The latest in a seemingly endless line of off-pitch controversies came today. Rio Ferdinand refused to wear the Kick It Out t-shirts that the campaign co-ordinates players to wear in pre-match warm-ups every now and then. It was a story only because Jason Roberts had gone public a few days earlier saying he was not going to wear the t-shirt of the anti-racism campaign, and that led Sir Alex Ferguson to say in his press conference that all of his Manchester United team would be wearing the t-shirts. My guess is that if Roberts hadn’t decided he needed to make a point of undermining the campaign publicly, nobody would have batted an eyelid when Ferdinand appeared donning his regular warm-up kit.
Regardless, it has happened. And because of that, Ferguson was compelled to comment on it. After United’s 4-2 win against Stoke, he said “I am disappointed with Rio Ferdinand not wearing the t-shirt. It is an embarrassment for me and he will be dealt with.”
Let me get my personal opinion out of the way first and also state that it in no way informs what will follow. I think it was counter-productive in the extreme for black players to publicly state they will not be joining in with wearing the t-shirts. I can understand Roberts’ frustration with the amount of action against racism in this country. I’ve been the only ethnic minority on a football pitch enough times to know what happens in certain parts of the country. I can also understand Rio Ferdinand’s frustrations. As well as the myriad ways the Football Association have shafted him over his career, the way his brother’s case was dealt with when he was involved in that unpleasant altercation with John Terry was appalling.
However, the last thing that the anti-racism campaign needs at a time when the issue is coming to the fore again is fragmentation. Though we have our problems, this country has come a long way in terms of racial relations. You only need to look to football in Serbia, Croatia or Spain, among others, to see that. There is no silver bullet to end racism, and every step of progress is hard. Despite the frustrations that get thrown up from time to time, refusing to wear a t-shirt when every other player in the league is doing so doesn’t help end that frustration. In all likelihood, it could help fuel it.
But aside from my political view on what has happened, this is the main point...
Ferguson’s response to what happened is typical Ferguson. Hard-line, my-way-or-the-highway, authoritarian Ferguson. It was ever thus. And it is one of the reasons he is so admired. Over the years he has managed countless egos, brought them into line and dealt with them as soon as it appeared as though they were about to get above themselves. As soon as there have been signs that players were feeling bigger than he felt they were allowed to be, they were gone. The list grows by the year. Ince, Beckham, Keane, van Nistelrooy. And United fans love it that way. They want the steely Scot in charge, in control of everything from the tea room to the team selection.
So when Ferguson issues an outright and not too unreasonable order for his players to adhere to wearing a t-shirt during a pre-match warm-up as part of an anti-racism drive, they’re expected to follow. Assuming he did issue such an order, Rio Ferdinand has disobeyed that.
This is a pretty simple issue. Ferguson will play to the media about the importance of the Kick It Out campaign, but internally this will be a matter of club discipline; nothing more. Just look at his wording: "It is an embarrassment for me."
Undermining the manager’s authority is the ultimate sin at United; even more so than undermining the standing and ambition of the club itself. Ferguson’s views on this are crystal clear. And in the immediate aftermath of what’s happened my guess is that this may not end well for Ferdinand. Of course, the fact that I’m making that guess in the immediate aftermath may be exactly why it turns out to be completely wrong.
But the point is simple: you can’t have it both ways with Sir Alex. We know that, and so does Rio Ferdinand.
Kick It Out is the anti-racism campaign supported and funded by the governing bodies of British football.
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