Offside, 12 January

Alan Green - free speech martyr or sanctimonious windbag? Discuss.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What side should freedom-loving people take on the bizarre spat between Alan Green and Sam Allardyce? Is BBC Radio Five Live commentator Alan Green a free speech martyr who is being persecuted for speaking his mind? Or did he violate the first principles of commentating impartiality when he opined that Bolton Wanderers play ‘ugly’ football that he wouldn’t pay to watch. I’ll tell you what Clive, this is what is known in the trade as a ‘plague on both their houses’ situation.

On the one hand it’s difficult to disagree with Green. Jay Jay Okocha’s stepovers apart, watching Bolton is not even remotely like watching Brazil. But equally, I can see why Allardyce was annoyed that Bolton had been singled out for criticism. ‘You just look at Chelsea and the way they approach games’, fumed Big Sam. ‘They play exactly the same way as us, yet no-one ever calls them a long-ball team.’

In fact the charge of ugly long-ball football could be just as easily be levelled at Green’s own team Liverpool. But then Green is so smitten by the Rafa-lution that he can’t see that Liverpool are just Bolton with red shirts and a bigger wage bill. While Bolton’s pragmatism can be excused on account of their limited financial means, the same cannot be said of Liverpool, the tenth richest team on the planet who won the European Cup last season with a brand of football that is best described as catenaccio-turned-ugly.

So yes, Allardyce has a point but there’s no need to have reacted so petulantly. The Bolton manager withdrew from a scheduled appearance on Sport on Five, ejected a Radio Five journalist from a Bolton press conference, and is now refusing to speak to the station. The most ludicrous consequence of Allardyce’s over-reaction is that Alan Green has been lauded a champion of free speech.

‘Someone has to put in a word for Alan Green’, declared Frank Keating in the Guardian. ‘It is appalling that no end of supposed front-line champions of free speech – ie, journalists themselves – have rushed to the barricades on behalf of the affronted, puffed-up and over-precious suits of the dugout’ (1). ‘Alan Green is in trouble for having an opinion’, wrote Martin Samuel in the Times (2). Samuel paints Green as a man whose outspokenness is at odds with our ‘sanitised, segregated world’ in which ‘Simple emotion and strong opinion are old hat’.

The way Green’s defenders tell it you’d have thought the man was some sort of soccer Salman Rushdie with a Fat Sam fatwa on his head. But the truth is that Alan Green is not in any trouble at all. His employers, the BBC, have even issued a public statement in his defence saying: ‘We feel that his opinionated style matches the passion and commitment of the Premiership.’

Green is certainly not afraid to offend football bigwigs. Sir Alex Ferguson has not spoken to Green since 1993 and once told him ‘You don’t pick my f***ing teams.’ Nor is Green like the superlative merchants on Sky Sports who are notorious for talking up a drab 0-0 draw as though it were an orgy of sexy football. Green, by contrast, won’t hesitate to brand a dull game ‘dire’ or ‘woeful’ in his distinctive Ulster tones.

The problem is not that Green speaks his mind but that, when he’s not talking about the on-field action, the content of his mind largely consists of sanctimonious claptrap. He can usually be relied on for a bout of pompous sermonising whenever he sees players diving or supporters misbehaving. When Macedonian fans directed racist chants at black England players during a Euro 2004 qualifier Green was incandescent and offered to identify the culprits to the authorities.

However, pious lectures on racism are a bit rich coming from a man who once referred to Chinese player Sun Jihai with the immortal words ‘Number 17 – that’ll be the chicken chow mein, then’ and subsequently had his wrists slapped by Ofcom for his pidgin English ‘me no cheat’ comments about Eric Djemba-Djemba.

If Alan Green really wants to tell it like it is he wouldn’t tolerate the sad procession of sycophants, no-marks and anoraks who call his 606 phone-in programme. I must confess to listening to 606 occasionally – purely for research purposes you understand – and the ‘debate’, for want of a better word, consists almost entirely of callers massaging Green’s sizeable ego (‘Alan, I listen to your programme every week and I’d like to say it’s the best show on the radio.’), complaining about players inciting the crowd (‘He gave us the shush sign, Alan. It was disgraceful.’), or else talking inconsequential rubbish very loudly.

Giles Smith in the Times called it right when he described the programme as ‘a turgid national forum for points barely worth making aloud in a pub’ (3).

Alan Green is no free speech hero. Far from it. Criticising Bolton Wanderers hardly makes him Voltaire. As history will judge, his enduring contribution to public debate is to have given a platform to those who have absolutely nothing to say.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Big Sam should be Green with envy, not red with rage, Guardian, 10 January 2006

(2) Green critics prove that opinions do not matter in this sanitised world, The Times (London), 11 January 2006
(3) Green refuses to back down, The Times (London), 9 January 2006

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Topics Politics


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