Alex Ferguson: the conservative socialist
“With politics, I’m interested in it, I follow it, I read political history and I have strong political views.” – Alex Ferguson, New Statesman, May 19, 2009.
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I have long thought of Sir Alex Ferguson’s left-wing politics as being principles of the heart, not of the mind. That is not to impugn his beliefs but, rather, to propose that his politics are a product of his background, upbringing and formative experiences.
How else can a Glasgow toolmaker, so inspired for so long by the workers' unions, become so supportive of, and so friendly with, neoliberals such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? Could Ferguson not see the ideological chasm between the Labour Party for which he campaigned so enthusiastically in 2010, and to which he donated so much money, and the dictums of his Lanarkshire socialism, which so invigorated him in the Fifties and Sixties?
Having read his Managing My Life, and found barely a reference to his "strong political views", I came to regard Ferguson as less a political animal than a professional pragmatist. I saw the proof on Saturday when the Manchester United manager criticised Rio Ferdinand’s refusal to wear a “Kick It Out” T-shirt prior to the match against Stoke City at Old Trafford. “It is embarrassing for me,” Ferguson said, after confirming that he expected all of his players to wear the T-shirt as a mark of respect for the “Kick Racism out of Football” campaign.
Ferdinand wanted no part of the ritual, in spite of Ferguson’s insistence that every Manchester United player wear the T-shirt. Like many black players, Rio Ferdinand has become disillusioned with how little the football community is doing to tackle the scourge of racism. What good is a few hundred players wearing a T-shirt once a year when a player's punishment for racist abuse is a few weeks off work and the penalty of a couple of weeks' wages? "Kick It Out" needs to be as good at pressing for appropriate punishment as it is at distributing T-shirts.
Rio Ferdinand has felt the frustration more than most. His brother, Anton, the Queens Park Rangers defender, was the victim of racial abuse committed by John Terry, the Chelsea captain, on October 23, 2011. The Football Association banned Terry for four matches and fined him £220,000, but Westminster Magistrates' Court cleared the former England international centre back of the offence.
The belief that Terry’s punishment went nowhere near to fitting the nature of the indiscretion transcended the game and went on to the front pages of newspapers. Black players everywhere brooded darkly, with much justification, and suddenly the “Kick it Out” campaign became vulnerable to charges of impotence. Just because something appears so utopian in principle does not mean it will work well in practice. In the fight against racism, football is no longer winning.
It is easy to feel sorry for the "Kick It Out" campaign, for this organisation only means well. Its raison d'être, according to its website, is this: "Kick It Out is football's equality and inclusion campaign. The brand name of the campaign - Let's Kick Racism Out of Football - was established in 1993 and Kick It Out established as a body in 1997. 'Kick It Out' works throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and work for positive change."
To challenge? That is too weak a word for me. We need to do more than merely challenge. We need to fight such primitive behaviour with every fibre in our bodies. We need to ban the unreconstructed slopsuckers, like those in Serbia during the match against England Under-21, from our football stadiums. We need to change the culture that allows racism to thrive. We need education. We need radicals.
Anton Ferdinand was one of eight players who chose not to wear the T-shirts prior to QPR's match against Everton on Sunday. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Nedum Onouha, Djibril Cisse and Junior Hoilett, Anton Ferdinand’s teammates, also joined the protest, as did Victor Anichebe, Sylvain Distin and Steven Pienaar of Everton.
Just as Rio Ferdinand refused to wear a T-shirt at Old Trafford, so Jason Roberts, the Reading forward, refused to wear one prior to the match at Anfield against Liverpool on the same day. Roberts had already stated the day before his intention not to wear the T-shirt, which gave Ferguson the chance to railroad Ferdinand into playing ball.
“I have to disagree with Jason Roberts; he is making the wrong point," Ferguson said. “Everyone should be united. All the players in the country wearing the warm-up tops. Yes, all my players will wear it. I think all the players will be wearing it. I only heard that Jason Roberts is different. He is very different. He plays his game and is in the studio 20 minutes after it. It's a great privilege.”
Quite apart from Ferguson’s unfair condemnation of Roberts, the comments were a brazen – and, as it happened, unsuccessful – attempt to coerce Ferdinand. Ferguson’s egalitarian principles should have led him to believe that free speech in the political sphere is essential for healthy discourse. As a former radical, who, during his days as an engineering union shop steward, led apprentices out on strike, Ferguson should have better understood Rio Ferdinand's dichotomy. Inexplicably, however, the United manager felt that his right to protect the club’s reputation in the fight against racism outweighed Ferdinand’s right to criticise the “Kick It Out” campaign.
Ferguson is no longer the radical. The status quo suited him better. And his experience of racism is different - manifestly different - from that of Rio Ferdinand (although both men have, in their own way, been enthusiastic advocates of anti-racist movements).
It is encouraging that Clarke Carlisle, the Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, emphasised the need for players to take their own political stances. "Sir Alex Ferguson is continual in his unwavering support for the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, which is commendable and what we all want to see, but you can't vilify or coerce any individual for making a stand,” Carlisle told BBC Radio 5 Live. “Everyone has a right to free speech – just like you can't coerce anyone into shaking hands, you can't make somebody wear a T-shirt; although I do, personally, believe that joining in with the campaign is the best way forward.”
It certainly used to be the best way forward – in those days of yore, when the fight against racism in football was making great strides. Recently, however, there has been a worrying trend: not only of an increase in racism but of the football community’s inability to deal with the issue. You can see it in Rio Ferdinand's eyes that he is frustrated with football's failure to move into the Twenty-first Century. You could see it in Jason Roberts' eyes.
The refusal of many black players to wear the T-shirts is, hopefully, the next step in the backlash against the ineptitude of the authorities. After the racism shown by Serbia’s supporters last week, Uefa, the game’s European governing body, knows it must deal with the matter appropriately. Never again can Uefa leave itself open to suggestions that it cares more about protecting its sponsors than about the uncivilised treatment of non-white players. When players are victims on racism on the pitch, Uefa should encourage them to walk off and abandon the match. It is the most symbolic way to take the matter seriously.
Sir Alex Ferguson should have known better. During his interview on Saturday evening with MUTV, the club’s official channel, he struggled to keep his anger in check. “I am disappointed. I said [on Friday] that the players would be wearing [the T-shirts] in support of the PFA, and that every player should adhere to it. And he [Rio Ferdinand] goes and lets us down. We will deal with it, don't worry.”
Ferdinand let nobody down. He made what he believed to be an important protest. He believed he had a right to make that protest. His protest gave the "Kick It Out" campaign more publicity than it could ever have received on its own merits. Some would see Ferdinand's intervention as radical, but he no doubt took the Martin Luther King mantra: “When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative”.
And by being so wrong, Ferguson turned himself into that rare bird: the conservative socialist.