Sometimes a light is shone upon the Beautiful Game that exposes problems so deep-rooted it makes you wonder which short-sighted chap came up with such a euphemism in the first place.
How can a game of football, capable of producing such moments of exalted joy like the one which followed Amadou Bakayoko’s 104th minute equaliser, also attract such dark and evil detail, like the racist abuse which threatened to stop it in its tracks at one stage on Saturday evening?
It would be easy to say that football simply mirrors society and that such unpleasant behaviour is endemic on the streets, in the pubs, even the living rooms, provided you know where to look. But that shifts responsibility.
Football has historically allowed unacceptable behaviour, masked under the catch-all umbrella of ‘banter’ and passed it off as if a cheeky postcard from the seaside, or a risqué joke on a gameshow.
At the Mazuma Stadium, a compact stadium with a unique design, a record crowd was expected for the visit of Bolton Wanderers.
Warnings were issued. Even the Supporters’ Trust made a statement to encourage away supporters to avoid bringing the club’s name into disrepute. Five arrests, and reports of missiles thrown at Shrimps keeper Adam Smith suggest the message fell on deaf ears, for some.
Though the headlines rightly concentrated on the abhorrent abuse which had stemmed from the Morecambe stand, there is a problem Bolton also must tackle quickly, and one they cannot afford to ignore. This grand old club, with a fanbase to envy, is developing a reputation it does not want on its travels.
Morecambe’s half-hearted announcement that players had been taken off the pitch because of “the behaviour of both sets of fans” was disingenuous. There was a very clear and obvious trigger. But it does not absolve Wanderers, nor mask over the behavioural issues which appear to have worsened during the club’s stint in the lower leagues.
Ian Evatt and his coaching staff had been verbally abused for much of a turgid game from fans placed behind the dugout, mainly from the hospitality sections in the Wright and Lord Stand.
Sadly, this is nothing new for the Bolton boss, a man whose emotions are rarely hidden on the touchline, and some might claim an easy target.
Quite what is achieved by peppering insults towards someone in his position is unclear compared, for example, to more playful stuff aimed towards a player on the pitch. There is a debate to be had, however, as to whether either should be acceptable.
Wanderers had started well but blustery conditions and Morecambe’s own physical approach quickly knocked them out of their stride.
Though Ricardo Santos’s instant red card for a deliberate handball looked harsh, James Trafford had saved Cole Stockton’s penalty and Bolton looked for a short time like they would hold on for an awkward point on an awkward day.
Stockton atoned for his error with a 21st strike of the season. Anger from the 1,700 travelling supporters behind the goal was initially directed at referee Ross Joyce but started to take a more macabre turn, with missiles being thrown on to the pitch, once again.
Almost instantaneously, the mood took a downturn in the home stand too. Players and staff were allegedly spat on from fans in the loftier positions above the dugout, prompting Evatt to make the fourth official and referee aware of what had happened.
The game stumbled on a matter of minutes before another comment, allegedly racially motivated, was aimed at one of the Bolton players.
Much like a debatable penalty, it is often easier to judge whether there has been an offence by watching the reaction of players around the incident, rather than those directly involved.
It is not clear to whom the remark was aimed, nor is it productive to guess the person who made it, but the instant flash of anger which showed up on the face of Alex Baptiste made it perfectly clear that a line had been crossed.
Vastly experienced and one of the least volatile people you could ever wish to meet, there was a fury in the defender’s eyes which could not possibly have been falsified.
Likewise, Morecambe boss Stephen Robinson’s exasperated attempts to defuse the problem from the technical area, or ex-Wanderer Rhys Bennett’s shameful glance towards the culprits on his way back down the tunnel, they were not the actions of people who thought this was gamesmanship.
Evatt had made a brave call. He marched on to the pitch to alert the referee as Morecambe’s security bumbled and hesitated. If Bolton’s fans take nothing more from Saturday’s game, it should be that their club’s manager is prepared to stand up for his players and principles, and that more should follow suit.
It must also be highlighted that many of the home fans surrounding the incident were imploring the security officers to take action even before the game had stopped. Fathers and mothers shook their heads in disgust.
At the time, restarting the game seemed borderline pointless. Evatt had come back out on to the pitch early to request that the Bolton fans calm down, as things were starting to spiral.
Bolton’s attitude to get back into it with 10 men was exemplary. MJ Williams led the fight, winning the ball time and time again, spraying out passes and showing that not all leaders need an armband.
And then it happened. Declan John’s left wing-cross was flicked by Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, causing Jacob Bedeau to lose his bearings and Bakayoko to sweep the ball into the net. Cue pandemonium. Genuine ecstasy.
Bakayoko sprinted over to the main stand like a man possessed, the big striker cupping his ear and then raising his finger to his mouth. Many of the culprits he has aiming at had long gone but this was a point worth making.
Bolton’s bench charged down to the line to join him, and dozens of Bolton fans spilled on to the pitch including – randomly – one lady in her later years.
Anyone suggesting such celebration among the players was down to football has cloth between their ears. This response didn’t come from the feet, it was a different part of the anatomy altogether.
Bakayoko was able to answer back, some may say in the best way possible. But football needs to look itself in the mirror and ask itself whether the moral lines between what is acceptable hubris, and what boils down to downright abuse, should be redrawn.
Morecambe will work with police to identify and punish those responsible, and Wanderers should also expect recriminations for the behaviour of their own supporters.
The Shrimps should also examine whether security operations on the day were ample for the biggest crowd ever seen at that stadium. The bottlenecking reported by many when supporters of both clubs poured out together into a car park would suggest otherwise.
Bolton’s point on the day felt like a victory. But for football clubs at this level, it was another damaging defeat.
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