Offside, 22 August

Team doing badly? Punch the reserve goalie!

Duleep Allirajah

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‘Making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.’ That should be the official Crystal Palace motto.

This week, Palace were in the news again after a mysterious ‘cuffing’ incident involving manager Trevor Francis and reserve goalkeeper Alex Kolinko during the home game against Bradford.

What exactly happened in the dugout on that balmy August evening is not entirely clear. From my lofty vantage point in the upper tier of the Holmesdale Stand all I could see was the referee ordering Francis to sit in the stands. I assumed that the Palace boss had said something to the fourth official. However, the next day it emerged that the police had been asked to investigate an allegation of assault.

Francis himself tried to make light of the incident. ‘When Bradford scored, our substitute Alex Kolinko laughed so I cuffed him one round the back of the ear’, said Francis. ‘It was a bit of fun really, but the fourth official saw it differently.’ If Francis’ version of events is correct, then the reaction of the authorities is certainly disproportionate. What is the world coming to when a football manager cannot playfully cuff a player round the ear without facing an assault charge?

But as Alex Kolinko tells it, this was far from a ‘bit of fun’. ‘I was not laughing in the dug-out’, sniffled the Latvian shot-stopper. ‘The manager punched me on the nose. I have not been given an explanation why he did it. My nose is very sore and bruised.’ (Would Kolinko have been happier if Francis had issued a full statement of reasons for the unprovoked assault? ‘Dear Alex, I smacked you on the nose because you are a gormless, big-nosed Latvian c***. Yours sincerely, Trev.’ I suspect not.)

So who are we to believe? Was this a harmless piece of touchline horseplay or a vicious assault by a manager on an innocent employee? Palace chairman Simon Jordan has dismissed the incident as little more than ‘a storm in a teacup’.

‘Trevor had a situation where one of our players appeared to be laughing after we had conceded a goal and reprimanded him, but unfortunately the fourth official got busy’, said Jordan. ‘It is unfortunate when you get busy officials like that because it was something and nothing and the matter has been dealt with.’ (Busy officials? Something and nothing? Has someone spiked his drink?)

Jordan’s intervention, far from drawing a line under the affair, only served to make things worse. Kolinko, seemingly aggrieved that the club was taking no action against Francis, issued an ‘either-he-goes-or-I-go’ ultimatum. ‘I want to stay at Crystal Palace but it would be without Trevor. He punched me and could have broken my nose’, insisted Kolinko.

Jordan, meanwhile, accused Kolinko’s agent of stirring things up. ‘I feel this is a case of an agent seeking to profit from an unfortunate situation’, said Jordan. ‘The player is entitled to his opinion, but we have two alleged incidents here and I wasn’t there to see either of them’, he added in typically incomprehensible fashion.

Kolinkogate had now become a full-blown diplomatic incident, with the police investigating a formal complaint of assault, the FA considering whether to bring disciplinary proceedings against Francis, and the Professional Footballers’ Association called in to arbitrate.

Supporting Palace often feels like following a bad soap opera with one implausible plot-line following another. In the past five years we’ve survived relegation, seven managerial changes, three different owners, near bankruptcy, and now Kolinkogate. Life’s never dull at Selhurst Park.

Ironically, the main beneficiary of this latest farcical episode could be Trevor Francis himself. Since taking over the reigns at Palace in December 2001, Francis has not exactly endeared himself to the Palace faithful. They suspected that he was still a Birmingham City man at heart. They feared he would turn Palace into a replica of the dour Birmingham side that he once managed. Matters weren’t helped when Francis hailed goal-shy Ade Akinbiyi as the best ‘defensive forward in the First Division’.

But after Kolinkogate some fans have warmed to Francis for demonstrating a bit of passion for the Palace cause. ‘I think they fully realise now that they have a manager who’s got Palace in his heart’, said Francis.

Enjoy it while it lasts, Trev. There won’t always be a Latvian goalkeeper around to cuff round the ear when things go wrong on the pitch.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

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