Chelsea’s conduct in the John Terry affair of the lowest order

Of all the accusations and finger-pointing doing the rounds in the John Terry firestorm, Chelsea are almost as deserving of blame as the player. Their actions in attempting to deceive and insult the intelligence of everyone from the FA to the criminal justice system, the anti-racism campaign and the fans, have merely reinforced the impression that they are a club run along mafia lines favouring cronyism and protection of their own above truth and what they owe to the wider public. First, it was revealed that club secretary David Barnard had deliberately changed Ashley Cole’s witness statement to include that he had heard Anton Ferdinand use the word “black” when accusing John Terry of racially insulting him, when Cole had in fact initially stated hearing no such thing. This was a key (and false) alteration, as Terry’s line of defence rested on repeating abusive words that Ferdinand had accused him of saying in order to deny using them (i.e. “I didn’t call you a so-and-so”). Secondly, Chelsea then relented under overwhelming pressure to coax a statement of apology from Terry that nonetheless allowed him to omit acknowledging that he had ever directed racial language to Anton Ferdinand. Finally, they told the fans that they punished him but refused to reveal what those sanctions entailed, citing comparisons with the HR department of any company that would ordinarily refrain from revealing to the public any penalties it had imposed on its employees.

The difference between ordinary companies and Chelsea Football Club – of which they are well aware – is that football clubs have always been unique companies that are more beholden to the public than most corporates. They rely on the public to purchase their shirts, ordinary people to buy their season tickets, but also to maintain an intangible connection that has always gone beyond business into the realm of absolute loyalty. Yet in trying to use the specious analogy of an ordinary company obeying best practice in HR policy, Chelsea have insulted the intelligence of those loyal fans who might feel it their right to know what kind of punishment they have meted out to John Terry to preserve the image of their club.

The extent to which Chelsea were prepared to go to protect a handful of senior players was revealed in the brutal manner of their sacking of Andre Villas Boas last season, and has once again been on display in this tawdry episode. Yet there are some things that are greater than a single player, and even if Chelsea were now to side with the public in the name of a commitment to anti-racism and professionalism, it would seem like a political move undertaken after a careful, self-serving weighing of the pros and cons. Defend your player if you must, try not to mislead courts and commissions if you can help it, but please oh please don’t insult the intelligence of fans by claiming that you cannot reveal the sanctions the club imposed because of your commitment to high standards of company HR policy. Football has never existed within the realm of ordinary society, and public figures have always prompted public judgements. It is time Chelsea stopped acting so shiftily and talked straight with their fans, if not the general footballing public.

St George’s Park is merely the first step on the long road to success

With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.

While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.

The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.

These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.