Offside, 26 February
It's bad sport to snitch on the other teams' goal celebrations.
Have you ever wondered why the Goodison Park PA system blasts out the theme tune from that old police series Z-Cars when the players run out on to the pitch? Now, finally, I’ve discovered the answer. It’s because Everton fans are all copper’s narks.
Merseyside police announced this week that they want to question four Manchester United players – Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gary Neville – about their goal celebrations during the dramatic Premiership game at Goodison on 7 February 2004. In a thrilling, topsy-turvy game, Everton clawed back a 3-0 deficit only for United to snatch all three points when Ruud van Nistelrooy netted a last-minute winner.
Everton fans were understandably gutted. However, a number of supporters were so incensed by the United players’ goal celebrations that they stayed behind after the final whistle to file official complaints. Everton reportedly forwarded 100 written statements to the police. The United players in question are accused of making obscene gestures and swearing at the home fans. Roy Keane is alleged to have made a V-sign and shouted ‘fuck off’ in front of children in the family enclosure.
It’s not the first time that Everton fans have got their knickers in a twist over an opponent’s goal celebrations. Earlier this season Arsenal’s Thierry Henry celebrated a goal against Everton at Highbury by removing his shirt, running over to the travelling supporters, and apparently blowing a kiss at them – though Henry claims that the gesture was directed to his family in an executive box above. Everton fans were so enraged by the spectacle of the French striker’s bare chest and amorous gesture that they had to be physically restrained by stewards.
It remains to be seen whether the police or the FA will take any further action against the four Manchester United players. Gary Neville can’t see what all the fuss is about. ‘It’s an overreaction’, he said. ‘We scored a goal in the last minute to win 4-3 so what do they want us to do? Just walk back and say “good goal boys”?’ Actually, it’s more than just an overreaction. It’s pathetic with a capital P. It’s also utterly hypocritical. Everton fans are hardly shrinking violets themselves when it comes to goading opponents. Whenever Manchester United visit Goodison Park you’ll invariably hear songs about the Munich air crash accompanied by aeroplane gestures. And I’ve got no quarrel with that. Winding up the opposition is what fans are supposed to do.
But if you’re going to dish out the abuse you’ve got to be big enough to take it on the chin as well. I think that players are perfectly entitled to repay the taunts by indulging in provocative goal celebrations. A finger over the mouth or hand cupped to the ear to say ‘it’s all gone quiet’ is the perfect riposte to terrace abuse. A classic of the genre was Robbie Fowler’s coke-snorting celebration in front of the Everton fans who had been taunting him throughout the game about his alleged drug habit.
It has, however, become increasingly common in recent years for affronted fans to run crying to the authorities to complain about players’ behaviour. Pious supporters bleating about the provocative actions of players has become the dismal staple of football phone-in programmes and internet discussion boards. I guess this is inevitable in a grass-thy-neighbour culture, which has spawned countless telephone hotlines for us to rat on dole cheats, litter louts, noisy neighbours, workplace bullies and football thugs – to name but a few.
The Football Association, ever eager to regulate any expressions of passion, have instructed officials to clamp down on inflammatory goal celebrations this season. Referees have been told to caution players for celebrations or gestures that might ‘incite’ spectators. The subtext of course is that spectators are dumb, suggestible, replica-shirted beasts who are devoid of free will and therefore incapable of restraining themselves.
Those Everton fans who lodged official complaints will no doubt say that there were children present. This is an all too familiar refrain. ‘Not in front of the children’ has become the standard justification for the War on Offensive Behaviour that is being waged in our football stadiums. My reply is quite simple. Football grounds are places where grown men go to scream and swear. If you don’t want your kids to hear vulgar or abusive language then leave them at home. End of story.
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