Jonjo Shelvey will find out this week if he will be punished for making pointed ‘swimming’ gestures to the Cardiff City fans on Sunday. He probably will be. He probably should be. In a heavily policed, highly volatile fixture, his act of provocation could have caused a riot.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel a frission of admiration for the former Liverpool midfielder. In a game filled with players who couldn’t care less, at least Shelvey is taking an interest. For the uninitiated, Shelvey’s gesture referenced the story of a battle between supporters of Swansea and Cardiff in 1988.
According to The Evening Post’s coverage at the time, "a man walking his dog at around 10.30pm saw about 50 Swansea fans chase around 30 Cardiff supporters onto the beach near County Hall and into the sea. ‘They were up to their chests in the water to get away from them. It was quite comical to watch. Eventually the police managed to get the Swans fans away and the Cardiff fans came out of the sea looking like drowned rats."
Ever since then, as you might imagine, Swansea’s supporters have rather enjoyed reminding their rivals of the time they were forced to ‘swim away’.
Shelvey, however, is no hero and it’s important to note context here. While his performances usually veer maniacally between tremendous and terrible over the course of a single game, Sunday was an offering exclusively from the latter category. His passing was wretched and he was arguably at fault for the Cardiff goal. On a day when his club needed him at his best, he was at his worst. It’s not a particularly long flight of cynicism to suggest that he was desperately attempting to save face with his own fans.
But at least he knew the story. At least he knew what the rivalry meant. At least he was genuinely upset at the result, so furious that resorted to petty point-scoring and what-aboutery. He was, for that short time, as much of a fan as anyone else in the stadium. That feeling, and perhaps not the gesture, is something to be welcomed.
Shelvey is not the only player to get into trouble for this sort of thing. In 1995, Paul Tait was fined two weeks wages for lifting up his Birmingham City shirt to reveal a ‘S**t on the Villa’ t-shirt underneath. In 1999, Geordie midfielder Lee Clark was photographed outside a pub full of Newcastle supporters wearing a ‘Sad Mackem Bastards’ t-shirt, an awkward situation for Clark given that he was on Sunderland’s books at the time. In 2006, Gary Neville was fined for celebrating Manchester United’s late winner over Liverpool by thrusting his crotch in the direction of their supporters.
Neville complained bitterly to the Football Association after his punishment, asking the authorities if they wanted a sport played by emotionless robots. He might have gone further and pointed out that with rising wages straining the already frayed bonds between players and supporters, that a bit of shared passion could actually be a good thing. After all, if you’re paying a significant chunk of your wages to watch football, it’s nice to know that the players care as much as you.
Harry Redknapp once complained that he had too many players in his Tottenham squad who didn’t care about anything after the full time whistle. Even after a crucial defeat, he said that there were players would crack jokes while getting changed, put on their over-sized headphones and then scamper off for a night on the town. Shelvey’s gesture was unwise, but I think on the whole, I’d rather have that than empty-hearted apathy.
Shelvey's Swansea travel to Kuban Krasnodar in the Europa League on Thursday. Back them here.
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