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22 December 2016

What Jonjo Shelvey reveals about football’s dark heart

Fans are willing to turn a blind eye to anything if a player is on form.

By Rohan Banerjee

Newcastle United midfielder Jonjo Shelvey has been handed a five-game ban by the FA after using racially abusive language towards Wolves’ Romain Saïss in September’s 2-0 defeat at St James’ Park.

After appealing the initial charge in November, Shelvey was found guilty by an Independent Regulatory Commission; he called the Moroccan player a “smelly Arab”. He’s also been slapped with a £100,000 fine and ordered to attend an educational course on diversity.

Shelvey’s ban is longer than the one handed to former England captain John Terry, who was banned for four matches after an FA inquiry in 2012 found him guilty of calling Anton Ferdinand a “black c**t” – after a criminal trial found him not guilty. Still, praising the FA’s crackdown on racism falls a little flat when you consider that his punishment wasn’t decided on until nearly three months had passed. And he’s been fined half as much.

The inefficiencies and inconsistencies of the FA’s dealing with discrimination, though, are no new feat. Erstwhile Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for racism and ten for biting an opponent.

The Shelvey case is significant for two reasons. The first is that it highlights that the FA has still not worked out how to handle racism. The second, perhaps more worryingly, is that neither have football fans.

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See, Shelvey is Newcastle’s best player and by the twisted logic of the terraces, that has led a great many fans to exonerate him. Their priority, it seems, is Shelvey the player and not Shelvey the person.

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It’s the same sort of reasoning that meant Leicester City forward Jamie Vardy’s racism – even though it was caught on film – was kept hush, because it didn’t fit in with the rags-to-riches narrative about his rise from non-league football to the top-flight. Is that the message, then? You can do or say what you want, as long as you’re playing well.

Shelvey, of course, is playing well. Newcastle’s spot at the top of the table is owed in no small part to the imperious form of the man who is arguably the most technically gifted player in the division. Shelvey can change games with a single pass, so in a purely footballing context, his absence will be a huge blow for Rafa Benitez’s side.

But football is not the issue here.

The fans who are calling for Newcastle to appeal the ban so Shelvey can play against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day are demonstrating a monumental lack of perspective. The question is not when can Shelvey pull on a black and white shirt again, it’s whether or not he should.

Shelvey has disgraced Newcastle and alienated an entire section of their support. Selling him would hurt the club more than him, but he must be reminded of his responsibilities. In an industry as multicultural as football, Newcastle can’t afford not to.