Hearts’ decision this week to stand by convicted online sex-offender Craig Thomson is yet another in a long line of baffling decisions by the board of the practically-officially-titled “Controversial Majority Shareholder” Vladimir Romanov. The club have insisted upon “mitigating circumstances” as the reason behind this stance: apparently the younger girl in question was related to a friend, and as such Thomson is not apparently believed to pose a threat to the general under-age public. However this alone is hardly the basis for a potentially-damaging executive decision.
In the first place, Thomson’s knowing the girl prior to the incidents in question removes his only remotely defensible excuse: “I didn’t know what age she was”. When I was a teenager, an older local lad (19) was convicted of statutory rape for his part in a supposedly-consensual relationship with a 14-year-old that he met in an Edinburgh bar – he thought she was old enough to have sex with because to be in that bar, she should have been eighteen-plus. He was still sentenced. Thomson has no such excuse. While his transgression stops short of intercourse, the press and public are unlikely to be forgiving of any such misdeeds. Besides, this still overlooks the involvement of a second girl, and the mitigating circumstances, unpublished as they are, do nothing to remove suspicion in the average mind.
Which leads me to my second point, on the decision to allow the player to remain at the club. This decision will surely offend not only the extended football community, but our glorious red-top-reading British society. Football is one of the more traditionalist institutions in the modern world. In the last year, we have seen the decision of Anton Hysén to out himself as gay, and Sky Sport’s Masseygate sexism scandal, display just how old-fashioned the footballing world really is.
Hysén, son of Liverpool legend Glenn, is only the second recognised gay footballer in world football – that’s world football, in the 21st century, fact fans – and the first, Justin Fashanu, hanged himself after a short and troubled life. Realistically, Hysén is more famous for his sexual preferences than for his footballing prowess, playing as he does in the highly-esteemed fourth tier of Swedish football. Time will tell whether his brave decision will back-fire on his aspirations of playing top-flight English football. As footballing agent Max Clifford apparently warned two closeted gay Premiership players, who were considering coming out themselves, football is “in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia”. Meanwhile, the Keys-and-Gray saga surrounding female line-official Sian Massey, unearthed a culture of good old-fashioned misogyny that could only really have come as a massive surprise to the most naïve of armchair supporters.
Now, if the average football-follower can’t get their head around a player who prefers the company of men in private, or a woman in a position of authority; how on earth do Hearts expect rival players and supporters to treat a player who has been accused of the ultimate social taboo, sex offences against minors? Magnanimous acceptance? Rangers and Scotland defender Richard Gough was routinely called a “paedophile” in terrace chants, despite the fact that he had done nothing more than irritate opposing fans with his annoyingly-high level of professional competence. Some sections of the Rangers support countered with the “Big Jock Knew” chant, that alleged that departed Celtic legend Jock Stein was part of a conspiracy to cover up sex-offences revealed to have been committed by Celtic Boys Club manager Jim Torbett. This is an attempt to needle the opposing support, pure and simple; with no recognised basis, and no target but the untouchable memory of a club legend.
By contrast, Craig Thomson will feel himself all-too-real. Guilty by his own admission, he can likely expect nothing but direct and personal abuse for the rest of his career. Lesser offences such as “leaving a club” have attracted vitriolic hatred to persons less guilty than him. The vile personal abuse spouted at Sol Campbell and Glenn Roeder was entirely unjustified, yet deeply upsetting for both concerned. Joey Barton’s half-brother was involved in a murder, which arguably attracted unwanted attention to the player that influenced his on- and off-pitch temperament – and ultimately his reputation – for the worse. Thomson, meanwhile, is directly responsible for his situation, and in all probability he will only escape this infamy by playing abroad: something Scots don’t do particularly well. Meanwhile, the knock-on effect it will have on the morale of the team and the fans – and the club’s reputation – remains to be seen.
Romanov’s press response was typically autocratic, referring to these recent events, Hearts’ record-breaking indiscipline, and Ian Black’s cocaine possession as all the work of his oft-suspected Scottish “mafia”. This despite Hearts escaping punishment for the potentially-damning fan attack on Neil Lennon at Tynecastle. While Romanov’s paranoid ramblings have failed to damage anything but his own pocket in the past, the decision of macb water to withdraw their sponsorship from the club demonstrates that the Heart of Midlothian brand may well be becoming tarnished beyond repair by such unnecessary negative associations as the Thomson affair. Add to these escapades the ill-advised appointment of Graham Rix in 2006, and Hearts look to be in danger of painting themselves as less than “family-friendly”. Not only is football a less-than-progressive sport: Scotland, for all its traditional charm, is a judgemental and religiously-conservative country – hence the sectarian blight that continues to make as many sports headlines as actual football – and no company is going to damage its reputation with that cornerstone of tradition, the family, by linking its name to news headlines associated with child abuse.
So where does this leave Thomson, or even Ian Black? Formerly household name such as Mutu and Bosnich discovered that a player who has been caught taking drugs is often sacked on the grounds of family-friendly company image, and the overly hopeful expectations (in the face of all the contrary evidence) that footballers should be great role-models. What does a player have to do to get the bullet at Hearts, beyond criticising Romanov? Public speculation in the press suggests that today’s suspension of Thomson is a token gesture, taken too late: that it doesn’t matter what you do if there is a potentially large enough price-tag on your abilities. After all, in the case of the “Riccarton Three”, it was only the younger more bankable talent of Craig Gordon who was not offloaded in a hurry, but allowed to go “in his own time” for a British transfer record. Or perhaps macb’s sponsorship-withdrawal is speaking a language Romanov truly respects, and the suspension will be only the first step of greater punitive measures. Thierry Ennui suspects that we shall soon see that what is at the heart of this matter is, as always, money.