x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Dark forces? No, Gray ones

Double standards have been at the forefront of the sexism row involving Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

Andy Gray, who was fired by Sky for sexist remarks about the ability of a female referee.
Andy Gray, who was fired by Sky for sexist remarks about the ability of a female referee.

"Dark forces" were blamed this week for the sacking of Andy Gray, the former Aston Villa and Everton striker, from his plum job as a football pundit with Sky Sports television.

Gray, who has been the face and voice of the Premier League since its creation in 1992, was initially suspended by the broadcaster for suggesting that an assistant referee was too female to understand the offside rule.

This was a foolish notion. Just because the majority of women do not understand the offside rule, that does not mean they cannot. He made the comment off-air, on the reasonable assumption that it would not be leaked to the media. Wrong again, Andy.

Gray was then sacked when more off-air footage was leaked. This time, a smutty joke which demeaned his female co-presenter.

Football was divided. Some people in the game could not wait to berate Gray for his chauvinism.

These gallant knights include Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United defender, whose respectful attitude towards the fairer sex was famously captured on amateur video in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. (This, he later wrote in his autobiography, was "just lads on holiday having fun".)

Others sided with Gray, correctly pointing out that many female broadcasters in the UK make on-air sexist jibes about men.

Gray might be forgiven for thinking that his crime was not the sexism itself, but sexism toward women.

The suggestion of dark forces, however, is a red herring. It was made by Richard Keys, Gray's co-anchor at Sky, who was also recorded questioning the ability of female referees and revealing an attitude towards women as Neanderthal as his famously hirsute knuckles. He resigned the day after Gray was sacked.

Perhaps, by dark forces, Keys meant that Gray was targeted because of his court action against a newspaper owned by Sky TV's parent company.

Perhaps he simply meant the dark forces of office politics: after all, somebody in the organisation had enough of a grudge to hoard those damaging clips.

But I favour a more simple explanation than plots in smoke-filled rooms. Gray was a victim of football's relentless and hypercritical atmosphere which he helped to create.

Thanks to the pioneers at Sky, no mistake by a player or referee goes unscrutinised.

Instead it is replayed from every possible angle, at every speed, with ceaseless analysis and judgement. Nor are these errors quietly forgotten. No, they are lovingly stored and catalogued, to be dusted down and rebroadcast at every opportunity: the next match, the reverse fixture, as comparison fodder for similar errors. Or sometimes just for fun.

This, thanks in large part to Sky, is modern football: a breathless, hyperbolic, judgemental, infinite narrative which feeds mainly on its own back story. Gray spent 20 years helping to build and feed this relentless mincing machine, then he got pulled in by his ... well, let's avoid a Gray-style comment and say it was by his microphone wire.

Had he stayed at Sky, he would have suffered the same exhaustive and hysterical judgment that is now applied to players, managers, referees and owners - and no longer by professional broadcasters alone but also the online mob.

Every utterance, past and present, would be tortuously inspected for the merest hint of misogyny. Every dubious phrase would be circled in red pen, like the hapless defenders or lazy forwards he used to circle in white.

Gray was not the victim of darkness but of a microscope's light. In short, Gray got Sky'd.


Murray plays his best tennis when his disposition is at its worst

Weird sporting fact #592. JD Salinger, the famous author of The Catcher In The Rye, was a big fan of Tim Henman, the British tennis player.

You might think that a famous misanthrope and creator of literature’s most precocious brat would have favoured the charms of Andy Murray.

But, no. According to newly discovered letters, Salinger approved of Henman’s good manners and yearned for him to win Wimbledon. (He probably did not know that Henman was disqualified from a Junior Wimbledon for lashing out in anger, accidentally striking a ballgirl. Catch Her In The Eye, if you will.)

Perhaps the author would have warmed to Murray had he not died three days before last year’s Australian Open final. Having just lost to Roger Federer, Murray wept. He even managed a self-effacing joke: “See, I can cry like Roger. If only I could play like him.”

Since then, it has been easier to root for Murray. He has seemed a fraction more human. Tomorrow he has another chance to win his first grand slam, again at the Australian Open, but this time against his friend, Novak Djokovic. To do this, he must stay Mr Angry.

Murray seems to play better when his back is against the wall, when he is furious with the world and proving his critics wrong.

In yesterday’s semi-final, for example, he squandered early chances to break David Ferrer’s serve and lost the set, only flourishing when it became a war of attrition (and when a troublesome leg injury forced him onto the offensive).

He will enter tomorrow’s final as the slight underdog. Hopefully this will put him on the back foot, where he clearly prefers to be, and put enough fire in his belly to win the thing.