It was a very mixed weekend for Leeds United fans. On the Saturday, the team beat Middlesbrough 2-1 to enter the play-off zone and maintain their recent good run. But on Sunday, we awoke to news that one of our number, in a coma for over a year since being attacked on a night out in Sheffield on the 11th November 2012, had sadly died without ever regaining consciousness. And at that point I have to say “Rest In Peace” to Richard Ismail, 45 years old, known to his friends as “Moody”. The thoughts of so many are with his family at this awful time. All of those who will be looking for justice to be done will be relieved to hear that, since a change of law in 1996, there is no longer a year-and-a-day cut off point for a charge of murder to be brought. There will therefore now be a murder investigation even though Mr Ismail’s death occurred over the old time limit after the attack. It’s understood that three individuals, widely believed to be fans of Sheffield Wednesday FC, are currently out on bail pending further possible action.
Under a month before the attack on Moody, Sheffield Wednesday had met Leeds United in a Championship fixture at Hillsborough Stadium. It was not an edifying spectacle. There were scenes of violence on the field as Wednesday’s scrum-capped central defender Miguel Llera charged around, putting in tackles that resembled various degrees of common assault. Leeds defenders, as is their wont, gave as good as their team-mates got. In the second half, just after United’s equalising goal, a lone Leeds fan ran onto the pitch and pushed a startled Wednesday keeper Chris Kirkland in the face causing him to fall and remain, shocked, on the ground. The moron responsible went back into the crowd, but was subsequently identified and prosecuted. Throughout the evening, both sets of fans breached the boundaries of good taste, Leeds fans taunting Wednesday manager David Jones over charges relating to alleged child abuse, of which he had been cleared years earlier. Wednesday fans for their part gleefully mocked the Leeds support over the deaths of two Leeds fans in Istanbul in the year 2000. It was a bad and disgusting day at the office and, sadly, it didn’t end at the final whistle.
After the match, the highly emotional Wednesday manager Jones, plainly trembling with anger and resentment, was asked about the condition of his goalkeeper Kirkland. Somewhat surprisingly, Jones paid little heed to this enquiry beyond acknowledging that the boy was shaken and claiming it had hindered his team from seeking a winning goal. He seemed far more concerned by the verbal abuse he had suffered, than by the physical attack on his goalkeeper. In an unrestrained on-camera performance, he castigated the Leeds fans, comparing their behaviour to “racism”, taking Leeds manager Neil Warnock to task for praising the fans’ support of the United team and ending by saying that the Leeds fans were “vile animals. All of them.” Warnock seemed bemused by such an outburst, shrugging it off, doubtless aware from experience that immediately after a match is not an ideal time for rational thought and reflection. Jones was quite specific, not to say selective in his attentions; he did not refer to the taunting of the Leeds fans by the Sheffield crowd over the Istanbul murders.
Because of the short time lapse between these shoddy events and the subsequent attack in Sheffield on Mr Ismail, the question has to arise: how much of what was said may have been in the minds of the protagonists on that fateful and ultimately tragic night? It is understood that Richard Ismail was out for the evening with his partner, and that his clothing identified him as a Leeds United fan. Or, let us not forget, as a “vile animal” in the minds of any Sheffield Wednesday fans daft enough, bone-headedly crazy enough, to have taken seriously what their club’s manager had said only a matter of weeks before.
Did those intemperate words still ring in the attackers’ heads? Were they, in their own warped minds, taking action against a “vile animal”? Did they, just possibly, feel that they were meting out some summary rough justice to a person identifiable with the fans who had taunted their own Mr Jones just the previous month? Who knows what goes through a thug’s head as he swings into action with like-minded accomplices, encouraged at outnumbering a lone target who is on a night out with his partner? But the question has to arise: if Mr Jones had been more circumspect in his remarks – or if, perhaps, a more decent interval had been allowed to elapse before any interview, to allow emotions to subside a little – might things not, just possibly, have turned out differently? Might this tragic episode possibly have been avoided?
It is, of course, impossible to say. But the factors are all there for anyone looking for any kind of cause and effect scenario – just as the lesson is there to be learned about thinking before you speak, and refraining at all costs from going on camera, to an audience of millions, and saying things that are unwise; things that are far too inclusive; not, in short, the kind of things a level-headed professional really wants to be caught on the spot saying. I remember being taken aback and more than a little shocked at the emotional vehemence of Jones’ performance in the post-match interview. It just seemed so disproportionate, so incongruous in someone who had been a professional in football and in the sphere of social care for many years; fair enough, he’d taken dog’s abuse over a matter that should have had a line drawn under it years before. But sadly, these things happen – whenever crowds gather and alcohol has been consumed. Sets of fans will go all out to bait each other, and they will raise the stakes in retaliation. It’s not nice, but it’s far from unknown – and it’s part of the cross a football manager, or indeed many other professionals in different areas of public life, just have to bear. That’s part of the reason they’re lavishly paid, part of the reason that it’s the tougher personalities that take these kind of jobs. And really – wasn’t there some sort of support for Jones, from within the Sheffield Wednesday club? He looked in need of it.
Still, Mr Jones didn’t appear inclined to withdraw his remarks even days later, although he did qualify them somewhat. But by then, any possible damage had already been done. The internet was buzzing, you heard about “vile animals” everywhere. Some Leeds fans took it as a perverse badge of honour, others were more than a little annoyed and offended. This latter group would post pictures of their cherubically cute 7 year old boy or girl in a mini Leeds shirt, asking “is this a vile animal, Mr Jones?” Feelings ran very high for quite some time afterwards, and I can’t get out of my head the possibility that they might still have been running high enough, a few short weeks later, to have been a factor in turning what should have been a family night out into an ordeal of over a year, ending in the untimely death of a man who had done nothing wrong.
I don’t know if Mr Jones’ thoughts have run along these lines, or – if they have – whether he’s admitted to himself that he could have applied a little more self-control, been a little less all-embracingly condemnatory of ALL Leeds United fans – every one of them. Because, in saying something like that, you just never know what notion you might plant in the pea-brain of some self-righteous moron who wants then to take revenge. And from there, it’s impossible to say what might happen. All we know is what did happen, and we know what was said – so publicly – just a short time before. Whether there was a relationship between the one and the other will be impossible to prove – but the sad fact is that there could have been. And if that doesn’t make the case for a bit more thought about the timing and content of these emotional post-match interviews, then I don’t know what does. It is now being speculated that the forthcoming meeting of the two clubs at Hillsborough in January – a game that will also be live on Sky TV – will be played out in an atmosphere even uglier than last year’s malevolent brew – if such a thing were possible. Given Jones’ currently-precarious position at Sheffield Wednesday, it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty whether he will still be in his job by then. Perhaps it really would be for the best if he’s gone.
What seems clear enough to me is that, when considering what led up to Mr Ismail’s tragic fate, it’s not possible to view David Jones’ heat-of-the-moment remarks purely in isolation. You throw a stone, and out spread the ripples, inevitably, unstoppably. If you speak on camera to thousands or millions, it behoves you to keep a check on what you say, and to bear in mind that your words will be interpreted in a variety of different ways, by a variety of different people, some more literal-minded than others. And, given that – when there’s a rabble out there eager to be roused – it’s just not worth the risk to let off steam to that extent. An event like Moody’s death puts starkly into context issues such as name-calling and the temporary catharsis offered by a hasty rant on camera. Maybe, in time, Mr Jones and others can reflect on the implications of what was said and what was done in Sheffield just over a year ago.
Richard Ismail “Moody” 1968-2013 RIP MOT