Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Bad Case of Marlon King

A result from Saturday deserves further scrutiny:
Coventry 1 Middlesboro 0.
King (pen) 78.

Fairly tame event you’d say until you realised this was Marlon King scoring against one of his old clubs.

Marlon King, a player with a fairly extensive criminal record and the subject of long and heady debate over the issues of morality within football and indeed the role of football within society.

At the start of this season QPR having considered the issue at length (or having had it considered publicly for them) decided not to offer King a contract following his release from prison following a sentence for sexual assault and causing bodily harm (broken nose included). Not long after QPR rejected King, Coventry stepped in and offered King a return to Championship football. Before proceeding, I need to highlight that my support for Churchill’s decisions about Coventry in World War II have more to do with Keith Houchen and the Cup Final in 1987 than to this latest indiscretion.

Let’s analyse the issue a little more deeply.

At the time of the QPR debate, Paul Wilson from the Observer wrote succinctly on the topic as follows:

“Ken Loach created a mini-controversy in his 1968 docudrama The Golden Vision by including a scene in which a small boy saying his nightly bedtime prayers asks for divine protection for his favourite Everton players. Loach was a perceptive observer of the place football held in ordinary people's lives and he was on to something early when he none too subtly suggested that religion was part of the equation.

As an 11-year-old at the time I did not find it especially unlikely or outrageous. As children we all go through an impressionable stage and, though real life and the growing-up process teaches us fairly swiftly not to be quite so silly, most of us can still recall a relationship with footballers and their clubs that was simply one of worship.

Some might say the entire reason for the ongoing popularity of football is a desire to recapture the lost innocence of youth and return to a world that is perfect once more, though I am not going to argue anything so pretentious or easily shot down here. All I will say is that when the sport is occasionally accused of losing its moral compass, as happened last week when Queens Park Rangers seemed prepared to offer the unlikeable Marlon King a way back into football, the almost universal reaction of revulsion showed that the moral compass is still in full working order.

There are plenty of people, of course, mainly columnists working for national newspapers, who sneer at the very idea of morality in football and cite Stamford Bridge, say, as the new Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet most of modern footballers' offences are against taste rather than the law and Chelsea do not play their games against a background of disapproving silence. This does not make Chelsea fans bad people, despite suspicions that there are even more overpaid and overloud geezer types on their terraces than there are on the pitch: it just means that family ties are stronger than the urge to be judgmental.

QPR considering King was similar to a family risking upsetting its own equilibrium by adopting a complete stranger with a police record. Every Rangers supporter over the last few days, whether they admit it or not, will have been asking him or herself how it would feel to have to admire someone who has just completed a prison term for assaulting a woman. Someone, in fact, with a long list of convictions, more than one of them for assaulting women. Would you be out of your seat with joy when such a person scored the last-minute winner in an important cup tie, or would you have to think twice?

This may be childish over-simplification, but at a basic level that is how supporting a football team works. If we were all going to be completely adult and rational about it many of us might not bother. And because football appeals so directly to children – real children, that is, not just immature adults – it seems astonishing that criminal records can be overlooked when in almost any other walk of life they are strictly enforced. Anyone with King's charge sheet would not have a hope of regaining work as a teacher, a policeman, a nurse or a civil servant. He would be wasting his time even applying for unpaid positions as a Sunday school teacher, a scout leader or a sports coach. It is possible that Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks are enforced too rigorously in this country, where minor teenage misdemeanours can blight employment prospects well into adult life, yet that only makes it all the more unfair when footballers with alarming convictions – in King's case for sexual assault, violence, theft, fraud, receiving stolen goods and other offences – can seemingly breeze back into lucrative jobs.

The reason for that is simple. Where Marks & Spencer, for instance, can easily turn to the next applicant who doesn't happen to have a conviction for petty shoplifting or drunkenness, football clubs find proven goalscorers much more difficult to come by. That does not make it right, however, regardless of the fact that King was not exactly lethal for Wigan or for Hull and that Neil Warnock has now thought better of his offer of a second chance. Dave Whelan at Wigan thought King deserved a second chance too, and only when he blew it did he belatedly realise that the striker was actually on his third or fourth chance. The Wigan chairman said he would never have signed the player had he known the full extent of his record.

That is precisely the point of CRB checking, and football clubs ought to be doing it more assiduously than most employers. They pay bigger wages, after all, and have far more community influence. Where clubs, for reasons of opportunism or short-term convenience, insist on insulting their supporters by employing convicted criminals, they should be reminded by their league about the notion of bringing the game into disrepute. The CRB mission statement – "Our aim is to protect children and vulnerable adults by providing a service to support organisations recruiting people into positions of trust" – could have been written with football in mind. You don't see kids walking around with teachers' or scout leaders' names on the back of their shirts, do you? "

Hard to argue with Wilson’s logic, particularly where this wasn’t a case of a second chance being given to an unfortunate individual who made one wrong choice in life. Quite the contrary – a persistent offender is our Marlon King.

So why do clubs do this?

Closer to home I followed with interest the Waterford fans forum debate around the similar issue of Dylan Kavanagh who was signed by Waterford in August and played several times quite effectively before being released in October (cynically one could say close to season end). This was his second sojourn with the club, having had an earlier period with the club when there was a different Chairman, Board and Manager.

During this period with the Blues, many heated discussions took place about the appropriateness of signing him, coming as he did with a full and expansive criminal record. A portion of the club’s life-long die-hard supporters boycotted games in protest at the club’s “poor judgement” and “lack of ethical standards”. A club like Waterford survives on the loyal support on a very limited number of people and the decision to potentially irk them in this manner is, at best, peculiar and at worst, absolutely foolhardy.

The temptation to adopt a win-at-all costs attitude may be understandable and those in favour of signing him cited the vulgar need to get out of the mire of Division 1 at all costs; and the more considered and philosophical issues of forgiveness and keeping sport fully independent of other social issues.

Those protesting to my mind more correctly referred to the role the players play in the local community (yes, even at this level) and the influence they have on youth. No-one more articulately put this than “Bluemovie” who posted the following:

Second Chance - he's well past his second chance. He has 8 convictions ranging from criminal damage to public disorder to taking of a motor vehicle and driving without insurance (Munster Express). He has admitted 2 counts of attempted armed robbery for which he will be sentenced in December. The Management Committee told us he wrecked a hotel room at an away match in 2007 costing the club. The manager at the time (Cronin) told us that when Dyl's wages were stopped as a result, he threatened our manager. In court, he attributed the attempted robberies to cocaine addiction "spiralling out of control". They occurred on November 20th and December 14th, 2007. He was part of Waterford United until at least November 23rd, 2007. He has admitted in court to threatening Gardai earlier this year - telling them that if they brought him to the station he would "wreck the place".

One last thing. On Tuesday November 20th, 2007, I left work, got a lift and (despite an early puncture) made it up to Ballybofey to watch the Blues in the play-off. Despite losing 3-0 and all but guaranteeing relegation, I clapped our players off the pitch. Players like John Hayes and Paul McCarthy. I travelled home in utter depression, got home after 1 am, tried to sleep and got up again at 7 for work.

On Tuesday November 20th, 2007, one of our injured players put a pair of tights on his head, got a screwdriver and an imitation firearm and attempted to rob a petrol station.

And now I'm expected to bite my tongue and cheer him on on Friday night?

Strong argument, well made.