If Roy Hodgson felt like banging his head against a brick wall the day he woke up to discover his charming but wildly naive tube excursion was all over the newspapers, complete with eerily unsettling photographs of the England manager smiling into the cameras of telephones that would shortly be contacting national newsdesks, it was nothing to the sinking feeling that Roberto Di Matteo encountered on being informed mid-press conference that Ashley Cole had just tweeted his verdict on the Football Association.
The Chelsea full-back apologised for his petulant reaction, as did Hodgson for his rather less forgivable public discussion of Rio Ferdinand's international future, but in both cases the damage had already been done. That's life these days. Instant judgment, instant dissemination. You can try to go back and cover the traces but people know what they choose to remember.
Hodgson will not go down in English football folklore as a jolly man of the people who freely chats to fellow commuters on the way to work, any more than Christian Gross did at Spurs. He has just earned himself a reputation as a silly old duffer who did not realise that what used to be private conversations are now saleable commodities.
Cole has already gone down in English football folklore as a man of few words but some pithy and highly printable opinions, and thanks to Twitter the world can now share his latest intemperate outbursts long after he has thought better of them.
In his defence, at least Cole did not sit on the fence. The FA's commission effectively called him a liar – the section of their report detailing his evidence refers to the "evolution" of his statement – and if he objected to that most people would back his right to say so in the most forthright of terms. Many might go even further and argue that having delivered his pronouncement Cole should have stuck to his guns, even though it seems to have occurred to the player on the way home from the Chelsea treatment room – where he "saw the captions on the TV screens and tweeted my feelings in the heat of the moment" – that such a confrontational stance might not be the wisest course of action for an England international on 98 caps.
The FA seem positively eager to accept Cole's apology, perhaps recognising that mea culpas from the direction of Chelsea are almost collectable rarities, perhaps acknowledging that any major sanction such as curtailing his England career would be a farcical overreaction. Cole is a perfectly good left-back and the country would invite even more ridicule on itself were it to lose a third member of a once settled back line over events that either did or did not take place on the Queens Park Rangers pitch 12 months ago.
To recap what scarcely needs recapping, this sorry saga has already cost England the services of Fabio Capello, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, and adding Cole to the list would not only make the FA a laughing stock it would force Hodgson to consider his position, giving the story fresh legs which it might well use to run off in the direction of Harry Redknapp.
Cole will probably have to be fined – because Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 for his "choc-ice" tweet and it is important to appear even-handed – but after that the FA should just take the hit to try to draw a line under this apparently endless business. Likewise Terry should take the hint, forego his right to appeal, and get on with serving a suspension that now appears incongruously lenient.
While Cole's language might have been uncalled for, few could pretend that this entire matter has been handled well by English football. It has taken up a whole year, for a start, proving a major distraction to England's preparations for Euro 2012, and despite the FA's protestations that was not just because the police decided to get involved and take the matter out of their hands. The police investigation was not helpful, and neither was the convenient ease with which Chelsea managed to get the court proceedings shifted back until after the European Championship, but as the FA were ultimately to ignore the fact that Terry had been found not guilty in a court of law it is hard to understand why they spent the first nine months dithering. Especially when their eventual punishment of a four-match suspension amounted to little more than a wrist-slap in the context of the three-match bans routinely handed out for merely physical transgressions. Even at this late stage the FA are still sending out mixed messages, and it is incomprehensible to most people why they continue to publicise the fact that they do not consider Terry a racist.
Had they intervened and investigated at the earliest possible stage, there may even have been no need for police proceedings and unedifying courtroom revelations. The police only acted once a complaint had been received. It was none of their business until then, and it could be the case that the anonymous caller – or callers, though it is not thought there were many – may not have set the process in motion had the football authorities been seen to be dealing with it.
Sepp Blatter drew widespread condemnation a year ago when he suggested incidents of racist abuse on the pitch should be settled by a handshake at the end of the game, and though it was fair to draw the conclusion that the Fifa president was speaking from his usual Swiss mountain top with only a distant view of real life taking place at ground level, he had a point in maintaining that speed is of the essence in these matters. A handshake at the end of the game would not have patched up the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry quarrel, nor the Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra disagreement for that matter, but swift and business-like direction from the football authorities at the first sign of trouble might have prevented much of the unpleasantness that followed.
What the game must not do again is sit back and let the clubs take charge, because that is how you end up with Liverpool's now notorious T-shirt gesture at Wigan last season, Suárez declining to shake Evra's hand at Old Trafford, and Chelsea prolonging everyone's agony by getting Terry's court case put back until the end of the season. Meanwhile the two players worked on statements that would end up being dismissed as implausible.
Wounds that are not treated immediately tend to fester, and before the Ferdinand-Terry case we hardly knew what festering meant. Considering the QPR player never heard the alleged insult at the time it is astonishing how the matter has dragged on, and who it has dragged down. Drawing a line in the sand is not easy when the sand has the consistency of mud and keeps shifting beneath the feet, but let us hope that between them the FA commission's report and Cole's reaction mean the end of this tiresome business is somewhere in sight.
What we have all learned in the past 12 months is that racism in football needs to be taken seriously. What the game needs to do next is find a way to deal with it instantly. Follow the example of Hodgson's fellow commuters and Cole's instinctive recourse to Twitter, even when upset. Get it out there. Don't wait, act. There is nothing to be gained from hanging about.
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image: © Ian C