William Hardy, a 25-year-old electrician, embraced relatives as he left court. But he said of the incident in which Seamus Lavelle died: 'It's tragic. A man is still dead. I am relieved I have been cleared but I shall carry on grieving for him.
'I am still upset someone has died. This case has put a lot of pressure on me and my family but whatever I have gone through, Mrs Lavelle has been through a lot more.'
David Spens, for the prosecution, said Mr Hardy 'deliberately and unlawfully' knocked down Mr Lavelle with an uppercut to the jaw in March last year. Mr Lavelle's head hit hard ground. He died two days later in hospital.
Mr Lavelle, recently married, had been in Hendon's first team for 12 years.
Mr Hardy, of Chiswick, west London, a father of two, did not dispute he lashed out during the ill-tempered match between his West Drayton club Centaurs and Hendon, but he denied manslaughter, saying he had punched in self-defence.
'I threw a punch because I was receiving punches and thought I was likely to receive more. I did not mean to kill this man,' he said.
There were varying accounts during the trial of what had happened during the game, and allegations of other violent incidents, including raking and stamping. Mr Hardy told the court that as he approached what he thought was a ruck he saw one of his team being punched on the floor by about three Hendon players. 'I told the Hendon players to leave it out, we were playing rugby.'
But after his remarks one of the Hendon players turned and started going towards him. 'I thought he was going to hit me.'
Mr Hardy said he then received two blows very close together from behind which hit him on the back of his ear. 'I crouched and spun and threw a punch behind me. I thought I was going to get hit from behind again.'
He had allegedly told police afterwards: 'It was just one of those things that just flare up. It was simply a rugby incident - isn't it?'
Stephen Batten QC, for the defence, told the jury: 'At the moment rugby does not have a very good name. We have seen on television thoroughly unpleasant moments and some people think it is high time something should be done about it. But there is a risk this case should be used to make an example - that would be wholly wrong.'
Mr Hardy was the first player in the game's 171-year history to be prosecuted for manslaughter in relation to a death on the field.Reuse content