Oh great. Now I’ve got to defend Raheem Sterling

The winger is under fire – for a tattoo of a gun

Well thanks very much, instant reactors of the world. Now I’ve got to come to the defence of one the of slimiest, greediest, most loathsome individuals in the world – the Manchester City and London FC winger, Raheem Sterling. Fan-flipping-tastic.

It continues an apparent theme of this site. In recent times, I’ve come to the defence of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John Bercow and Jeremy Corbyn. Twice. It’s not always fun, but whenever anybody is being unfairly maligned or mistreated, whatever one thinks of them, one should always come to their defence.

So back to Sterling – I am loath to do this, as he is a repulsive, reptilian creature worthy of a career that spirals downwards towards ignominy and an eventual transfer to somewhere awful and humiliating like the Russian Second Division or the Scottish Third Division or Everton. Of course, these feelings of spite and bile are purely because he was a quality player who left Liverpool. I am unashamedly tribal in one aspect of life – football – and I shan’t be changing that. Indeed, if I ever met the guy I’d probably say hello and have a lovely chat. My football emotions aren’t to be taken seriously and I make no comment on the man’s character outside of football. The greedy little sod. Sorry.

So what has been his alleged crime? Mr Sterling posted a picture on Instagram that showed off his new tattoo – an M16 rifle on his lower right calf. This, safe to say, hasn’t gone down too well in this modern age of hand-wringing over guns, particularly big and scary ones, in the media.

The internet will always collapse in convulsive fits of spasmodic rage whenever any sportsperson does anything vaguely controversial

Now, I’m not going to make any comment on the offensiveness or not of his tattoo. Generally, with some exceptions, I find tattoos to be a bit of an eyesore anyway, but would never dream of telling anyone else what they should or should not have permanently etched onto their flesh. It’s not for me, but knock yourselves out if that’s what you want. Unless it contravenes a known law, you can show it off as much as you so desire.

He has explained its ‘deeper meaning’, which goes along the lines of it being a symbol against gun violence, owing to the fact that his father was himself murdered by a gunman. The positioning of it, on his right foot, symbolises the weapon that he uses to shoot with – not a gun, but his foot. again, think whatever you like about that, but its his decision and his tattoo.

It’s the reaction to it that’s got my back up. The internet will always collapse in convulsive fits of spasmodic rage whenever any sportsperson does anything vaguely controversial, and so that’s barely worth bothering with in terms of a rebuttal. But one particular reaction caught my eye and brought me here to write this defence of Mr Sterling.

A lady by the name of Lucy Cope, who founded Mothers Against Guns following the murder of her own son in 2002, gave the following statement:

“[The tattoo] is totally unacceptable. We demand he has the tattoo lasered off or covered up with a different tattoo. If he refuses, he should be dropped from the England team. He’s supposed to be a role model but chooses to glamorise guns.”

Could she not have ‘suggested‘ he cover it up? Might she not have ‘encouraged‘ him to think about removing it or changing it?

Now, I again make no comment on Ms. Cope, or her organisation. I know little about them. But I want to look at this statement and its purpose, because it seems to me extraordinary – an extreme overreaction with an unfortunate tone.

She is completely entitled to say that the tattoo is unacceptable. I take no issue with that – she can think whatever she likes and say whatever she likes in this regard, it is her opinion. Where she runs into trouble is the next phrase – “We demand…”

Ms. Cope makes a demand of a complete stranger that he either damages his body or hides it in shame. She then sets out the terms of the punishment should he refuse to comply with her demand. Of course, she has no power to enforce any of this, but the mere fact that anyone would use language like this to speak about or to another person about choices they have made speaks to the growing censoriousness that we see almost everywhere.

Could she not have ‘suggested‘ he cover it up? Might she not have ‘encouraged‘ him to think about removing it or changing it? Would not a better approach have been to actually engage him in a dialogue rather than making demands and threats?

I know exactly what I’d think if it were me being attacked. Suffice to say I’d be in no mood for a little chat

I do not wish to call into question the overwhelming emotion that such a person must feel, particularly given the tragic circumstances of her family. I’m sure I might feel exactly the same way in her situation. I also do not question her motive or intent. But this was a public statement made to a national newspaper. This kind of language does not start a healthy conversation, and I know exactly what I’d think if it were me being attacked. Suffice to say I’d be in no mood for a little chat.

It’s why I continue to implore everyone to take a step back and speak with a calm, measured tone. Take the time to think before reacting. It makes for a much calmer and less angry society, one in which we might actually be able to talk to one another rather than shout and make demands of one another. In this case, Raheem Sterling doesn’t need to answer to anyone unless he chooses to do so.

The greedy little sod.

International football is dying a death – let’s put it out of its misery

These games take a real toll on elite players, and for what?

So here we go again. An international break during the run in of the domestic season. Not to contend any trophies or fight fierce rivalries, no no no. This one exists purely to injure Liverpool players just in time for the next round of the Champions League.

Jaded much, Mark? Well yes, frankly, I am. I’m fully sick of elite players going thousands of miles to play meaningless games on stupid surfaces against farmers and builders where anything less than an 8-0 win is considered a crisis. This particular one is coming just before a major summer tournament (so I’m told), and is therefore massively important. The last chance to see whether players will gel together. Spoiler alert…

This nonsense happens whether there is a tournament upcoming or not. Several times a season, top level athletes take a break from the serious demands of domestic football to go and play what are essentially a bunch of friendlies designed to make money. Many will get injured. Some will miss the rest of the season (and thus won’t be able to help win the title, get a Champions League place, avoid relegation or win a trophy). A lot will travel and not even play.

All this for a load of football matches that most people don’t care about, don’t matter and are being watched by fewer and fewer people.

I realise some people still like international football. I don’t understand why, but to each, their own. The appeal is completely lost on me. I haven’t supported England since I was at school, couldn’t care less what their results are and just cross my fingers every time they play that any Liverpool players that travel either don’t play or get subbed off before they get hurt.

The European Championships is a bore fest, the African Cup of Nations is a joke (played as it is in the middle of the season, although I hear that may be changing) and the World Cup can frankly do one. Even putting corruption, Russia and Qatar aside, it is a seriously dull affair, played between teams that have had a matter of weeks to play together. Yet we all expect to see fluent, tactical football like we see week in week out in the top European leagues, played by teams that spend every single day with each other. Why do we do this to ourselves?

If given the choice between winning the league in England, Spain, Germany, France or Italy, winning the Champions League with any team, or winning the World Cup, why on earth would you choose the World Cup? It simply isn’t the pinnacle of elite football.

Domestic football just gets stronger and stronger every year. Even watching clips from 2005, never mind the 80’s or 90’s, looks slow and clunky compared to the speed and skill of today’s players. The level of international football in comparison is appallingly bad, indeed for me, unwatchable. I’d easily rather watch Wycombe vs Port Vale in a League Two fixture than England vs Moldova. In England, you can go as far as the fifth tier and still pretty much guarantee you’re watching professionals. In internationals,  you’re far too often playing some part timers.

The whole system is broken, and all efforts to try and fix it just make it worse. If I had things my way, I’d get rid of the whole thing. No World Cup, no Euro’s, no friendlies. But I realise this is an extreme position, and I can’t have things my way. Yet…

Instead, I’ll just wait for everyone else to get as bored as I am, and then perhaps things will change. One thing’s for certain; it can’t carry on as it is.

Gambling advertising is reaching ridiculous levels

This is becoming obscene. Surely we can rein it in a bit?

Do you ever watch old clips of football matches, snooker games, or even classic F1 races? If you do, one thing that will probably look quite jarring and strange is the adverts for cigarette companies and alcohol. Plastered all over their chests, shoulders, waistcoats, cars, helmets and shirts. It’s amazing to think that this was once normal.

This is how our kids will look back on sport from our age – only it will be the obscene level of gambling advertising that will look dated and crass.

I watch a lot of football, most of which is now on Sky and BT Sport. In every break, there are at least 3 adverts for gambling companies. And there are a lot of breaks. Some of them talk about ‘gambling responsibly‘ – that might hit home a little more if they advertised responsibly.

There are scores of them. Sky Bet, Bet365, Ladbrokes, William Hill, Betfair, BetFred, StanleyBet, Coral, Intercasino, and that’s just off the top of my head. There’s bookmakers, online bookies, online casinos, the lot. All constantly, furiously, relentlessly pushed on sports fans. Clubs are affiliated with them. Players and managers endorse them. The commentators and “analysts” advertise them. It is becoming grotesque.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t gamble, much though I would prefer it if they didn’t. It’s up to each individual to do whatever they like with their money. I personally think gambling is scary and unsatisfying, that’s not to say others do. But how can it be ethical to have the sheer volume of advertising that we have now?

The enticing tactics are becoming sinister as well. Enhanced odds, introductory offers (40/1 for a goal to be scored in a game between Liverpool and Man City? I wonder what that would be if you were already tangled up in the web. I doubt they’d even offer anything on such a dead cert) and ‘free’ money. I already know what the likes of Virgin and BT do to you once you get past the first 3 months of a broadband contract, I shudder to think what a company as unscrupulous as a bookie would do once those enhanced odds disappear and you’re an existing customer.

I’ve got plenty of friends who gamble, and have a lovely time doing it. People who will budget for it, and see it as a controlled bit of fun. Again, I’m not saying gambling should be outlawed.

But at a time when FOBTs are in the news for all the wrong reasons, and government is scrambling to do something about bookies popping up in all the poorest areas of the country, this seems like an issue that could do with being addressed. How can we have strict rules against advertising tobacco and alcohol and yet allow these awful companies virtually free rein on the airwaves?

One click onto the Sky Sports website home page shows 4 advert slots – all of which are for gambling when I click it. Through to football, there are 6 slots – 4 are for gambling. The level of exposure sports fans get to this stuff is a joke.

I hate to come across all nanny state – I always despair at the rush to legislate and ban things, always looking to the government to fix all of our problems. But this just seems like it’s getting out of hand. And it also doesn’t line up with our strictness in other areas.

This feels like a growing problem that needs to be talked about and debated calmly. I don’t know the answer, but we really ought to have the conversation.

The ‘Nando’s Principle’ – a lesson in overhype

If something has to be hyped to oblivion, it will inevitably disappoint.

I have, for some time now, lived by the ‘Nando’s Principle’. It’s a simple principle, but one that can save a lot of boredom and irritation. It goes something like this…

If something has been overhyped to the point where you’re expecting something that is probably too good to be true, just don’t bother. It won’t live up to the expectations. So why is this called the Nando’s Principle?

You may or may not remember a time in British history where the chicken chain restaurant Nando’s wasn’t a thing. I know, unthinkable. Dark times indeed. But it wasn’t, and we lived in blissful ignorance. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it was everywhere. It was also all that anyone could talk about.

“Oh you just have to go”, they would say. “It’s incredible”.

On and on and on and on. I knew that at some point I would have to try out this amazing place. How could all these people be wrong?

So I went. And it was chicken.

What on earth have you all been going on about? It’s just reasonably nice chicken. And I had to pay extra for chips. Where was this Nirvana that I was assured of? Where was the succulence that would have me drooling for days afterwards?

Now, here’s where the principle kicks in. If I’d just gone to Nando’s, I probably would have liked it. The food is nice. I’m not saying it’s horrible food. But it had been built up so much that the end result was disappointing, and I’ve barely been back. Twice, maybe three times in my life. Every time – ‘meh’.

It’s a code that I now live by. I still haven’t seen Les Mis, and never will. I won’t watch the Superbowl.

“Oh, but Mark, you’re missing out on all these wonderful things for a silly rule.” Can you honestly tell me that hyped things are ever as good as they promise? Isn’t life that much sweeter when you have a surprisingly good time?

I feel very much like the comedian Jon Richardson. I like to keep my life happiness curve fairly shallow. “Ooh that was a nice KitKat, Ooh bloody hell…” I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I’m having a smashing old time, thank you very much.

I should be clear – I’m not against hype per se. It’s perfectly ok to get excited about something, or evangelise about something you like. But you’d better make sure it is genuinely amazing.

If something needs to be hyped to oblivion, it must be insecure in itself. And that’s ok too. But I won’t be going.

The police must never be routinely armed with guns

Who is reassured by automatic weapons on a residential street? We must resist this folly.

There are some traditions and routines in life that become so ingrained in one’s head that auto-pilot takes over and we switch off. The commute to work, doing the big shop on Saturday morning and, for me anyway, going to the football. We know the rhythms and the routes, we know which traffic lights we prefer on the way to the office and we know that the houmous in the Old Swan Tesco is in a slightly different place to where it is in the Allerton Tesco (although having said that, Old Swan Tesco are in the process of moving everything around. Allerton it will have to be.)

My family’s ‘going to Anfield’ ritual is as old as I am, my parents having been season ticket holders for decades, and my brother and I joining as soon as we were old enough that we could keep up the pace to walk the route. It’s the same every game. Leave the house around an hour before kick off, park the car 45 minutes before kick off, walk down together on the left hand side, cross over the road in front of the stadium, stop for a couple of minutes on the corner of the Kop and the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish, make our predictions, then go our separate ways into the stadium – Dad and brother into the Kop, me into the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish. Into the second turnstile (never the first, or any other), up the stairs, across to my block and out to my seat.

I could do this with my eyes closed – it’s barely changed in the 20+ years I’ve been doing it. Sure, the turnstiles are automatic now, but I still go through the same one. There’s only the three of us that go now. But other than that, only something extraordinary could throw me off.

And that’s exactly what happened at the Boxing Day match last year. Liverpool were playing Swansea, so it ought to have been a low security kind of affair. United, Everton, Chelsea – these are games where you expect slightly more police and maybe some police horses, but other than that, it’s generally a few smiling officers posted around the ground in hi-vis jackets, overseeing some semblance of order. This is not what greeted us as we crossed the road in front of the stadium.

On this occasion, I was shaken out of my routine by the sight of two heavily armed police officers standing in the middle of the road. They were both carrying machine guns and looked decked out for war. They were still smiling – everything about the personality of the image was still the same, but the outfit was one of menace and aggression. These weapons were not equipped in a  passive way, there in case of emergency – they were being held, trigger in the right hand, left hand under the barrel. Ready to shoot.

To my knowledge, there was no threat. No reason for these weapons to be deployed. I have written to the Police and Crime Commissioner and my MP to ask why these shocking, unpleasant guns were required for a Boxing Day match against a non-rival, but received no reply. Frankly, even if we were playing United, this would have been serious overkill. What are you going to do, shoot someone if they start fighting over a song about Gerrard?

What possible use could these assault weapons have been in anything that might have taken place at a football match? What would have happened if some unrest or low level violence had taken place within range of these two men? Their hands were on a gun. How could they have dealt with a couple of morons swinging fists at one another? “Excuse me mate, can you just hold this while I go and break that up? Safety’s off, try not to pull the trigger.”

The excuse often given in these situations is that they are there to ‘reassure the public’. Reassure me of what? I can assure you, I was far from reassured. Seeing an automatic weapon on a residential street in a populated city is one of the most alarming sights I’ve seen in a long time. Had there been a threat of terrorism, a serious indication of violence made against the stadium or the surrounding area, it may have been understandable, but there was nothing of the sort. So while we are all assuming this is a routine match, seeing armed police is the opposite of reassuring – it makes you think there has been a threat and we haven’t been told about it. Follow that link above – plenty of research negates this silly view.

It put me in mind of our family holiday to America in 2005. Flying into JFK airport in New York, we were greeted with the sight of police everywhere, all with pistols holstered on their hips. There was no heightened threat level, no expected incident – this was the norm. I asked my mum why they all had guns, and she replied “that’s just the way it is here”. Well, fine. but that had better not make its way over here.

I remember when we had some friends over from America. We were discussing over dinner and games the differences between our two countries. My wife hadn’t really realised just what a different country the US is to Britain, and so she was enjoying the back and forth. At one point I piped up to her, “I bet these guys wouldn’t believe you if you told them our police don’t have guns” – their faces dropped and they froze. “WHAT? How on earth can you feel safe if the police don’t have guns?”. It was a real lesson in mindsets and culture.

My worry is that we are being buttered up for some move towards arming the police as a routine measure. Getting these out and visible bit by bit so that when it is announced, we’re already sort of used to it. This must be resisted.

Salami slicing is always the best way to advance policy. It is quiet and sneaky, and makes objections sound petty and silly. “It’s not like we’re going for full on arming, just an armed section of the police.” “Oh well only some police are armed”, “Only some forces have been allocated funds for training” “Only at airports and stadiums”, “Well just those who have to go to more dangerous areas”… But this is exactly why we need to register objections when we encounter these situations. Because before we know it, the sight of guns will become more commonplace. If you laugh at the NRA’s suggestion that ‘a good guy with a gun is the answer to a bad guy with a gun’, then consider your support for armed police very carefully.

We have to realise that it is a ratchet. Once these things are given out to police officers like handcuffs and helmets, there will be no going back. This will not be something we can reverse. Once guns are in common use, they will be seen as ‘required’.

It’s strange to see friends who couldn’t be more against guns in America argue for UK police to be armed. Can you not see that this is how it ratchets up? If people feel targeted by the police, and those officers start walking (well, let’s be honest, driving) around the neighbourhood with guns strapped to their sides, what do you think those people are going to do next? It doesn’t take much imagination.

Frankly, I don’t believe there should even be an armed division of the police. It is a civilian force. If you want to shoot guns, join the army. If there is a terrorist incident, send the army. But I realise this is not a popular opinion, and I don’t want to divert and dilute my argument too much here – I’m really more interested in patrol policing than reactive policing at this point.

I may come back to this subject at another time, but for now, I will be taking note of any moves to advance this policy and would welcome any correspondence from others if you spot it happening.

My son is currently 9 months old. Before I know it, he’ll be scampering at my side, running excitedly between his father, his uncle and his granddad as we beat that hallowed path towards our historic stadium. If he has to see what I saw, but on a regular basis, we will be living in a different country. And that would be a real shame.