Who’s worse – Shearer or Suarez?

A day after Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini, the little Uruguayan finds himself, improbably, on the moral high ground.

Not due to anything he has done, of course. Biting an opponent is wrong. He knows that; so does everyone else.

But how wrong is it? You would think, listening to the intemperate reaction of the BBC’s suite of pundits, that it put him in the Harold Shipman league of criminals.

Alan Shearer says that Suarez should be banned “for as long as possible.” (Is that until death or does it include any potential after-life, Alan?)

I wonder what Shearer would say if Suarez had, instead of biting an opponent, which caused Chiellini almost no discomfort, kicked a player in the face when they were lying on the ground. Considering that sort of attack would inevitably have greater force and greater chance of injury, that must be worse, right?

Of course, lovers of English football will know that I am referring to Shearer’s own attack on Neil Lennon during a match between Newcastle and Leicester City in 1998. Shearer, then England captain, received no punishment for the incident. An enquiry, which heard from then-England manager Glenn Hoddle, decided there was nothing much in it.

As Shearer was England’s most important player at that time, the FA saying that he was not guilty had more than a faint whiff of self-interest about it. An England captain, it was decided, would not do that sort of thing. Shearer, reported the enquiry, “swinging out with his left leg was a genuine attempt to free himself.” Which is a bit like the old joke by Bill Hicks about the officers who attacked Rodney King, saying that if you played the tape backwards you could see the officers helping King up and sending him on his way.

Sitting alongside Shearer was Robbie Savage, who had got away with kicking opponents “so many times,” according to Thierry Henry. Savage said that Suarez should “never play international football again” which, considering he is 27 years old, would amount to a ban of anything up to 10 years.

"Yes, I saw you, but I won't say anything" Shearer and Savage in their 90s heyday.
“Yes, I saw you, but I won’t say anything.” Shearer and Savage thuggin’ back in the 90s.

That would be by far the worst punishment for any player in the history of football, worse than Eric Cantona’s nine month ban after he karate-kicked a Crystal Palace fan in 1995.

These double standards typify the British approach to punditry, where our lads are forgiven whenever they err in judgement, where the foreign player, such as Suarez, gets met with fury and calls for him to be driven out of the game. This lingering feeling of British exceptionalism, that we don’t dive, and are morally more upstanding, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is part of the reason that other teams inevitably seem to play that little bit better against us.

(That, and our war-mongering. One of the main reasons Maradona was so motivated to do well against England in the 1986 World Cup was in response to the injustices meted out to his countrymen during the Falklands War. Therefore, while his second goal, where he took on the entire England team is more celebrated, his Hand of God goal, where he hand-balled into the ball into the net, is his personal favourite.)

Why ever would he want to cheat against blameless England? Maradona in 86
Why ever would he want to cheat against blameless England? Maradona in 86

While Shearer and Savage declare that Suarez should be banned for anywhere between life and as long as possible (whichever is longer) they should be honest and admit that this incident, while unsavoury, is no worse than the darker moments of their own careers. And perhaps they should spend less time attacking Suarez and more time contemplating why Uruguay, a country of fewer than four million people, should produce a football team which, according to the evidence of last Thursday, is comfortably better than our own.

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Where have all the centre backs gone? England at the 2014 World Cup

There has been a lot of talk of British values recently, and the wide-ranging debate shows that it is largely a matter of opinion what is a British value and what is not.
That said, there is one British value which is beyond question: that of big centre-halves heading footballs and generally acting with a courage which happily boils over into full-blown craziness. When faced with someone smaller and more skillful, the English way is to use our brains not to out-think our opponent, but as an all-purpose blocking device.

We have always been knee-deep in this kind of unsubtle, fairly terrifying type of footballer: in my memory, this long line of lunatics begins with Terry Butcher and carries on through Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bruce, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and John Terry, with the addition of two centre halves who could also, astonishingly, play football – Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King.

Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values
Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values

It’s worth noting that Steve Bruce, despite being a mainstay of Manchester United’s defence when they first started winning everything, never played for England. We simply had too many big, thuggish lads to get their heads on things, and so he was not required. Similarly, Jamie Carragher, who played 500+ times for Liverpool and won the Champions League, retired from the international game because he couldn’t get in the team.

Centre halves have always been the foundation of English football. In 1990, when we got to the semi-finals, Bobby Robson, in his wisdom, picked three centre-backs – Des Walker, Terry Butcher and Mark Wright – and another centre-back, Paul Parker, at right-back.

Let’s remember that at the group stage, England conceded one goal in three games, with clean sheets against the Dutch and Egypt. In total, we conceded four goals in six games – the same number of goals conceded in two matches at the 2014 World Cup.

Getting in the way - Sol Campbell
Getting in the way – Sol Campbell

In 2002 and 2006, Sol Campbell was named in the World XI at the end of the tournament, the only Englishman to gain that honour. What did he do to gain the world’s admiration? What England have always been better than anyone: getting in the way of shots, heading away crosses and, occasionally heading goals from set-pieces.

Which is why it is so sad to see Rio Ferdinand – one of the greatest English footballers – sitting in the BBC studio last night having to explain where it went wrong against Uruguay.

His analysis, to paraphrase, was this: Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill and Baines were not good enough. For the first goal, someone should have blocked the cross, and if it got into the box, someone should have headed it away. For the second goal, a defender should have headed the ball away, and if not, been in a position to block the shot.

That’s what Englishmen have been doing for decades. That’s what Jack Charlton did in ’66, what Butcher did in ’90, and what Adams did in ’96 (three goals conceded in five matches). The fact that our only properly good defender, John Terry, is currently heading beach balls rather than playing for England is perhaps the main reason for our utter defensive ineptitude at this World Cup.

While it is all very well wanting our national team to play more expansively the focus must be having a squad packed with robust centre-halves who will do anything to block shots and crosses.

Those are the values we must remember, before we try to do anything so frivolous as trying to score goals. So, if Mr Gove wants to become a populist figure, perhaps he should, after children have had double-Dickens in the morning, insist they have heading practice in the afternoon, so we can ensure that no England team will be so sadly weak at the back again.

The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football
The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football

Extremism? Or British values in practice?

I’m coming a bit late to this issue of extremism in English schools, so forgive me if I’ve not grasped the whole situation.

It appears that a few people, who originally come from former colonies, have come to Britain and then asserted themselves in positions of power, namely on the governing bodies of schools in Birmingham. Once they had gained power they began to dictate a quite different leadership style than those schools had been used to.

Apparently, this has turned into something of a furore, and certain people are saying that these extremists are not displaying good British values.

Well, to that, my grandmother, who was British herself and lived in Yorkshire all her life, would say: “Give over, lad!”

If going to a country, getting into positions of power and then telling the locals how things are done aren’t traditional British values then this isn’t the country I know and love.

Perhaps instead of knocking these people, we should applaud them for echoing our own highly effective policies which, lest we forget, built our empire and made Britain great.