It might be said that Kristoffer Ajer has been at the winking eye of a storm this week. All because of a pile-on from the football fraternity of Aberdeen, and indeed many among the wider commentariat, about the actions of the Celtic defender to a challenge from Sam Cosgrove that earned the striker a red card last weekend.
Ajer might want to focus on this afternoon’s crucial derby but, in previewing his club’s hosting of Rangers, he was forced to explain himself over an incident that everyone else and their auntie has had their say on in recent days. And it is fair to say that the 21-year-old offered a straight-back-at-you to Scottish football over the attempts to place the focus on him over Cosgrove’s both-feet-in-the-air steam-in to take the ball from him that prompted a dismissal upheld on appeal.
Ajer says he has been oblivious to the criticisms of his leg holding and rolling that followed the Aberdeen man jabbing the ball away from him at full pelt. He appears genuinely flummoxed at the furore over his actions, when the basic illegality of the challenge seems irrefutable to him.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes read the incident entirely differently, accusing Ajer of “grinning and winking” at Cosgrove, pictured, as he was on the ground when referee Euan Anderson raced over to brandish a red. His contention that Ajer made a meal of the – it should be said – minimal contact and so induce the official to produce the ultimate sanction doesn’t square with Anderson reacting instantly. But this viewpoint was endorsed by the club’s chairman Dave Cormack in a tweet sent from his US home late on Christmas Day in which he accused Ajer of “feigning injury”.
The apparent desire to conflate the transgressor with the transgressed for the Cosgrove sending off leads Ajer to the conclusion that the desperation to justify excessive force puts Scottish football out of kilter with the more enlightened attitude to the game in other lands. In a damning assessment, he goes as far as suggesting that ghettoising such physicality will make football in this country entirely unattractive to those who have not grown up in it. For this contention, Ajer also pointed to the willingness in some quarters to find fault with the red card shown to Hibernian defender Ryan Porteous for wiping out Rangers’ Borna Barisic a week past Friday at Easter Road.
“If you see the way I roll in the end, if you see the way he hits my leg, if I lean my leg on the floor I could be out for the rest of the season,” Ajer said. “For some reason, here in Scotland you almost have to keep your leg planted for it to be a red card, and this is the problem. Barisic could be out for the rest of the season. That is the honest truth. And if Scotland wants that to be the product here, no foreign players will come. That is the truth.”
Ajer had no understanding of the word “feigning” but maintains there was no attempt on his part to fool the referee.
“If you look at the tackle I am not really fooling the referee. He hits me with quite hard speed,” he said. “It feels like here in Scotland it is the thinking that someone has to get seriously injured for someone to get sent off. As a foreign player I can’t really understand that this tackle is even discussed really. From where I am from, if you come in with such speed you should be sent off. It is the same as the incident the day before with Barisic which, I have heard in the dressing room, is also being discussed. After seeing that one as well, I can’t believe it is even being discussed.
“That is a foreign player speaking. But I understand as well you want it to be a physical game and I love it to be a physical game as well, but I think there is a fine line between being a physical game and then being a dangerous game for your colleagues, as I see it. I think it is important to have a line there.”
Suggestions that he was “winking” – another term over which he had no appreciation – in the aftermath of Cosgrove’s red card he also dismissed out of hand… once it was demonstrated to him what constituted winking. “No, no, no,” he said. “I haven’t seen any of the comments. I was on the ground and he got sent off, which I got told, but no winks, if you mean that.”
Ajer might represent youth but seems to have been grateful this week that he does not have the obsession with social media common among his age group. Yet, despite everything, he is sanguine about McInnes and Cormack placing him in the firing line.
“I am not on social media at all. I have an Instagram account and that is it. I have not seen anything. Basically I have just been talking to my family and focusing on every single game. And preparing for the next game, which is Rangers and then we can have a great few days away from here. We just keep focusing and that is why this club is so strong.
“I have not a problem about getting negative comments or something like that. I focus on my game, I focus on what is important, which is trying to win every possible game for Celtic. If people want to come with negative stuff then they should just go on.
“If you played a lot of football you know that if I don’t see him I will put my right leg in the ground and try to accelerate away from the player but I can see him coming so I just keep the right leg lifted to avoid any injuries. So I am just happy that I saw him.”