Clubs care about results, not fascism
Even though we all know quite how much political posturing masquerades as bone-deep conviction it is still no hardship applauding David Miliband's resignation as vice-chairman of Sunderland over the appointment of Paolo Di Canio.
The gesture has been described as a "sad, knee-jerk reaction" by the former chairman of Swindon Town Jeremy Wray, who was the first to decide that Di Canio's announcement that he was a fascist did not disqualify him from a leading role in the life of any community in a land that shed quite a bit of blood fighting the dogma – and certainly not that of the old Wiltshire railway town.
If Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, knew a little bit more about football, and especially its current priorities, he might more readily understand Wray's train of thought – and the decision of Sunderland's American owner, Ellis Short, to ditch Martin O'Neill in favour of the loose cannon who did so much to rally the ultras of Lazio when he threw up his right arm in memory of Benito Mussolini.
He might grasp that among all his foibles, and erratic behaviour, Di Canio has displayed a certain knack of winning football matches, at least to the level of the third tier of the national game. Also, he might grasp that the tribal warfare of so much of English football long ago pushed into the margins the old idea that a football club represented something deep in the tradition of the working men who gave their support.
Plainly, Miliband has not picked up on such shifts of mood and, for want of a better word, morality. He seems to be the kind of fellow who might look at the classic Lowry print, Going To The Match, and imagine that the impetus of all those matchstick figures hurrying to Burnden Park for a Bolton Wanderers game might still have something to do with the momentum of the majority of today's fans on their way to Stamford Bridge or the Stadium of Light to slag off the referee, the opposing fans, or even their own manager.
Still, if Miliband is stuck in something of a time warp he shouldn't be criticised for this. The real warping is happening elsewhere. It is the prevailing football creed that results, and the financing that goes into the producing of them, have come to overshadow all else.
It is why cheating has become such a routine factor. Why anything, including the appointment of a man cheerfully voicing his adherence to the darkest political philosophy of them all, can ultimately be justified by the right results.
There is no shortage of examples and if it is relevant to quote one of the most egregious it is only fair to say that the author of it did eventually reflect on the meaning of what he had said and apologised quite profoundly.
However, reaction to the comments of the former chief executive of Manchester City Garry Cook was at the time not universally hostile. Cook, you see, took the pragmatic route when he was asked about the ownership of the club by the former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. "Is he a nice guy?" Cook asked rhetorically. "Yes."
"Is he a good guy to play golf with? Yes.
"Has he got the finances to run the club? Yes. Whether he is guilty of something over there, I can't worry too much about. Morally, I feel comfortable in this environment."
This was despite the huge clamour from human rights organisations pointing out the scale of the Manchester City owner's misbehaviour as the Thai leader. A year or so later, Cook said, "I have made some mistakes in my life but I deeply regretted my failure to do proper research on Thaksin."
In the case of Di Canio, we are, of course, not discussing human rights transgressions, merely the espousal of a political position deeply offensive to those who believe, for all its problems of inefficiency, in the merits of a working democracy. It is also true that if Di Canio's conduct at Swindon wasn't always a model of consistency, and indeed featured some moments of mind-numbing egocentricity, he has displayed a degree of personal warmth and commitment.
No doubt the frustrated Short, on to whose gun belt the notch of O'Neill has now joined those of Roy Keane and Steve Bruce, has concentrated his research on Di Canio, as Cook did his on Thaksin, on his potential to produce practical results. It is a huge gamble and one Short might justify with the scale of his personal investment in the club now threatened by a fall from the vast financial underpinning of the Premier League.
He can say that politicians, and other assorted moralists, should enjoy the luxury of their detached perspective on what is right and what is wrong. However, this shouldn't slacken belief in the fact that Miliband has made an extremely important statement.
It is that if a football club surrenders its old place at the heart of a community, if it becomes not much more than a tool of some outside investor, it is hardly entitled to a loyalty that stretches beyond the next match, the next result.
Di Canio says that he is a fascist but not a racist, something which is not the easiest claim to sustain in the normal course of events, but it is a vital qualification in a game in which racism is now just about the only sin which everyone agrees has to be treated with zero tolerance.
There is, of course, one default position which favours the new manager of Sunderland and his patron. It's that it is indeed possible in this country to hold down a responsible post while entertaining the most outlandish views, political or otherwise, though raising the right arm in public places while prosecuting your high-profile occupation is perhaps not the best guarantee of job security.
What football needs is some kind of workable code of conduct. Perhaps it is too much of a reach to say that while Di Canio is perfectly able to scuffle in the lower reaches of English football, he is disbarred from the upward mobility his professional performance might deserve.
In this grey area, though, it is still possible to say that Miliband has shed at least a little light. Even the best results, he suggests, can come at too high a price.
Belfast Telegraph Digital