SOMETHING happened last week that made my blood boil even more than the spectacle of Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland being attacked by a Leeds United supporter during the derby at Hillsborough.
Aaron Cawley, the thug in question, was handed a 16-week jail term and five-year banning order from English football grounds for sneaking up on Kirkland from behind the goal and attacking him in the face.
In other words, this individual will be walking the streets four months from now and, in late October, 2017, will be free to attend football matches up and down the country.
Free to attend them anywhere but Elland Road that is, with the club having rightly slapped him with a lifetime ban.
Now, I have never been one of the ‘hang ’em, flog ’em’ brigade, for none of us in this world are whiter than white.
But the leniency of Cawley’s sentence beggars belief.
At the very least, the five-year element should have been the length of time he must spend in prison, not the length of time he cannot actually enter a football ground.
Indeed, the very thought that he could be permitted back inside a football ground at any time, let alone as early as October, 2017, is so absurd that if you try to rationalise it you will hurt your brain.
You may recall that Trenton Oldfield, who earlier this year stopped the university boat race by swimming across the River Thames, received the heavier penalty of six months for causing a public nuisance, a crime that pales into significance alongside Cawley’s.
Leeds United’s feelings on the matter were revealed in a statement published on their website.
After welcoming the fact that Cawley, of Cheltenham, was handed a custodial term by Sheffield magistrates, the statement concluded: “While we are pleased to see justice brought so quickly, our one disappointment is that we feel the sentence could, and should, have been considerably longer.”
In the world of carefully prepared club statements, where temperate language is de rigueur, that roughly translates as follows… “Leeds United cannot believe that this thug who shamed and disgraced our club has not been locked up for a long time and the key thrown in the River Aire.”
Of course, we all know that courts’ hands are tied to a large extent, and that “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is little more than political gobbledygook.
Common assault carries a maximum six months’ imprisonment, depending on the severity of the attack.
Although Kirkland was more shaken than injured, this debacle was beamed across the world via satellite television and watched by millions – including young children.
And yet the court chose not to impose a maximum sentence.
Truly, this decision sends out a terrible message to would-be Aaron Cawleys everywhere.
It says that they will spend so little time in prison that they might as well be issued with a temporary visitors’ pass rather than supplied with a convict’s clobber.
It says that after a few piffling years they will be permitted to return to football stadia to do God knows what to God knows whom.
And it says, with ear-splitting resonance, that the courts and criminal justice system are failing Kirkland and footballers everywhere.
Sheffield magistrates heard that Cawley had previously been the subject of two banning orders.
He had breached those four times, which calls into question the very effectiveness of banning orders and how they are enforced.
Apparently, Cawley, pictured had consumed several cans of lager and three-quarters of a litre of vodka before travelling to Sheffield for the game, followed by a further seven-to-10 pints of cider after arriving in the city.
It was said that he was so inebriated that he only realised what he had done when he later spotted himself on television, no doubt while eating a donor kebab as he watched with the startled realisation: “Hang on a second, I recognise that bloke.”
Although it might be wondered how anyone could even stand up after such a binge, the episode highlights a glaring truth about football hooliganism: namely, that it is society’s problem as much as football’s.
It is born of the myriad difficulties we see all around us – far too many to list in this column.
I have every sympathy for the officials of Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, who rightly condemned what happened at Hillsborough.
They denounced not only Cawley but some of the sick chanting that took place during the game from both sets of fans – be it those of Sheffield Wednesday when they referred to Leeds supporters killed in Turkey in 2000, or those of Leeds when they referred to child abuse allegations against Wednesday manager Dave Jones, which were dropped the same year.
A few days ago, Leeds called on supporters to “turn their backs on the game” if they hear such chanting.
Leeds chief executive Shaun Harvey made clear: “We don’t believe there is any place for this in football.
“We are asking our fans to show their feeling towards any vile chants they may hear by turning their backs in response, rather than react in any other way.”
Well said, Mr Harvey.
Although clubs have their part to play in fighting hooliganism, it is ultimately down to each and every one of us to take responsibility – particularly when the criminal justice system fails and will continue to fail, regardless of which muppets are running the country.
It is incumbent on every man, woman and child to make their own stand, for although none of us can change things by waving a magic wand, we can each make a difference in our own small way.
And for those players and managers who behave like idiots each week, surrounding referees, spitting abuse at them and carrying on in a way that would never be tolerated in rugby, for example, then please remember this.
That good example must start with you, for if you and your colleagues are out of control, don’t be surprised when thugs like Cawley take it to the next level.