Stoke-on-Trent, March 2015: the resemblance to downtown Kabul is uncanny, only the biting cold winds coming in from the Urals tell you that you are not in Afghanistan or some other Middle Eastern war zone. After the collapse of the local economy, the far right (always pretty popular in these parts) are now in the ascendant and run the local council. As the EDL and The BNP have become emboldened and ambitious, Westminster has cut off funding alarmed at this rogue state within its own borders.

Of course this has given the more virulent racists even more licence to vent their deepest hatreds and the city blazes with nightly race riots. Even the students up on the hill at the nearby university are far from safe if any of them are foolish enough to come down to the city to do their shopping. Not that there is much to buy in the blighted shopping arcades, their once glossy surfaces now reflecting only wreckage and decay.

In the final tragic insult to the city’s pride 17 times World Darts Champion Phil Taylor has moved to Wolverhampton saying that he can’t stand to live in the city where he was born and raised. “I just don’t recognise the place anymore” wept The Power as he packed his bags. But how could all this come to pass in just a few short years?

For the answer to this we have to travel back in time to March 2012 and to a courtroom. A man in a baseball cap is on trial.

Stoke City manager Tony Pulis has been caught doing 96mph in his BMW in a 60mph zone, the potential punishment could see him exceed 12 penalty points and get a driving ban, his licence is literally on the line. As Pulis’ lawyer makes clear the ramifications are enormous, evoking every great courtroom drama from To Kill A Mockingbird to A Few Good Men he pleads,

“As a result of being in the Premier League it has put Stoke-on-Trent on the map. It has led to numerous businesses being set up. A number of them are totally reliant on Stoke City, and those businesses would suffer if they were relegated. The people of Stoke-on-Trent could suffer if Mr Pulis lost his licence and lost his job.”

Thankfully magistrate Donnie Clarke was swayed by the power of this rhetoric, Pulis kept his driving licence and the dystopian nightmare outlined above will not be visited upon Stoke-on-Trent.

An unkinder person than me might argue that a dystopian nightmare has already been visited upon Stoke-on-Trent but that would be getting off the point. I think Donnie the magistrate knew that Pulis was on shaky ground and revealed as much when he said,

“You will not be able to use this defence again in any other proceedings in the next three years.”

He may as well have said “you are obviously talking nonsense but seeing as you tried to come up with something better ‘than the dog at my homework’ I will let you off this time but you will have to try harder next time”.

Ignoring the fact that Pulis losing his licence would not mean that he would lose his job (does he drive the team bus to matches or something?), I will also ignore the fact that even if he did lose his job that would not mean that Stoke would be relegated. Perhaps they would thrive and be less of an eyesore? I will further ignore the fact that Stoke FC has not put the city on the map (maybe as a place to avoid) because they already had Josiah Wedgwood and Alton Towers.

Now I like football, a lot, it is quite simply the greatest sport ever invented and I also consider it an important social artefact… But when a lawyer can stand up in court, presumably with a straight face, and argue that Tony Pulis losing his driving licence will bring about the ruination of the local economy AND WIN then things have gone much too far. Is football’s sense of its own importance being reflected back to it too strongly by the wider society?

Granted that Pulis and his lawyer were simply trying any argument that would avoid a driving ban, but I still think it is striking that they would choose to use the argument of how important he is to society in order to escape punishment. He is a football manager for heavens sake, nothing more. How did Harry Redknapp manage to convince the jury in his recent tax case that he was innocent? Amongst other things I think there was a psychological factor at play, the jurors felt reluctant to convict the man that has been anointed (by his cronies in the media) as the next manager of the national side, too big to jail?

On a similar theme it is worth considering why John Terry’s trail for alleged racial abuse was put back to after Euro 2012. Could it be that it was deemed expedient to try the case after the tournament to avoid major disruption for the team in the build up?

Football and the wider society seems to be in some kind of weird feedback loop at the moment. The importance of the game appears to be getting magnified and then reflected back onto society and clearly some people are using this to their own advantage. It’s a funny old game.

by Nilesh Bhagat

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