It is a rare player who can protect himself with a suit of irony

MIKE ROWBOTTOM defends the players the fans Love to hate
THE master of ceremonies did his best to build the atmosphere before Charlton Athletic's play-off match on Wednesday night. "I want those players to hear you in the dressing-room," he exclaimed. "Come on, West Stand! What's happened to you? All Right! Now let's hear you, East Stand!"

Most of the 15,000 souls present responded dutifully, encouraged by the manic intervention of three drummers running around on the pitch like extras from a Ken Russell film. But all the noise was no more than dress rehearsal for an occasion which came truly alive a minute or so after the kick-off as Ipswich Town's piratical full-back, Mauricio Taricco, received the ball - and vehement boos from every red and white section of the ground.

It was The Valley's way of reminding the Argentinian that his controversial contributions in the first leg four days earlier had not been forgotten. Men, women and children carried out their obligation with the utmost diligence.

They booed Taricco each and every time he became involved in play, regardless of the rising fortunes of their own team. By the final minute, with Charlton 2-0 up on aggregate, the East, West, North and South stands had joined in joyful chorus - "Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we're going to Wem-berlee, que sera, sera." The Red Red Robins were bob-bob-bobbing along until, provocatively, the Ipswich No 3 accepted a pass from his captain, Jason Cundy.

Well, that was it, wasn't it? The songs were stilled, and the boos rang round the ground once more. Never mind Wembley, there was still important business to be done here.

Taricco's sins on Sunday, according to the Charlton fans, had included a late foul which had halted a promising breakaway, involvement in the incident which saw the Charlton full-back, Danny Mills, dismissed and a post-match scuffle. The fact that Taricco came out of the latter requiring stitches in a broken nose was clearly not regarded as being even a faintly mitigating factor.

It would be unfair to accuse the Charlton crowd of racism. But the fact that Taricco was an Argentinian - and an Argentinian with attitude, three- day stubble and a wild mane of hair - did not help his cause.

For certain players in this country, simply being different is enough to make them more vulnerable to abuse or, on occasions, disciplinary action. Earlier this season, I saw the exotic and impetuous David Ginola booked, amid a welter of unpunished nastiness, for... well, he was waving his arms about a bit, I suppose, and looking quintessentially French. Perhaps it was for persistent Gallicism.

Ginola, of course, has grown used to boos. All over the country, football supporters have set aside their inklings of admiration for his sublime talent and laid into him for being a diver, a drifter. A foreigner.

It was one of Jurgen Klinsmann's great achievements in the Premiership that he was able to acknowledge the reputation which had preceded him to England and to launch himself immediately into a pre-emptive strike. Every goal the German scored for Spurs was marked with an exuberant, self- parodying splashdown. But it is a rare player who can protect himself with a suit of irony.

What I find difficult to understand is this - why is it that football crowds have an infinite capacity to hold grudges against certain players for misdemeanours real or imagined without being equally particular in their recollection of positive contributions?

When the craggy centre-back receives the ball, why should spontaneous cheers not break out in commemoration of his crucial goalmouth challenge in the last match? When play sweeps across to the tricky little winger, why should there not be generous applause to mark his delightful dribble the previous Saturday. Perhaps it is because there is nothing quite like a good, cathartic hate session safely confined within the ritual of a sporting contest.

Those Charlton fans who strolled away from The Valley in midweek must have felt doubly happy. Natural feelings of excitement and anticipation would have been uppermost in their minds. But Taricco made it so much better. There was an unexpected delight for the home supporters towards the end of the game when the unfortunate full-back found himself with one of Ipswich's rare chances of scoring. His booming drive flew yards high, miles wide.

What could be better than that? As the ball landed high in the stand, thousands of jubilant people stood up and shook their fingers out like so many derisive Wurzel Gummidges. Ah, the beautiful game...