a moveable feast over the years. England and Scotland have both used players with criminal convictions of different sorts, and it’s also hard to escape the impression that difference standards can be applied depending on how good or important a player is. John Terry’s …. issues earlier this year are not analogous as they were not of a legal nature, but they did call into question his position within the squad and highlight the double standards at work. Does anyone think he would have kept his place if he’d been a less important team member? Or just a less important team member than Wayne Bridge? Do we think Joey Barton would have remained out the picture after his prison sentence if he were a forward scoring thirty goals a season? Will he indeed remain out the picture indefinitely if he keeps up his own current form for Newcastle?
In any case, few of us actually want to write people off forever if there’s any room to find benefit of the doubt. And it’s probably not in their best interests either. I’ve known some people with fairly serious criminal convictions in other walks of life who I regard as great people – they’ve just needed a bit of help to sort themselves out or help them to learn to control a temper. Often some help and support from their profession has had a big part to play in that, and footballers are of course no different. While you don’t want to see them continuously indulged in bad behaviour, nor do I want to see them hung out to dry in the way that, say, the aforementioned Duncan Ferguson was by the SFA in the 90s.
All this leaves a rather messy picture with no sort of clear guidelines on when we should be able to select players and when we shouldn’t. But notwithstanding that any such guidelines are necessarily subjective, I’ll nonetheless summarise what I’d hope to see in any prospective international player with such a history behind them.
Firstly, some sign of contrition and some sign of desire to want to do something about it. Secondly, some sign that something is actually being done about it and progress made. And thirdly an indication that the national governing body and / or his employers are providing support or help in that process and not simply turning a blind eye. What we absolutely don’t want is players who think they can keep behaving as they like, pay lip service to expressions of remorse and then their country will keep picking them anyway.
All of this is better judged by the people closest to them rather than by fans or press. Contrition especially is not an easy thing to judge from public utterances – some people are very good at saying the right things, while some aren’t but might nonetheless be quite genuine in private. So again, within reason I’m still prepared to derogate these decisions to others, and thus in the specific cases of Goodwillie and Carroll I don’t really have a strong opinion.
If pushed, I’d say in both cases that the incidents of misbehaviour are both too numerous and too recent to convince me that these criteria are being met. But I’m not going to get high and mighty about it, and if someone sees fit to decide otherwise I’ll get behind whoever is in my team. Particularly if they can knock a few goals in – I’d love to pretend to be consistent here, but I’m afraid my morality is probably a bit flexible on this point too. Sorry.
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