Since its inception in 1992, when it was conceived as a business venture, the Premier League has been mindful of its conservative corporate image. And equally, there have been those who refused to tow the line. But, with more and more money pouring into the game, the renegades are disappearing, silenced, lest their words and deeds kill the golden goose. And for me that threatens the personality of the league.
As I said, it wasn’t always the case. Once upon a not so long ago the league was peppered with players who made a trademark out of their notoriety. Roy Keane, Paul Gascoigne, Eric Cantona, Vinnie Jones, El Hadji Diouf, Duncan Ferguson, Paulo Di Canio, Robbie Savage and the like were all explosive personalities, on and sometimes off the field.
And, whether or not you disapproved of their antics, you couldn’t help watching, if only to see what they’d do next.
Obviously, if you subscribe to the view that footballers should be role models you’ll regard such players as unlamented dinosaurs. And clearly, from the way the likes of John Terry, Joey Barton, and Luis Suarez have been vilified in recent times, there’s a groundswell of opinion that says infamy is something the game is better off without.
But, while lily-white is the color of choice at the moment, I wonder how many people secretly yearn for that hint of gray that made for such an interesting contrast in days gone by? After all, the essence of good drama is conflict, and you can’t have a hero without a villain.
Clearly, there have to be boundaries, and it goes without saying that nigh on criminal assaults, like Keane’s career-ending tackle on Manchester City’s Alifie Haaland in 2001, crossed the line. But while not wishing to endorse the deranged, the shock value of some pantomime villainy can sometimes be enticing, if only for its curiosity value -- a premise on which all tabloid journalism is built.
Personally, I loved Cantona, kung fu kick and all, because he was so enigmatic and visceral. “Sometimes in life one experiences an emotion which is so strong that it is difficult to think, or to reason,” he said, in reference to one of his many controversies. Imagine that in today’s choreographed, media-trained, pre-fabricated environment.
And he wasn’t the only free spirited renegade. For example, I couldn’t tell you the scoreline in Sheffield Wednesday’s 1998 game with Arsenal but I can remember every frame of Paulo Di Canio’s infamous push on the referee. Outrageous? Yes, but that and other misdemeanors certainly made the Italian unforgettable. And then there was Vinnie Jones and his notorious 1992 “Hard Man” video in which he dispensed “how to” advice to potential hackers -- Bad concept, bad advice, great entertainment.
But I know this is no more than a nostalgia trip, because England’s top flight will never again celebrate its pariahs. For all its issues -- match-fixing, racism, etc. the game today aspires to operate in an environment that’s hermetically sealed; an idealistic safety-first world where sponsors much prefer bland over colorful. That’s one of the reasons Balotelli was such a Manchester misfit. He was a throwback -- a guilty pleasure, a rebel without a pause, and they are no longer tolerated.