by Jack Howes

We’ve come to this time of year again. It’s getting darker earlier, people are starting to wear again the fleeces and jackets neglected for the last few months, the big reality TV shows are starting again (timed so they have a Christmas finish), the party conferences are about to give MP’s a week by the beach, England have had their obligatory post major tournament poor performance and last of all, we have our annual John Terry Handshake Controversy.

John Terry inspires tabloid headlines like how a murderer on the run inspires a random appearance by Paul Gascoigne, armed with chicken, beer and fishing rod. Not of all that is Terry’s fault of course, especially as we don’t know how true the various allegations against him in the past have been, though mouthing the words ‘stupid black c**t’ whatever the context, isn’t on a set of guidelines on how to keep yourself out of the newspapers.

The effect of all of John Terry’s various shenanigans though, has been to make the seemingly harmless act of shaking hands with the opposition team before a match now have all the pantomime will-he, won’t-he drama of a love triangle in a low quality Australian soap. Will they shake hands? Will they fight? Will they blank each other? Will they have an arm wrestle? Will they give the other person a Chinese burn? Will they recite to each other Albert Rosenfield’s non-violence speech from Twin Peaks?

This week, its England’s Brave John Terry and Anton Ferdinand engaging in a will-they, won’t they charade. Terry is expected to be fit after missing England’s qualifier with Ukraine, meaning he will come face to face with Anton Ferdinand, the guy he was tried in court in the summer for racially abusing last season. Terry was acquitted but was nonetheless subsequently charged by the FA, meaning despite the incident taking place almost a year ago it is still being investigated.

Whether Terry and Ferdinand, along with Ashley Cole shake hands is up to them. If I felt I had been abused because of my race, gender, sexuality etc, would I shake the alleged abuser’s hand? Would I shake the hand of the abuser’s alibi if I felt he had not been totally truthful? No. If Terry or Cole feel Ferdinand lied in turn, they have every right to not shake his hand.

But it’s not that which troubles me. What troubles me about this is how preposterous the ‘tradition’ of shaking hands before a match is. I say tradition, it’s something that only started in 2004. For the decades before that, football managed somehow to get by without opposition players shaking hands before a game.

Shaking hands before the match is the ultimate hypocrisy. Footballers will shake an opponent’s hand then ten minutes dive and play act to try and get that person booked. They’ll follow up a handshake, with its façade of sportsmanship and fair play and then plant an elbow in their opponent’s face going up for a header. It’s a nonsense.

It’s also very English to make a fuss about shaking hands, even get to the point where slow motion replays were employed to debate whether Luis Suarez had really refused to shake the hand of Patrice Evra, but not make a fuss about more serious issues. A dangerous two-footed tackle which risks breaking an opponent’s leg is seen as ‘going for the ball’, elbowing an opponent is seen as ‘commitment’, but not shaking hands is seen as a national disgrace. Tackles that endanger the welfare of opponents are hardly frowned upon while the issue of a handshake gets all the attention (something I myself I guess am guilty of). Pretending to be sportsmanlike while really looking to gain every possible advantage, by fair means or foul, is a very English trait.

If you want to genuinely introduce the concept of ‘fair play’ to British football, be serious about it. Instruct referees to book players for dissent, book players for diving, take a hard line on dangerous tackles. All a pre-match handshake does is occupy time before kick-off which allows TV to go to adverts just before kick-off without having the players stand around needlessly for a minute. Incidentally, do you think a pre-match handshake that happens to allow TV to more easily go to commercials is a co-incidence?

It’s got to the point where I start to wonder if the Premier League only stick with the pre-match handshake because they want controversy. They want the extra headlines and extra viewing figures generated by a juicy scandal.

We live in an era where websites, even those of respected newspapers, will print garbage that’s contrary for the sake of being contrary to attract readers and website hits. The Guardian will publish an article on its website for example against abortion and promptly attract hundreds of angry comments. An article about the Suarez/Evra affair will get hundreds of comments while an article actually about football will get a third of the attention. On TV, reality shows will be edited to be as scandalous and create as many hate figures as possible. Shows and content will be deliberately made to be as bad as possible. The modern media is often a particularly large re-enactment of The Producers.

Bearing this in mind, is it beyond the realms of possibility that the Premier League want these controversies? They want the press and internet forums to go ballistic at the prospect of John Terry and Wayne Bridge and whether they will shake hands or not. They want the extra media attention, the extra television viewers and the extra revenue this of course brings.

All publicity is good publicity may be a cliché, but could it be true in this case?