The “football family” might be a big one but it’s never been a particularly happy one. Two enthralling spats in an eventful week; one arising out of the desire to sell a book, the other, well, who except Robbie knows why?
Robbie Slater’s emotional attack on new Melbourne Victory Director of football Francis Awaritefe came from left field, with considerable force, and left us wondering “what was the point?”
Meanwhile Les Murray’s claims that Socceroos captain Lucas Neill revolted against the tactics of his coach Pim Verbeek in the World Cup seeped out in publicity for Murray’s latest book. With Neill breaking off his holiday in Las Vegas to declare himself “astonished” and “angry” and threaten legal action to clear his name the result is excellent publicity for publishers Hardie Grant.
On reflection, Murray might one day wish a bit less was made of the claims, based, he told interviewers, on a reliable yet unnamed source. Stinks (as they call disputes like this in the rugby league world) tend to linger and it will be intriguing to see if this one - between the sports head of Australia’s favourite football station and the leader of the national team – ever completely clears.
What makes this more compelling than the every day “he says, he says” incident involving reporter and athlete is that in the case of Murray and Neill there is a much closer balance of respect and power than usual.
If I had written this type of story without a named source and the player denied it, the fans would be in no doubt at all. The story would die flat and the only consequence would be unseen: The player would never talk to me or perhaps my publication again. This scenario is not rare.
But Murray’s involvement escalates the drama and consequences. More a football icon than journalist, a month ago he won a fans poll as the Australian game’s best blogger. And his station, while not boasting the games of Fox, is no doubt our most respected by football fans. No matter, fans can not accept Les would just make something like this up; at best he’s spot on and the players are hiding it; at worst he’s been misled.
Neill is not universally loved – no player ever is without spending the majority of his time and a sizeable chunk of money polishing his brand with an army of PR flacks. But the story doesn’t quite add up. Murray has earned his esteem, but so too has Neill.
This incident had a lot of echoes of Robbie Slater’s ugly spat with Harry Kewell in August last year. Along with saying Kewell’s time had come to quit the Socceroos, 100 percent opinion, Slater broadcast allegations that a fellow player of Kewell’s had sworn at him during a team dinner in South Africa. Kewell denied it and no source came forth to support Slater.
Slater is paid for opinions and doesn’t hold back. In the Kewell case he was providing unsourced news as well. The pair had a heated row on air, moderated by Simon Hill . It was wonderful train wreck for us to watch but one which will cloud the former teammates’ relationship evermore.
Kewell is a big fish for a big mouth pundit to land. In a game increasingly overrun by robots or insiders afraid of FFA sanctions, we need strong opinions. But I can’t comprehend Slater’s attack on Awaritefe, a well liked, respected and intelligent football man. A former Socceroo, albeit briefly, with a business degree and a keen eye for the sport who has plenty to give the A-League and Melbourne Victory.
Slater and Awaritefe are playing contemporaries, although not always on the same patch. I wondered if there had been a stray elbow between them way back when, or some on field bust up. Some history or reason for the touch up. Impeccable sources – trust me – say there’s no such back story to justify the tone of Slater's opinion.
Unlike the Murray-Neill story, I haven’t been struck by a balance of respect between Slater and Awaritefe (who has opted to stay out of the issue). Franny is a prolific member of the twittersphere and to follow the views of fans there this is an issue as one sided as Australia’s first match at the 2010 World Cup. It is also one that has died a quick public death, although, in the way of these “family” disputes things is unlikely to be forgotten, just left to seethe below the surface.