While it remains the most competitive and drama-filled football league in the world, there is a clear effort to sand down the rough edges of character in the English Premier League. From the way they must behave off of the pitch to the ways in which they must speak of themselves and their team in post-match interviews, football players often come across as two dimensional, unfeeling tools of physical entertainment. And last weekend an eruption of the game’s character was plugged yet again by an unfeeling cynicism.
In the 7th minute of added time in a fragile, deadlocked game away from home against a physical and unrelenting Bournemouth side, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling eventually found the net, awarding the title hopefuls a vital three points.
Rapturous cheers from the thousands of travelling City fans sent the beaming youngster in their direction as they spilled from their seats past the stewards and onto the pitch. To do anything other than run into the clutches of the adoring fans in this moment is an affront to the game and the soul. For following his heart, Sterling is awarded a second yellow card and sent off on the grounds of excessive celebration.
Netting the winner in added time is the lick of fantastical paint applied by every young aspiring footballer as they lace the ball into their garden shed, a street bin, between two tree’s. “It’s the most incredible rush of your life. When you score at that point in the game you feel like you can fight the world” Jamie Redknapp confirms, scorer of what many including myself will be surprised to learn is 34 premier league goals. An adament defender of Sterling’s actions, Redknapp asks the worthy question ‘Well what are we trying to do, take the joy out of the game? Is that what we’re trying to do here?’
The pragmatist’s and devil’s advocates will tell you its the letter of the law, Dean is simply doing his job. ‘He knows he can’t do that though to be fair Alan’ Mr. Vanilla Philip Neville retorts to a frustrated Alan Shearer on the topic.
In fact, FIFA rules state that a player must be cautioned when:
In the opinion of the referee, he makes gestures which are provocative derisory or inflammatory.
He climbs on to a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal being scored.
He removes his shirt over his head or covers his head with his shirt.
From what I and many others can see, Sterling is guilty of none of these. He is amongst his own fans, so no need for provocative, derisory or inflammatory gestures. They’re basically on the touchline so Sterling has no need to reach the perimeter. And in a herculean exhibit of will, he doesn’t rip his shirt off.
As far as “inciting” goes, the ball nestling in the net after a tumultuous well-battled game had done enough of that. Of course there is the question of safety and its a valid one, the machismo fuelled jubilance of hundreds of men does not override the safety of anyone. But from what I can see it was not the fans putting safety at risk, but the stewards and the police. The treatment of the roaming fans by the security was rightly observed by Sergio Aguero, who can be seen hovering around the man-handling of a City fan asking questions of excessive force only to be pushed away and blocked from view by a police officer.
I saw similar treatment at Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday last weekend. After their team had broken the deadlock, a few Wednesday fans jumped the barrier to join their team in celebration, looking to promptly return to their seats afterwards. Halfway back over the partition, I saw one fan get thrown to the ground and quickly set upon by three to four stewards who proceeded to drag the supporter out of the stadium.
At a time in which the emotional value of football is rightly under the microscope, issues like this are particularly pertinent. There is no doubt in my mind that what Mike Dean was doing here was sending a message and making an example of Sterling. There was nothing untoward in his actions, all of which went unnoticed up until the two teams had reset for kick off. The commentary team had nothing to say of the “excessive” celebration and the behaviour of the fans. The camera had performed the routine scanning of the disheartened crowd and given us the wide shot of the teams back in their shape when Dean showed Sterling the red. ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that’ his lips appeared to say.
I can tolerate the stale media versed behaviour of players off the pitch, and stricter refereeing at least has the positives of deterring dangerous play even if it has taken some of the sting out of the modern game. But to be as cynical as to punish the emotion of a player in this way is truly the lowest the game has sunk in deterring personality. These moments offer us the slim chance to see a purity of feeling from the player’s. City’s new signing Benjamin Mendy showed just what the game means to him with arms gesticulating as if to conduct the boiling fans to a fever pitch.
Most importantly these scenes allowed a glimpse into a player who is frequently in the cross hairs of the media over his personal life and supposed lack of care for anything in football that isn’t a pay cheque. But here, Sterling showed he is a player as in touch with the fundamental passion for football as the next man. Unfortunately in the eyes of the show stealing Mike Dean, the boy done wrong again.