Are athletes ever ‘asking for it’?

Published

Credit: BT Sports

Ruairidh Barlow
Writer

Recent tensions in the Edinburgh derby brought taunting to light, but should we accept it as a wider part of sports?

The dramatic nature of this year’s Scottish Premiership season shows no signs of slowing down after a season rife with debate, histrionics and plenty more club statements. It all kicked off, so to speak, during a fiery Edinburgh derby which saw Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal struck by a Hibernian fan, before Hibs manager Neil Lennon was struck by a coin coming from the Hearts’ stand. This was part of a tumultuous end to the match which saw a last-minute win for the Jambos disallowed, leading Lennon to celebrate wildly, turning around to the Hearts supporters and leaving them in no doubt how happy he was. Barely had the ire of this event calmed before Kris Boyd, after scoring for Kilmarnock against Aberdeen, took ample opportunity to respond to the opposing fans’ taunts with his celebration. Not to be left out, the Old Firm had its place in the headlines too, as another coin was hurled in the direction of Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos.

The main talking point, however, remains the Lennon incident. Both managers after the game condemned the actions of the individuals involved in the coin-throwing and punching, which was followed by a joint-club statement by Hearts and Hibs management stating their united efforts to root out these incidents. Following this, a picture of graffiti found near Tynecastle stating “hang Neil Lennon” did the rounds on social media, adding more fuel to the fire. The media, the clubs and the managers have been unanimous in their stance on these incidents. But the debate rages on about Lennon’s celebrations, with some suggesting that Lennon was wrong to goad the fans as he did.

The Hibs manager defended his actions immediately after the game, and again during his weekend press conference, citing that he was merely returning some of the abuse that he had received throughout the match. Various voices in the media, however, have been critical of Lennon, with former Celtic teammate Gary Caldwell declaring that he “brings these things on himself”.

Provocation normally rears its head in the footballing soap opera at some point or other in the season, with football’s most controversial figures never far from the story. Just a few weeks earlier, there was an outcry as Chelsea assistant Marco Ianni celebrated in front of the Manchester United bench and Manager José Mourinho. This prompted Mourinho to leap to his feet and go after Ianni. Mourinho was furious, and commentator Phil Neville declared that Ianni should be sacked for his unprofessional behaviour. But Mourinho has always been a polemic figure himself. The same Mourinho who sprinted down the line at Old Trafford into a glorious knee slide some 14 years ago; the same Mourinho who recently gestured to Juventus fans after the final whistle, following a Champions League victory. Not much has changed.

But the truth is, it’s great.

Perhaps it could be construed as unprofessional – but that belies the entire nature of the beast. Football is an entertainment business and these “provocations” only add to the drama of it. To expect the managers (and players), who are under more pressure than anyone, amid highly charged atmospheres, to remain composed the whole time is unrealistic and unfair.

On the other hand, the “asking for it” argument is not only foolish, but is at the heart of football fan hypocrisy. As Lennon, Mourinho and many others have pointed out, fans not only spend an hour and a half spitting obscenities at them, they proudly reserve their right to do so. To then lose the plot at the manager showing any sort of response is nothing more than a double standard.

Celebrations, gestures, whatever form it may take, these supposed provocations or goading are part of what makes football brilliant. They are part of the fabric of the footballing spectacle. Which neutral fan (or Manchester City fan) didn’t on some level enjoy Emmanuel Adebayor running the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of his former team’s fans? Throughout the epic Messi and Ronaldo “el Clasico” battles, there was no shortage of shushing, calming down and defiant glares for the opposing fans. Perhaps climaxing with Messi presenting his shirt to the Bernabéu, every single one of these celebrations was lapped up by the footballing diaspora. To come full circle, when Kyle Lafferty thundered home a volley against Celtic last season, continuing his path towards the Celtic fans and saluting them, there was no shortage of love for Lafferty from the Jam Tart support.

The reality is, most of us enjoy the manager or players giving a bit back to the opposition fans: the only time we don’t is when it is aimed at us. And even then, when it is against us, we love to hate them for it.