How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lee Bowyer?

At the time of writing, the signing of Lee Bowyer by Liverpool still seems only a probability rather than a certainty, but each new newspaper printing or Internet refresh seems to add more weight to the idea. In truth, Bowyer’s high profile always made it at least a 60:40 possibility of him signing. Arsenal seemed the early favourites, and their status as Double winners made it seem a safe bet he’d end up at Highbury. But with the Gooners tightening their belts, there was only one horse left in the race sufficiently Bucephalus-like to win, and that was Liverpool. No doubt Aston Villa or Middlesbrough would have snapped him up without a moment’s thought if he was available, but Lee Bowyer is surely not that dopey.

The parameters of the debate about Bowyer are simple: should we be signing a player with his, er, reputation and history? Whether he is talented enough a footballer seems to have been ignored. Personally I’m not too sure. He’s full of plenty of huff and puff, but his reputation – footballing reputation – seems to far outstrip his actual accomplishments. One lad I know referred to him as “the best box-to-box player” in the Premiership. What the hell does that mean? That he’s no good at attacking or defending, but he’s great at the 0.1% of football that doesn’t involve doing either of them?

Let’s put aside whether he is good enough. Better football men and women than me seem to think he’s in the Diego Maradona class, although looking at Diego’s corpulent frame on his recent visit to Japan, it may be prudent to emphasise that comparison’s invoke memories of Diego in his prime. I hope.

The question, therefore, is whether we take a player with such a colourful past. This has led to a lot of humbug from people suggesting that this makes Liverpool a racist club, that it’s a betrayal of our heritage, letting down our non-Caucasian fans, endorsing GBH, setting a bad example etc.

Because that’s what it is: humbug. The idea that Liverpool FC was some bastion of probity since 1892 is laughable. It’s unfair to apply the values of today to the past, but this notion of an unbroken line of progressive politics in football needs to be challenged. For decades players were exploited, underpaid, abused then thrown on the scrapheap, forced to eke out a demeaning existence as after-dinner circuit bores or making the half-time draw at the ground. Corruption was endemic, with hard-up players chucking games so they could get five score-draws on their pools coupon. Facilities would have embarrassed an exporter of live calves, and unscrupulous chairmen bled the clubs dry to finance whatever the latest grandiose project they had conjured up at the working mans club. So spare us the cant that football was somehow once a shining example of ‘better values’ before we all became obsessed with money in the Thatcherite “no such thing as society” era.

And all this is before we factor into account the spectre that dogs Lee Bowyer, that of racism. Football was shot through with virulent, despicable racism long after it became acceptable in the rest of society. A black man didn’t appear for England until 1978 (Viv Anderson) yet racism persisted even after this overdue milestone. A former high profile England player, who shall remain anonymous, once referred to a black teammate as “a white n*****”, as if this was a compliment. While watching a Match of the Day video chronicling the 1980’s, I was treated to the sight/sound of Plymouth fans making ape noises as John Barnes, then with Watford, raced down the touchline. The fact that Watford scored from his cross put a banana in their mouths. Speaking of bananas, then there’s the oft-told tale of that fruit being thrown on the pitch at Highbury when Barnes made his debut for Liverpool. Many informed commentators still dispute this version of events, but to anyone who suggests that Liverpool has never tolerated racism is going get more muck in their ears and nostrils than a particularly cowardly ostrich.

Football clubs have always had a heroic ability to overlook any amount of personal foibles when it suited them, and engage in copious amounts of pious rhetoric about ‘values’ and ‘ethics’ and whatnot when that suited them as well. Matt Busby was a notorious disciplinarian, booting Johnny Giles out of OT when the opinionated Paddy had the cheek to question Busby’s deployment of him in matches. But George Best was allowed get up to all sorts of palaver because he was George Best, the most gifted player of his generation. Everton almost put their back out trying to climb on to the high moral ground when Danny Cadamarteri was done for assault, blithely terminating his contract for his crime. All the while, Paul Gascoigne was slobbing his way back to fitness, his wife-beating tendencies cheerfully overlooked on the basis that he needed to be handled gently. An Arsenal fan of mine acquaintance also got in on the act, insisting in a non-confrontational manner to me that no amount of drink-driving by their soon-to-be-ex club captain could compare with racism. Fair enough, I replied, but if a racist joined Arsenal, would he stop supporting them? His lame assertion that he would stop going to see them play (he doesn’t go anyway) told me all I needed to know.

Incidentally, he also made the observation that Arsenal is one of the happiest clubs from the point of view of race, with the largest amount of non-white players of any top club and no festering race problem on the terraces. He didn’t get any arguments from me, although it later struck me how mischievous it would have been to remind him of the North Bank mural, with it’s distinctly WASP-ish* personality? You always think of these stunning witticisms after the event.

So my concerns about Lee Bowyer don’t centre around some high-falutin’ sense of morality. No, what makes me nervous about signing him – apart from the football concerns described earlier – is what impact he will have on the carefully crafted Houllier regime. The change from the Spice Boy days has been gradual, but no less dramatic for the softly-softly manner in which it has occurred. When the worst example of Anfield excess that the hungry press sharks could uncover in recent years was Steven Gerrard drinking a few alcopops, it shows you what a tight ship Ged is running.

Robbie Fowler was banished to Elland Road partly because he was unable to adapt to the hermit-like existence exemplified by Michael Owen. It does make for a slightly tedious sense of holiness, and the straight-laced modern footballer has unleashed an infuriating sense of nostalgia for players like Best and Frank Worthington, people who are feted by the present football culture because they could score with a football and with women, and consequently allows the reality of their urinating their gift down the pan to be airbrushed out of history. Call me an old prude (you’re…nah, that’s too easy) but I’m happier with robotic bores who dedicate themselves totally to their craft than boozy fatheads telling us how football was better in their day – it always is – or players strutting down the catwalk to make extra money to add to the big pile of money they’ve being paid by the fans to go to training sessions that they haven’t attended because they want to walk down the catwalk instead.

And into this model of sporting efficiency and restraint struts Lee Bowyer? It doesn’t make sense. The best one can say of his personality is that he is a disruptive influence. The worst? Let’s not think about the worst. Perhaps Le Boss thinks that he can whip Bowyer into shape. The experience of Nicolas Anelka, who performed contortions to stay at Anfield and was still fobbed off in the end, suggests that he can work with ‘difficult’ players. But I can’t shake the feeling that Bowyer is trouble of an altogether greater magnitude.

I can’t shake the feeling. Ged, we have faith in you. But this one is the strongest test of our faith yet.

* WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant†

† And yes, I know there was nothing on the mural to suggest anyone was Protestant, or even Anglo-Saxon. It’s called ‘artistic licence’. Jeez . . .