How did the trial of two Leeds United players and their mates put football itself in the dock?
Four defendants stood in the dock at Hull Crown Court, but as far as the media and the anti-racist lobby were concerned, football itself was on trial. And, regardless of the verdict, English football now stands accused of being, drunken, racist and violent.
Like most other people, I don’t know what happened on the night of 18 January 2000, when two Leeds United footballers were alleged to have beaten up a student – except that Asian student Sarfraz Najeib was viciously battered by a group of white men. Who started the fight? I don’t know. Witnesses say that the group of Asian students taunted Jamie Hewison, a friend of Leeds defender Jonathan Woodgate, and that Sarfraz Najeib threw a punch – though Najeib denies it.
Who took part in the attack? Here, too, there is conflicting evidence. Although a number of men took part in the assault on Najeib, only one defendant, Paul Clifford, was found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were acquitted of assaulting Najeib, but Woodgate was convicted of affray.
Was this a race attack? Once again the evidence is inconclusive – though I’m not naive enough to believe that either the Leeds footballers or Woodgate’s Middlesborough mates were Koran-reading Islamaphiles. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) initially considered charges of racially aggravated assault, but decided there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction – with judges in both trials insisting that there was no racial motive.
However, it has subsequently emerged that one of the ‘chasing group’, who could not be identified, was heard to say ‘Do you want some, Paki?’ seconds before the attack. These words are the only evidence of a racial motive, but, because nobody knew who said it, it was not presented in court.
But even though the motive for the attack remains unclear, the fact that white footballers were involved in the incident is seen by some as further proof that racism continues to blight English football. The UK Independent on Sunday ran a feature entitled ‘And they say there’s no prejudice in the game…’, reciting the well-worn litany of complaints that racist chanting has not disappeared from grounds and that too few blacks and Asians attend games (1).
The jury clearly found it difficult to establish the facts, deliberating for five days before reaching their verdicts. By contrast, others were quick to leap to conclusions. ‘You thug’ screamed a front-page headline in the Sun, next to a picture of Woodgate. (2) ‘Thug and liar walk free’ ran the headline in The Times (3). ‘Yesterday was a very sad day for justice’, lamented the Sun’s leader the day after the verdict.
Although Paul Clifford now faces a six-year jail sentence, the implication is that ‘justice’ would only have been served if Jonathan Woodgate were also behind bars. I think the saddest day for justice was when, at the original trial, which collapsed in April 2001, Lord Justice Poole decided that a retrial was necessary because, in his view, the jury was incapable of discounting a Sunday Mirror article in which the victim’s father Muhammad Najeib claimed the attack was racially motivated.
There might still be confusion over what happened, but the symbolic importance of the trial has become much clearer. For the anti-racists who have attached themselves to the Najeib family’s cause the trial was a test of the criminal justice system’s commitment to prosecuting race attackers following the Stephen Lawrence debacle.
The family’s solicitor Imran Khan has now criticised the CPS for ruling out a racial motive, and the all-white make-up of the jury has also come under fire. According to Suresh Grover, the family’s spokesman, ‘In today’s Britain, Asian people feel they are going to be denied justice because of all-white juries’ (4). Dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial, the Najeib family are now taking action to sue the players and the club for damages.
The drinking culture of English football has also been in the dock – with the Sun claiming that Woodgate is ‘part of a despicable culture of drink-fuelled, mindless violence that besmirches the name of Leeds United’. The Observer’s Ian Ridley argued that ‘the alcohol-fuelled episode was but the logical conclusion of a disturbing climate and culture in the sport’ (5). According to Ridley, ‘Be drunken, be racist and be violent’ is the motto of young English footballers.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward complained that ‘there are too many young athletes who develop god-like fantasies, believing that the law and normal standards of decency no longer apply to them’ (6). In the Independent on Sunday, Joan Smith blamed ‘sporting culture’ itself for ‘turning out young men whose lightning physical reactions are deliberately encouraged on the pitch, even if it turns them into potential monsters when they walk into a nightclub or bar’ (7).
Arsenal defender Tony Adams, these days a rehab evangelist, believes that Woodgate should have been sent on a compulsory alcohol education programme. Inviting the two players to attend his Sporting Chance Clinic, Adams said: ‘I’m not saying they are alcoholics, but the use of alcohol to excess does change people’s behaviour.’ Gordon Taylor, the boss of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), said that ‘players should exercise more common sense in their socialising, and football as a whole should do more because there are still problems despite the education given to players about the dangers of alcohol and drugs’.
Professional footballers, like most young men, enjoy drinking and no doubt sometimes find themselves involved in nightclub brawls. That’s nothing new, and is hardly a threat to the moral fabric of society. Far from being typical of a footballer’s night out, the brutal attack on Najeib was an exceptional and rare incident. To imagine a continuum between drinking and the savage assault on an Asian student is simply disingenuous.
Leeds United, quite rightly in my opinion, refused to suspend the players during the trial, on the grounds that they were innocent until proven guilty. But Piara Powar of the anti-racist group Kick It Out, who evidently has little time for niceties like natural justice, disagreed: ‘The norm for any blue-chip company is to suspend employees on full pay when they are faced with charges like that.’ The saga took a further twist when Leeds fined Bowyer four weeks’ wages and then transfer-listed him when, quite justifiably, he refused to accept a fine having been acquitted of the charges against him.
The Football Association, which had excluded both players from England selection during the trial, has now cleared Bowyer to play for his country and announced a review of Woodgate’s ban. In response, the Mirror published an open letter from Najeib and his father Muhammad to England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson urging him ‘to save the honour of English football’ by refusing to pick Bowyer and Woodgate for the England team (8). The Najeib family’s anger is understandable – but their victim status does not confer on them the right to pick the England football team.
And in case Mirror readers were in any doubt about where the paper stood on Lee Bowyer, the front page of 19 December 2001 described him as a ‘boozing, pot-smoking, violent, RACIST, cowardly, unapologetic, lying, odious’ – before saying, ‘Now try to sue us you little scumbag’ (9).
The assault on Sarfraz Najeib was a horrific crime, but English football was not to blame. However, it seems that Sarfraz Najeib’s name will, for some to come, be invoked, by those who want to purge the game of its drunken white male image.
(1) Independent on Sunday, 16 December 2001
(2) Sun, 15 December 2001
(3) The Times, 15 December 2001
(4) Observer, 16 December 2001
(5) Observer, 16 December 2001
(6) Telegraph, 14 December 2001
(7) Independent on Sunday, 16 December 2001
(8) Mirror, 18 December 2001
(9) Mirror, 18 December 2001
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