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Karen Carney: no winners in Covid comment controversy

It is easy to see why Carney's comments on Amazon Prime caused frustration, but Leeds shot themselves in the foot with their initial reaction, says Josh Ramsbottom.

England U21 v Andorra U21 - UEFA Euro Under 21 Qualifier
Former Chelsea and England striker Karen Carney, now a football pundit, came under fire last night after suggesting Leeds were only promoted to the Premier League because of the break provided by the coronavirus lockdown.
Photo by Sam Bagnall - AMA/Getty Images

One of the more frustrating aspects of Leeds United's promotion to the Premier League has been the media coverage. How many times has a physical burnout been foretold without any evidence of it occurring at Elland Road? How many pundits have exposed their lack of researching while analysing the club? Although the quality of football has significantly improved this year, the quality of journalism has arguably taken a dip.

The latest chapter of controversial media analysis erupted last night following the Whites' brilliant 5-0 victory at West Bromwich Albion, which was aired by Amazon Prime. Karen Carney, a former professional football player, stirred anger on social media when she suggested that Leeds may not have been promoted from the Championship this year were it not for the three month break in football due to the coronavirus lockdown.

“They out-run everyone and credit to them. My only concern would be will they blow up at the end of the season?” She said. “We saw that the last couple of seasons. I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it gave them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they would have got up if they didn’t have that break.”

There is no doubt that what the 33-year-old said was contentious, to say the least. Leeds’ downfall in the 2018/19 season was culminated by a mental drop off, not a physical one. Given that the previous year the same group of players had not yet been introduced to the intensity and physically demanding nature of Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics, it was not entirely surprising in retrospect. It was also not the first time the club had fallen at the final hurdle in recent seasons (see Garry Monk’s single campaign in charge).

Meanwhile, the Whites went into the spring lockdown on the back of five successive victories, during which they had not conceded once. This represented a remarkable recovery from the poor form in and around the festive period, and it seemed unlikely that a physical decline was in the making at Elland Road considering the squad had been training under Bielsa for almost two years.

When pundits make such controversial comments, particularly when they seemingly belittle the achievement of a club’s long awaited promotion to the Premier League, they can expect the same scrutiny that they would dish out to a player or a manager on the back of a poor performance. Carney was far from the first pundit to question whether Bielsa’s style of play is sustainable, and the longer the list grows, the more tiring the conversation becomes.

The former Chelsea and England forward was also not the first pundit to be called out for a controversial media appearance. Gabby Agbonlahor, formerly a striker at Aston Villa and now a pundit at talkSPORT, was met with a similar tweet in October following Leeds’ 3-0 victory over the Villans. Craig Wilson, the social media manager at Elland Road, also had fun revisiting various tweets from the club’s Championship-winning campaign that he had bookmarked, ensuring that Leeds had the last laugh over the likes of Nottingham Forest.

However, the differing contexts of these situations must be considered. Agbonlahor made the decision to repeatedly troll Leeds fans on Twitter throughout the buildup to the meeting with Aston Villa. Carney had no prior associations with the Peacocks before her appearance on Amazon Prime last night, and as controversial as her comments were, it was not her intention to belittle Leeds or rile up the club’s fans.

Another difference between the Carney and Agbonlahor debates is that the latter was proved wrong. In the build-up to Leeds’ 3-0 win, the former Premier League forward suggested that Bielsa was overrated, and that “we should be rolling out the carpet for Dean Smith” if people were so excited about the Argentine boss. Therefore, Bielsa marshalling a comfortable victory over Smith’s side was the perfect response.

While Leeds may not have physically burnt out in Bielsa’s maiden campaign in English football, they can not yet prove Carney - and those who have come before her - wrong when they question whether the Whites can last a season playing as they do in the top-flight. Proving them wrong on the pitch is the best way forward, and returning to these comments at the end of the season rather than calling them out immediately may be one way to avoid future controversies.

A theme related to the comparison between Carney and Agbonlahor - one that has made this debacle particularly explosive - is gender. Fans have rightly pointed out that last night’s tweet from the official account was not a one-off, and that anyone who plays down the club should be prepared for a backlash, regardless of gender. They also had the right to argue that gender should have nothing to do with the matter in the first place. Ideally, it would not.

Unfortunately though, sexism is still undeniably prevalent within the football industry, and one look at some of the replies below Leeds’ tweet proves this. The club’s social media team will have known (or at least should have known) that by hitting send, they would be running the risk of exposing Carney to sexist abuse; it is no secret that the likes of Twitter provide a platform for toxic and discriminative views to be aired. As satisfying as the calling out of Agbonlahor was, even that resulted in racist remarks.

It is the torrent of sexist abuse spouted in the direction of Carney that has resulted in a new wave of bad press for a club which has worked tirelessly to improve its image. As iconic as the ‘Dirty Leeds’ badge is to fans, the club has long yearned to distance itself away from it and its connotations. Instead of the brilliance of the Whites’ five star performance against West Brom, it is the controversy of Leeds’ tweet that is being discussed. Although there were no hostile intentions from the club, some were always going to perceive the tweet as offensive, and this will continue to distract from the many positives coming out of Elland Road.

Leeds will subsequently ask themselves whether weighing in on the debate was really worth it, especially when Carney was already on the receiving end of a significant backlash from fans. Although her comments were frustratingly lazy in the eyes of many, those outside of the Leeds fanbase may not possess the same opinion. They have made a step in the right direction with their statement this afternoon, but they must learn from this situation in order to avoid having any further gloss taken away from their performances on the pitch, and their excellent community work off it.

Many people may have first come across Leeds United when finding last night’s tweet, which went viral. Rather than their first experience of the club being the brilliant football they play, or the commendable charity work they do, it was a post laden with sexist comments underneath it, and something that could be perceived as a pile-on. One of the problems with Twitter is that when a post goes viral, it also amplifies the comments underneath it, these may not be Leeds’ fault but as an official Twitter account that does need to be considered.

It is not a question of whether the club should be allowed to publicly defend itself against pundits’ analysis. It is a question of the impact such reactions have on both the individuals involved and the club’s reputation.

There were better ways to go around this. Regardless of whether it was right or wrong for the club to intervene the way it did, it has ultimately damaged its public image. All we can hope for now is that all parties involved have learnt from this experience, and that we can move on and deal with future scenarios in a less controversial manner.


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