Sport

Football’s moralists should butt out over Pardew

A feeble headbutt earned the Newcastle boss a seven-game ban and a deluge of sanctimony. The rest of us just laughed.

Wham, bam, banished to the stand. Newcastle boss Alan Pardew has been hit with a seven-match touchline ban for his headbutt on Hull’s David Meyler. The reaction has been predictably shrill and sanctimonious. Standard. But here’s the thing: nobody died. Meyler wasn’t even hurt. And the Hull midfielder even made light of the incident with a headbutt goal celebration. It begs the question: if Meyler can see the funny side, why can’t the rest of the football world?

We saw a similar moral shitstorm after Liverpool’s Luis Suárez notoriously sunk his teeth into Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s arm last season. As I wrote on spiked at the time, it seems I live in a parallel universe when something like this happens. In one cosmic dimension there’s nothing but frothing outrage. You know the sort of ‘disgust-by-numbers’: ‘Sack him’, ‘Ban him for life’, ‘There’s no place for that in football’, ‘Kids are watching at home’ and so on, ad infinitum. But for every moron who believes that Pardew is contributing to Britain’s moral decay, there are many of us who weren’t mortified at all.

Although we inhabit a different reality, our world is not bereft of all morality. We wouldn’t, as a general rule, encourage headbutting. We don’t think managers should chin footballers. It’s undignified and unprofessional. But we do possess a sense of perspective and a sense of humour – traits sadly absent elsewhere. While Pardew broke the rules, we don’t regard his headbutt as a hanging offence. Indeed, dare I say it, we thought it was quite funny. That’s right: it made us laugh. There are plenty of fans like me who rather enjoy a bit of touchline argy-bargy. We’re the silent majority. We don’t phone in to talkSPORT or Five Live’s 606 programme to vent our disgust. We don’t cancel our Sky subscriptions or complain to Ofcom. Instead, we were the ones who were straight on to Twitter, looking for slow-mo video clips of the incident. You see, we regard sport as entertainment, not as a form of moral instruction.

If there was one thing more amusing than Pardew’s headbutt itself, it was the febrile reaction of the football pundits. Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports usually provides good-value hysteria in these situations. And, once again, Jeff Stelling and Paul Merson didn’t disappoint. Their theatrical apoplexy was magnificent:

Stelling: ‘Ooooh my goodness me, Alan Pardew, the book is about to be thrown at you!’
Merson: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, Jeff… He definitely puts his head on to his head.’
Stelling: ‘He will be in huge, enormous, massive, massive trouble.’

Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen struck a more sombre tone as though the spirit of football itself had been snuffed out. ‘I think it’s terribly sad to see these pictures’, said Hansen. ‘I think it’s sad for Alan Pardew, it’s sad for Newcastle, and I think it’s sad for the game.’ Those of us who weren’t in mourning would beg to differ. Pardew clearly lost the plot, but I’d question whether his action even qualifies as a headbutt. No blood was spilt. Meyler wasn’t concussed. The contact, if any, was minimal. If it had been a proper headbutt, Meyler would have been floored. There would have been blood. I think this was what’s known in the trade as ‘a coming together of heads’. It’s what rutting stags do; more a provocative gesture than an act of violence.

It’s a pity there isn’t a Dubious Headbutts Committee to arbitrate in these situations. While it provided plenty of entertainment value, Pardew’s effort doesn’t belong in the pantheon of football bust-ups. It’s just not in the same league as Luis Suárez’s bite, Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick, or Zinedine Zidane’s decking of Marco Materazzi. These were iconic and brutal acts of jawdropping violence. Pardew’s effort does have novelty value – it’s not often you see a manager nutting an opposition player. However, as acts of managerial violence go, it wasn’t as shocking – or funny, depending on your taste – as Paul Ince’s aggressive expletive-ridden confrontation with a fourth official last September which landed him a five-game touchline ban. Ince aggressively shoved the official screaming: ‘I’ll knock you fucking out you cunt!’ Sadly, as this occurred at a Championship game, there were no TV cameras to record this glorious incident.

Amid all the sanctimonious hysteria over Pardew’s behaviour, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the ‘victim’, David Meyler, hasn’t made a big fuss about the headbutt. The Irish midfielder even made a joke of the whole episode by headbutting a corner flag to celebrate his goal against Sunderland in the FA Cup. Hull manager Steve Bruce was similarly measured about Pardew’s behaviour. ‘He’s apologised to us as a club and as far as I’m concerned the matter’s over’, said Bruce. Like Meyler, Bruce was able to see the funny side. ‘He’s lucky that [Meyler] didn’t get one back! Then he would have been in serious trouble’, said Bruce. ‘A 25-year-old against a 50-year-old is a mismatch, isn’t it?’

Professional football is a passionate, aggressive, hard-fought contest and so it’s inevitable that, in the heat of battle, players and even managers sometimes do stupid things. Invariably, when the final whistle blows, everyone shakes hands and the on-field spats are forgotten. What happens on the pitch stays on the pitch, as they say. David Meyler and Steve Bruce have been grown-up enough to accept Pardew’s apology and move on. The rest of us would do well to follow their example.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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