The taboos of society can be fascinating to watch from the outside, and over the last forty or fifty years they have come to shift at such a pace that it is difficult to keep up with what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. Just as football mirror society in many respects, football has a habit of adopting the norms of society and, no matter what changes in the world around us, some types of behaviour remain off-limits in a way that makes their occasional incidences seem almost unbelievably shocking. So it was at yesterday’s Southern League Premier Division match between Redditch United and Chesham United. Yesterday afternoon at Redditch, however, fighting for three points took on an obviously unacceptably literal edge.
Redditch United and Chesham United were seven minutes into the second half of their match yesterday when the national incident occurred that would propel the match into the national consciousness. Chesham were leading by a single, first half goal when Redditch’s Josh McKenzie conceded a penalty, and in the subsequent dispute McKenzie was reported to have “hit” the referee, resulting in him falling to the ground. McKenzie was, of course, dismissed and was subsequently arrested (he was released later last night with a caution), while the match was, perhaps understandably, abandoned. After the match, Redditch United acted with commendable efficiency in making their stance on such behaviour clear, with an official statement stating that, “We pride ourselves on fair play and will not tolerate this kind of behaviour” and cancelling the player’s registration with them. Meanwhile, we will have to wait and see what action the Football Association and the Southern League decide to take over McKenzie’s behaviour.
The black and white nature of the right and wrong in this case is, of course, clear. That referees shouldn’t have to worry about this sort of behaviour from anybody – players, club officials or spectators – is an obvious given. Perhaps, though, in the case of a player assaulting a referee, the most shocking aspect of it is that is breaking one of the few remaining taboos in terms of how anybody associated with football should be behaving. There was a time when any sort of dissent – waving imaginary cards, talking back to officials, and a host of others – would have been considered considerably poorer form than they are these days, as would other sorts of behaviour, such as diving. Over time, however, this sort of behaviour and become more and more widespread and we have become desensitised to it. Actually striking a match official, however, retains its status as one of the few remaining taboos left to break. It is, of course, absolutely right that this should be the case. At the foot of the game, away from the gaze of the media, the FA have been becoming concerned at increases in attacks on referees at matches, and if this behaviour begins to seep in the semi-professional game and referees start to quit there as well, the non-league game will face an unprecedented crisis to which tey may well be no answer.
We should, however, take a moment to be quietly grateful upon hearing such dispiriting news, that the reason why stories such as this make national headlines is precisely because they are so rare. The reaction to the news from Redditch yesterday was so great precisely because of its rarity value. The day that this ceases to be will be the day that we should be genuinely concerned, and the condemnatory reaction of the supporters of both clubs indicates that this is a line that all seem to consider to be beyond the pale. As our sensitivity to some of the other former taboos of the game has diminished over time thanks to prolonged exposure, though, it is critical that we do not allow this to happen with violence towards officials, and the open contempt with which referees are often described in the media and by some supporters could be seen as a part of the same culture which makes such behaviour more likely to be commonplace. This might be overstated, but a culture of greater disrespect towards officials is hardly going to make such incidents less likely.
Josh McKenzie will get his come-uppance. It seems unlikely that he will evade a lengthy ban and, with his registration having been cancelled by Redditch United, whether any other club will decide to offer him another chance upon the expiry of his ban (presuming, of course, that there is an expiry date on his ban – it is possible, though not necessarily likely, that any ban that he might serve could be for life). His opportunity to make money, any money at all, from football might have passed with a single blow yesterday afternoon, and if this is the case then he will only have himself to blame for his fate. Redditch United may well end up paying a price for his behaviour, but they have, however, enhanced their reputation with the unequivocal way in which they reacted to this event and further punitive sanction against their club above and beyond anything related to their further involvement in this year’s competition would be harsh. They are, of course, responsible for the behaviour of their players, but there is a limit to the extent that they actually can control them. The rest of us, meanwhile, should perhaps be grateful for the fact that this sort of behaviour is being reported here because it is so rare. It is small solace, perhaps, but it is solace none the less.
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