A rather remarkable event occurred during the Everton v Manchester City game at Goodison Park on Boxing Day; Robbie Fowler, once the most feared English striker in football (and who is still considered – by generous souls who haven’t watched him play for a while – to be the best natural finisher in the game) actually scored a goal. With his head. (Alas it was wasted; City lost the game due to 2 Everton goals scored with ease by players decked in Royal Blue, untroubled by the attentions of City’s defenders) What I want to talk about, however, is what happened immediately after Fowler’s goal.
As the ball hit the back of the Everton net, Fowler set off for the Gladwys Street end where the Everton faithful sit, then ran the full length of the pitch (so showing the sort of stamina which has been missing since his Liverpool days), slapping the top of his head as he did so, before celebrating in front of the travelling City fans. It was a bizarre sight, and what happened next came as no surprise.
Fowler was booked for inciting the crowd, and in this day and age, rightly or wrongly, it is something you have to accept; the referee had no option but to produce the yellow card. There was then a similarly predictable reaction; on Match of the Day the assumption was that Fowler was slapping his head to celebrate the fact he had scored a header, and across the media there was the usual line that his actions in trying to rile the Everton fans were typical of Robbie, and were regrettable. Merseyside Police got involved and asked City manager Kevin Keegan for his comments, which seems a bit of a overreaction but again is not surprising. 3 scenarios present themselves here; that an Everton fan complained to the Police; that the Police felt they had to be seen to take some action; or that a Senior Officer with no idea of what the Police’s priorities should be got involved. I suspect a combination of the three.
A few days later I was chatting to a mate of mine, an Evertonian who had been to the match. I wondered what he had thought? First off, he told me that all the way through the game, Fowler was being targeted by the Everton fans, and taunted with the chant “Smackhead”; this put Fowler’s reaction to his goal in a different light, I thought, and I was quite impressed. To respond to “smackhead” taunts by scoring a header, then celebrating by smacking you head, seems quite inspired; although still bound to attract the attentions of the referee.
“So,” I asked, “ how did the Everton fans react? We’re they appropriately incited?”
“I should say so,” said my mate, Mike, “the crowd went absolutely ballistic; the atmosphere was incredible.”
And this is my point really; Fowler was booked for inciting the crowd; but for inciting them to do what? If they had invaded the pitch, or attacked the City fans, or thrown bricks into the dugout, then Fowler could be said to have instigated something nasty; but was that ever likely to happen? In fact, he wound up the Evertonians so the volume of their singing and chanting increased, inevitably spurring the City fans to do the same, and the atmosphere of the game improved immensely as a result. And isn’t it the atmosphere that we really pay for when we hand over our absurd amounts of money at the Ticket Office?
Sometimes you wonder if sports commentators have any inkling about what fans really feel (the exception to this is the excellent Adrian Chiles on Match of the Day 2). The classic disconnect is on the subject of punch-ups on the field; for the media nothing appals them more than such indiscipline, which sets a bad example to the children watching, brings the games reputation into disrepute, blah blah blah…For a fan, particularly one watching a dull 0-0 stalemate on a cold evening, there is nothing better than a fight, to get the crowds tails up and turn up the volume, to get you supporting your wronged players (even if, secretly, you saw your defender get in that tug which provoked the opposition, and you would have been appalled yourself if the situation had been reversed; only it wasn’t ).
My mate said that it was the most exciting City/Everton game he had seen for ages; and we have seen some pretty bad ones between us over the years. That this game was different was partly due to Robbie Fowler and his incitment of the crowd. For his troubles he received a yellow card; he should have received the Man of the Match award, and our thanks.
UPDATE 15/1/05: Fowler scores again! And has a very good game overall, actually.