What to think of Sam Allardyce’s return to football?
Not in the literal sense – Crystal Palace’s 1-1 draw with Watford on Boxing Day was unremarkable – but rather its broader significance.
Allardyce wasn’t dismissed as England manager because he broke any rules, but because his behaviour was deemed by The Football Association to be unbecoming of someone in his position.
In retrospect, The Telegraph’s eight-month investigation presented little that wasn’t already public knowledge. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was caught in the sting, a few football agents were shown to be – gasp – avaricious creeps, but it was all remarkably tame. In Allardyce’s case, no charges were filed, no ban was handed-down and, consequently, no forgiveness is really necessary.
Do other stories exist about him? Yes. Should more attention have been paid to the allegations made by Ravel Morrison in 2014 and by the notorious Panorama episode in 2006? Certainly. But in this instance – this one specifically – no crime has been committed and no repentance is technically due.
Nevertheless, there’s something disconcerting about the ease and speed with which Allardyce has re-entered top-flight employment. While his hiring made sense and Palace will presumably soon acquire both his famed defensive rigidity and his siege gun-subtlety in attack, it shouldn’t be quite that simple – and we shouldn’t be periodically reminded that, in football, there is no moral vaguery which can’t be redacted by good performance or reputation.
Earlier in December, Malky Mackay re-emerged from the mire to become the Scottish Football Association’s Director of Performance. During his introductory press conference, it was interesting to note his tone: aggressive, defiant, and yet also self-piteous. Following his departure from Cardiff City, Mackay was particularly proud to have attended a series of awareness courses. The details of those have never been revealed but, given his offence, its thrust seems likely to have been that racism and homophobia are bad.
Are there badges for completing such an education? Does everybody get a diploma and a weekly column at The Guardian to promote their virtuousness?
Perhaps Mackay has a framed certificate in his home office which marks his achievement. Regardless, he seems terribly proud to have completed his re-education and, as he was keen to remind everyone in attendance at his unveiling, he now has the documentation to prove his decency.
Back into the game he comes, riding in on a wave of platitudes about mistakes and remorse.
Allardyce may be a different, far less severe case, but there is similarity in the way his reappearance likely makes supporters feel. It was so quick, so effortless; no sooner had The FA’s large redundancy cheque finished clearing, Allardyce was back to begin harvesting another colossal salary.
That has been to nobody’s surprise, but only because faith in the game’s moral constitution has never been lower; misconduct is expected and then tolerated with a weary shrug. Instead of demanding a higher standard of conduct from those employed within football, the community worries itself only with technical legality – and never, sadly, with any great sense of decency. It’s troubling, for instance, that while lawyers can be disbarred and doctors struck off, football managers and players retain immunity irrespective of their actions. For all intents and purposes, working in the top echelons of professional sport is a privilege rather than a right, and yet nothing within its internal governance takes that into account. Even at an ownership level, through the notoriously weak Fit and Proper Persons Test, football fails to take its obligation to preserve its integrity seriously enough.
If you have enough money, you can own a club – and it doesn’t really matter where your money comes from. If you’ve played or managed professionally before you must, irrespective of whatever wrongdoing you’re accused or associated with, be allowed to find continued employment.
This isn’t really about Sam Allardyce, he just happens to be relevant. What he provides an example of, however, is the need for football to become a gated community. Like an exclusive housing complex or expensive gym membership, there should be greater consequences for bad behaviour and not just open-palmed indifference to anything which isn’t punishable by law. It may be an imperfect comparison, but it should be noted that the major sports organisations in America – those of comparable size to the Premier and Football Leagues – employ commissioners for, among others, this reason. The NFL’s Roger Goodell may have a terrible habit of flip-flopping around domestic violence, but his office does theoretically hold the authority to disqualify and reinstate players and coaches. The message is clear: playing professional football is not a right, but rather a conditional privilege.
As it should be. It goes without saying that those guilty of serious offences should face long-term or permanent exclusion, but there should also be a stronger mechanism to retaliate against those who continue to indulge in wink-and-a-smile shenanigans; it’s 2016 and yet football is still just a series of dark, smoke-filled rooms. It’s time to turn on the lights, open the windows, and embrace modernity.
That’s pious and preachy and doubtless the kind of opinion which will be easy to attack. But why is it so wrong to want that higher standard? Given its visibility and the wealth it affords, how can it be unreasonable to demand that football at least tries to clear its muddied waters. Older supporters talk of a time when they had to defend their pastime: matches were played in the shadow of hooliganism and the decrepit terraces pulsed with hate. To be a football fan was to belong to an underclass, to be almost sub-human. Slowly, history is repeating itself. The sport’s veneer may now shine and its wealth may give it an opulent glow, but it’s becoming something which needs to be defended again. It’s a filthy sport full of loathsome characters and, again, it’s increasingly difficult to justify much of the behaviour which seaps into the mainstream conscience.