(Walk on) Gilded Splinters

Every so often BBC2 make a few business programmes in one-off strands, broadcast in primetime slots; sometimes they are Money Programme Specials, occasionally features up on successful start-ups while others quite often look at past disasters of phenomenons. In the summer of 2011 they had an episode of one such programme, titled ‘Marketing Mess-ups’, presented by the bloke from the ‘Today Programme’ who has a worrying favourable bias towards monetarists and bankers.

Had that programme been commissioned just six months later from the date it was broadcast, the whole one-hour episode could have been devoted to Liverpool Football Club, whose PR strategy since Luiz Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra on the field of play on 15 October 2011, appears to have been hijacked by Alan Partridge.

Suarez was found guilty by an independent three-man panel over a five day long investigation, which as shown by the comprehensive 115 page report released into the public domain on Saturday evening was thorough in every aspect, examining all evidence to conclude that in a heated and angry confrontation, Suarez reference to Evra’s colour was not in a friendly, affectionate manner.

From the outside it didn’t seem a strong or sustainable defence, as Tony Evans wrote last week in The Times (reproduced here). It was hard to believe that Suarez was using a term of endearment towards Evra, particularly to anyone who watched the game on television at the time, or has since seen the subsequent video footage taken from the camera in the goalmouth, which after reading about all the evidence contained in the report, shows Suarez’s intent.

The report also damningly shows Liverpool’s failure to take the matter as seriously as it should have from the outset, with manager Kenny Dalglish’s instant reaction being to try and smear Evra, while their Director of Football, Damien Comolli, appears gullible at best (although that portrayal is perhaps plausible from the man who authorised the purchases of Andy Carroll at £35m and Jordan Henderson c £18m respectively).

And the report shows Suarez in fact called Evra “negro” seven times in the course of three separate exchanges at Anfield, a finding that now no longer needs to be prefixed with “allegedly”. But Suarez has received his punishment, and it is the club’s conduct since the verdict that has really been astonishing.

The statement Liverpool released within minutes of the findings were written with the tone, contradictions and lack of coherence of a keyboard warrior who trolls blogs looking to enter their bile on comments sections, rather than that of an official message from an International Organisation. Even if it had been written in the heat of the moment, the statement would have been embarrassing, but the club surely would have had drafts of two responses prepared, and both would have been authorised.

In the statement, there was an attack on Evra, which as well as lacking any dignity was baseless in fact, before then going onto use Evra’s comment that he didn’t think Suarez was a racist per se as some form of justification that he hadn’t used racist abuse towards Evra in the game, as charged. So amateurish was the statement there was general belief that when the club’s URL for the statement was changed within an hour of being uploaded on their website, it must have been a parody. But it wasn’t. And it was back up elsewhere, with the club continue to dig themselves in bunker devoid of any perspective or class.

They compounded their position when the team wore Suarez t-shirts ahead of their next match after the verdict, away at Wigan, as if Suarez was some persecuted political prisoner rather than someone who had aggressively insulted a fellow professional on the basis of their ethnic origin. Again, the pictures of both Suarez himself wearing a shirt, as well as the Manager in his live pre-match television interview, will be graphic images in the text book of PR disasters dissections, where Liverpool FC now have their own chapter.

It was only a surprise that the Kop didn’t all hold up cards making up Suarez’s face in their next home match, and even at this stage, so unaware do the club seem of the bigger picture, the release of a charity single is on his behalf can’t fully be ruled out. Sky Sports may have even unwittingly contributed to that idea with their latest ident, where “fans” from a range of Premier League teams (as identified by their replica shirts and differing regional accents) sing the annoying song that Liverpool fans sing about Suarez. If, of course the song is anyway associated with Suarez (and it does have a Liverpool fan singing the bit about scoring at the Kop, so immediately ruling out Carroll), Sky, who have a lot more marketing savvy than Liverpool, will no doubt drop it like a stone.

It is an understandable reaction for any club to want to show unity and support its player, but Liverpool could have done that by maintaining a silence until the report was released, and then either going through a formal process with an appeal or accepting the decision, and addressing Suarez’s actions so he could continue to play for the club after his punishment was served.

But they have gone down the wrong road, walking far enough to take a sizeable number of their following who continue to publicly attack Evra, and anyone else who talks sense on the subject, trying to turn a serious issue into a matter of tribal club rivalry. It is hard to see where the idea that Suarez is somehow being persecuted comes from; he is not even the only player in the country being investigated into an incident like this at the moment. And if their actions were a propaganda campaign ahead of a planned appeal, it has been a misjudgement of epic proportions.

Ahead of the findings, the public defence of Suarez’s then alleged actions came from  Sepp Blatter, who, seemingly coming from the same school as the old judges that used to blame women for being raped, suggested that the obligation was on the victim of abuse on the pitch to accept and initiate a handshake with the perpetrator. And there was also Gus Poyet, who defended his friend and countryman by effectively calling Evra a cry-baby. But apart from those two, Liverpool now largely walk alone in this case.

And if they decide to start taking some PR advice now, on the basis of ‘better late then never’, the message would be to take a step back. And a public apology to Patrice Evra wouldn’t go amiss either.


The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League in a sport where money is considered as highly as medals. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.