Offside, 16 January

Lee Bowyer's pursuers will not rest until he has been hounded out of football.

Duleep Allirajah

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Topics Politics

Such was the furore that greeted Lee Bowyer’s transfer to West Ham, you’d have thought that the Ku Klux Klan had been hired to provide the pre-match entertainment at Upton Park. (‘Ladies and gentleman, please give a right royal East End welcome to the Ku Klux Klan Choir who will be performing their sing-along classic “I’m forever burning crosses”.’)

Bowyer’s transfer was met with howls of disapproval from anti-racists. ‘It is a deal which will polarise football fans and increase tension’, warned Suresh Grover of the National Civil Rights Movement – a self-fulfilling prophecy given that it’s the anti-racists who have turned a simple football transfer into a race row.

When Bowyer made his Hammers’ debut on 11 January, a small group of anti-racists, who said they were ‘appalled’ by the club’s latest signing, demonstrated outside the Boleyn Ground. They handed out leaflets asking ‘How are we to attract black and Asian fans to the Boleyn when we sign someone like Bowyer?’

Some West Ham fans have decided to boycott Upton Park as long as Bowyer continues to wear the claret and blue. ‘I can’t put money into the pocket of a man who tarnishes the Moore image’, wrote journalist and Hammers supporter Shekhar Bhatia.

Anti-racists want Bowyer to make a public renunciation of the devil, er, I mean racism. ‘He has to go on record and make clear he abhors racism and understands why West Ham needs its Asian community’, demanded Bhatia

‘Lee Bowyer has to say that he has no racist thoughts. But he has to mean it’, said former West Ham striker Clyde Best. ‘If he has racist thoughts then he needs counselling to get rid of them because he would need help.’ Best’s sinister proposal is straight out of the Clockwork Orange school of rehabilitation. Lobotomy, anyone?

It’s safe to say that Lee Bowyer is the most reviled player in British football. The Daily Mirror famously branded Bowyer as a ‘boozing, pot-smoking, violent, racist, cowardly, unapologetic, lying, odious’ scumbag. But what has he done to deserve his reputation? Let’s examine the charge sheet.

In 1995, Bowyer, then at Charlton Athletic, was suspended for smoking cannabis – hardly a hanging offence these days. In 1996 he was fined £4500 for smashing up a McDonald’s restaurant in the Isle of Dogs. During the trial a witness alleged that Bowyer had shouted ‘I just don’t want to be served by no Paki!’.

The accusation of racism resurfaced when Bowyer was charged with affray and grievous bodily harm following the vicious assault on Asian student Sarfraz Najeib in 2000. The jury, let us not forget, found him not guilty on both counts. However, Bowyer’s detractors, who evidently have little time for the principles of justice, have been intent on exacting perpetual punishment.

Shortly after the trial the Daily Mirror published an open letter from the Najeib family asking the Football Association (FA) not to select Bowyer for international duty. Although England’s midfield was ravaged with injuries, and despite the fact that Bowyer had not been convicted of any crime, the FA pointedly refused to call up Bowyer for the World Cup squad – a ban in everything but name.

Bowyer’s chequered disciplinary record on the pitch is taken as further evidence of his thuggish character. Earlier in January 2003, UEFA dished out a six-match ban to Bowyer for stamping on the head of FC Malaga’s Gerardo. Unpleasant yes, but Bowyer is hardly the first player to stamp on an opponent.

Eric Cantona received his first red card in England for deliberately stamping on the chest of Swindon’s John Moncur. But Cantona’s episodic bouts of violence were excused as the inevitable excesses of a tortured genius. Likewise, Denis Bergkamp is another creative player whose reputation is unlikely to be sullied despite having imprinted his studs on the hip of Blackburn’s Nils-Eric Johansson.

Lee Bowyer is no angel, but there is no justification for the ongoing witch-hunt against him. He has been punished once already for his youthful act of violence in McDonald’s six years ago. Isn’t that enough? He was cleared of taking part in the assault on Sarfraz Najeib, so why is he still being treated like a criminal?

Sadly, it seems that the sanctimonious race inquisitors will not be satisfied until Bowyer has been hounded out of football altogether. Does Lee Bowyer harbour racist thoughts? I don’t know and frankly I don’t think it should matter.

Call me an apologist for boozing, pot-smoking, violent, racist scumbags, but I think people should be punished for their actions, not their thoughts.

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