I’m innocent. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. You’ve got it wrong. It was his fault not mine.
These are all familiar involuntary reactions we associate with naughty children told off by someone in authority. Often the first thought, even when guilt is patently obvious, is to go into a state of denial.
Do professional footballers behave any differently than kids in hot water? I think not. With self-interest the only thing that truly matters at the time, it’s never their fault.
Jonny Evans insists he just happened to spit in the same direction as Papiss Cisse. Diego Costa innocently mistook Emre Can for a piece of grass. Pre-apology, if you play back Steven Gerrard’s initial response to his red-card challenge on Ander Herrera last weekend, you’ll see the Reds skipper throw his hands into the air and claim the Spaniard was exaggerating.
Someone else or the universe is always to blame when a footballer thinks he’s in trouble. No one teaches it, but it’s an in-built reaction. Players will do whatever it takes to avoid punishment for themselves, and their team.
Right now Martin Skrtel feels hard done by. Not only did he (have the audacity to) appeal the FA charge against him for treading on David de Gea’s shin on Sunday, he also (shamelessly) published a picture of three clowns on his Instagram page yesterday - just moments before it became public that an independent panel had banned him for three matches.
Was his disbelief in their verdict understandable? Personally, I don’t think so.
As a player, I chased down hundreds of balls with goalkeepers and I’d say 95 per cent of the time it’s easy to avoid a collision. At Anfield there were no surprise movements from the Spanish custodian, his motion was in full view of Skrtel all along, and nothing about his pathway to the scene altered at the last second to distract the Reds man.
It happened too fast to be premeditated, but I still find it unfeasible that Skrtel couldn’t have at least tried to plant his foot earlier, later, or to one side. If there was the slightest shred of evidence to suggest he’d attempted to twist his boot, shift his body, or hop away from contact I’d defend him, but there wasn’t. In my view the independent panel’s unanimous guilty verdict was the right one.
I’m no mind reader and only he knows, but my inkling is that Martin Skrtel was fed up and frustrated at how the match had gone, and for a split-second he let dark thoughts take over.
When you play these flash points back at full speed they whizz by in a blur, but a footballer is still very much conscious when they have ‘left something’ on an opponent.
I did it on occasion. Anyone that can remember seeing me play would probably be surprised to hear I ever made a tackle, but even so I can hazily recall at least three or four moments when I took revenge on someone, or let out my angst on a member of the opposite team with a spot of instantaneous but deliberate ‘afters’. Not leg-breakers, just a mark to let them know I wasn’t a pushover.
If you’re on the receiving end it’s easy to differentiate between accidents and intentional fouls, and this is why we saw De Gea confront Skrtel at Anfield.
The Slovakian’s response was to bite back at the United man in an accusatory manner himself. Here, his self-defence mechanism kicked in. It was part of the blame deflection process. From my experience, most players will hold their hands up straight away and say sorry if they’ve genuinely caught someone by accident.
From time to time footballers let off steam, they take it too far, and then they do their level best to wriggle out of it.
It happens at all levels of the game, and Skrtel is by no means the first or last to protest their innocence, even when the evidence tells a different story. No player wants to be seen to be nasty. They just are, sometimes.
A culture of shifting the blame is rife within football, and sadly I don’t see it changing any time soon.
That said, once the dust has settled and his emotions have cooled, I hope Skrtel accepts that if anyone has behaved like a clown this week, it’s him, not the guys on the independent panel.