It is coming up for seven years now since John Terry found himself in the dock of Westminster magistrates court on charges of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand and, though I could never say sitting through that week-long trial was a particularly fulfilling experience, there is one memory that offers some light relief amid all the other numbing details.
It goes back to the penultimate day, when Terry was being taken through some of the evidence related to his exchange of words with Ferdinand, then of QPR, and having to repeat some of it for the benefit of the court. Terry was obediently following the instructions, albeit not looking absolutely sure what purpose it served, until he was asked to let the court know the number of times he had been sent off throughout his Chelsea career.
“Can you say – please – four times?” asked his QC, George Carter-Stephenson. At which point Terry nodded again. “Please … please … please … please.” And even now, all these years on, I am still not absolutely sure he understood why the courtroom was filled with awkward laughter.
OK, it is not exactly something Ferdinand will remember too fondly after a trial that tested even this newspaper’s policy of opting not to pebbledash its pages with asterisks. It is not often an incident from a professional football match ends up in criminal proceedings and, as we have been reminded in the case of Sheffield Wednesday’s Fernando Forestieri, it is not straightforward getting a successful prosecution.
Terry got off despite admitting that he shouted the words “fucking black cunt” towards Ferdinand (or “fucking black cunt?” with an all-important question mark, his defence argued, claiming it was Terry’s shocked response to Ferdinand accusing him of uttering those words).
Forestieri has also been acquitted and, again, his trial threw up some unexpected angles bearing in mind one of the main arguments put forward on his behalf was that the player making the allegations must have misheard because the crowd was so noisy. The crowd, for the record, was 3,599, for the relevant pre-season friendly at what we are supposed to call the One Call Stadium these days. Or as you and I probably know it: Field Mill. Which, certainly from my experience, is hardly the Ali Sami Yen, decibels?wise.
The player in question is Krystian Pearce, the captain of Mansfield Town, who alleges he was called a “nigger” and was so infuriated by what he heard that a few minutes later, in the first of two confrontations between the different sets of players (the second of which involved 40 people, with coaches and staff also piling in), his manager, David Flitcroft, felt it necessary to go all the way to the centre circle to escort him off the pitch.
As is the protocol, Pearce had reported what he heard to the referee, John Brooks, who, in turn, had informed the fourth official, David Plowright. Flitcroft had been told, therefore, there had been an alleged racial slur even before a wild foul by Forestieri on another player instigated the first confrontation. Pearce, according to Flitcroft, was visibly upset, eyes glazed over, in a way the manager had never seen before. So upset, in fact, that when Pearce did finally compose himself after the game the player went into the opposition dressing room, alone, to ask Forestieri to apologise and admit what he had done. Forestieri denied it and Pearce, still enraged, sent a message later that evening to a WhatsApp group comprising his two brothers and some close friends: “If anyone ever sees Forestieri swing on him immediately.”
What Pearce could not provide for the court was a witness who had heard the exchange. His row with Forestieri was not in anybody else’s earshot. Forestieri was not short of defence witnesses – the Sheffield Wednesday assistant manager, Lee Bullen, the goalkeeping coach, Nicky Weaver, and the club’s Kosovo striker, Atdhe Nuhiu – and told the court the insults were directed, in Spanish, at his opponent’s mother (“la concha de tu madre”) rather than the colour of his skin.
In other words, it boiled down to one man’s word against another and, on that basis, nobody should be surprised it ended as it did: not guilty. Even though – and this bit is important – the district judge, Jonathan Taffe, made it clear in his conclusion that he was not certain whatsoever that Pearce had, as suggested, misheard. “It is possible, albeit in my judgment unlikely,” Taffe said. Yet the fact it was possible meant he could not be satisfied “to a criminal standard” that the offending word was used.
And fair enough: Forestieri’s version of events, like Pearce’s, was described as “clear and consistent”. It would have been difficult for any court to convict him without any corroborative evidence and, as Forestieri has subsequently pointed out, the question should probably be asked of the Crown Prosecution Service why it charged him when the judicial system requires cases to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
That is the difference with the Football Association’s disciplinary system, which determines cases on the balance of probabilities and, as such, has a much wider scope to rule in favour of the player making the allegations.
All of which explains why the FA’s case against Sophie Jones, the Sheffield United Women’s player, for allegedly making monkey noises at Tottenham’s Renee Hector was found proven when the reality is there would be very little chance, with none of the other players hearing the same, that a criminal court would have had enough evidence to find her guilty. Jones accused the FA of putting together a “kangaroo court” and said she was so disgusted by the verdict and five-match suspension she was quitting the sport for good.
Unfortunately for Forestieri, who was born in Argentina to Italian parents and moved to Genoa at the age of 16, that is just the way the sport operates and, as Terry can testify, being innocent in the eyes of the law does not mean the football authorities will be so obliging. Terry’s supporters might have popped open a bottle of pink Cava in the public gallery to celebrate his acquittal but he was charged by the FA within two weeks, then banned for four matches and fined £220,000. The minimum punishment now is five games and, if Forestieri doesn’t know it already, he will soon become aware that the FA is already in contact with Nottinghamshire police with a view to putting together its own case against him. Forestieri has already been banned for three games because of his part in the brawl. But this is far from over.
Is the system fair? That is the really divisive issue here but, in fairness to the FA, it is duty-bound to investigate – and if, as expected, it does lead to Forestieri facing another disciplinary hearing the relevant panel will at least possess a greater understanding of the sport than was demonstrated during his appearance at Mansfield magistrates court.
There were certainly some strange moments if you consider that at one point the police officer in charge of the investigation was grilled about his reasons for not putting out an advertisement, presumably in the local paper, asking to speak to members of the crowd. Though that wasn’t quite as perplexing as the questions that were put to Brooks when the referee gave evidence from the witness box about the events leading to Pearce, who was booked for pushing Forestieri, being taken off the pitch.
The issue, of course, was finding out what had upset him so badly. Lisa Judge, defending Forestieri, referred to the booking and asked Brooks to confirm that yellow cards, totted up, could be damaging for a footballer, in terms of suspensions and damaging the prospects of future moves. Which was an interesting line to take at any time – but especially relating to a pre-season fixture when yellow cards had no relevance.
As for Forestieri, one of the other oddities was that he told the court via his interpreter that he could not speak good English but, judging by his own account of what was said, appeared to have a reasonable grasp of the language, after all.
Pearce, he said, had accused him of diving to try to win a penalty and then fouled him without a free-kick being awarded. Forestieri admitted swearing at his opponent and, at that stage, that their argument was in English. Mansfield were winning 2-1 and, according to Forestieri, Pearce’s response was to offer to sign an autograph for the Championship player at the end of the game. Pearce then made a mess of an attempted clearance and Forestieri claimed to have told him: “Why would I want your autograph when your left foot is so shit?”
At which point you may recall that Terry’s flare-up with Ferdinand also started with two players arguing over a penalty, swapping insults and then something as trivial and daft as Terry pretending his opponent had stinky breath, wafting his hand in front of his nose and putting on a look of feigned disgust, as if someone at the back of the class had let off a stink-bomb. Terry described himself during that trial as “the victim – stitched up good and proper” and Forestieri left the same impression. Now he should probably expect an announcement from FA headquarters to confirm there is still another twist to this story.
It’s a wonder if Bassini is passed fit for Bolton
Laurence Bassini was such a caring and diligent owner for Watford that, even after all that unfortunate business once he had left the club, he made sure to text Frank Smith, the deputy sports editor of the Watford Observer, after the team had lost to Crystal Palace in the 2013 Championship playoffs.
The first message will give you a flavour. “How is the feeling in the town now?” it read. “For me the feeling is amazing.” And on he went, making the point that he was happy for the newspaper to print every word. “What goes around comes around,” was another. “This is my happiest memory of Watford … print this in the paper, Laurence Bassini … I have to go now and open the champagne … all my love to Watford.”
Bassini has been declared a bankrupt twice and, after the first occasion, changed his name from Bazini to get a fresh start. It didn’t do him much good and, shortly before those charming messages to the local newspaper, he was found guilty by an independent disciplinary commission of misconduct and dishonesty relating to his financial dealings at Watford. Bassini was found to have “practised secrecy and deception” and banned from holding a position of authority with any Football League club for three years.
Bassini, in short, would come out somewhere near the top if you were to draw up a list of the bluffers and chancers who have passed through the sport. He is also now announcing that he is close to a takeover of Bolton Wanderers and, worse, it appears from what he says the Football League is going to wave it through.
Yes, it is probably worth not taking everything he says at face value just yet. No apologies here, however, for wondering whether this is going to be the final calamity of Shaun Harvey’s time as the league’s chief executive. Or whether there will ever come a day when the relevant people at league HQ find any use for that yellowing scrap of paper formerly known as the fit and proper person’s test.