Bigwigs can dine out on lost opportunities

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The Independent Online
ANY ladies peeved at not being allowed to attend tonight's strictly male Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner ought to take some consolation from the fact that at least it is not a dinner-dance because then their exclusion would be really worrying. Not that we should make light of the PFA's reluctance to acknowledge that women are occupying key roles in the game outside of the wives' enclosure, but this is likely to be an important occasion for more serious reasons.

It is regrettable, therefore, that the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, and the Football Association's chief executive, Graham Kelly, are boycotting the dinner. Much as we may encourage them to get as many entries as possible in God's Bumper Book of Political Correctness Gestures, there is some urgent houskeeping to be done in our football at the moment, and there is no other annual event to which the top players turn up in such attentive numbers.

A spokesman for Banks said that the Minister never attends events from which women are excluded - so that's why he wasn't at the winter league dinner at our golf club on Friday - but as laudable as such a stance may be, there are times when his presence ought to be governed by the priorities of his job, not of his conscience.

A public protest would have sufficed to make the point and he and Kelly, the game's leading administrator, could have been present to hear Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA, deliver a state of the union speech that is likely to drive home a few home and away truths to his members and to the game at large.

Taylor's outburst coincides with a report that he is the highest paid union official in the country. His reward for looking after the interest of 3,500 professional footballers who play at various levels is more than pounds 400,000 a year, which puts the former Bolton winger well ahead of any other union leader - although, of course, he is a long way behind many of his Premiership members.

But whatever branch of football administration Taylor had chosen - and he was once close to being appointed to the top job in the old Football League - he would have reached those heights where pay packets are swollen beyond belief. Since he took over the PFA in 1981, the organisation has grown in strength and influence and their intervention has saved several clubs from extinction.

Neither have the players ever suffered from a lack of a forthright voice in support of their cause. However, Taylor's opinions, reported by Brian Scovell in the Daily Mail last week, carried a more objective tone when he appealed to everyone connected with the game to calm down and reduce the intensity that surrounds football.

In the aftermath of a succession of incidents, which have included the death of a supporter, pitch invasions and attacks on a referee and a linesman, he called on players and managers to stop getting so wound up and to start accepting decisions of referees, no matter how wrong they thought they were.

He criticised the demented manner of some managers who harass referees in the hope of influencing their decisions and then he slammed the pressures that managers were put under. Directors should tell them that they don't need to scream and shout, he said.

Taylor didn't avoid his members when spraying the denouncements around. He appealed to players to stop running off the pitch to celebrate goals with their fans because it can antagonise rival supporters. And he was critical of players who refuse to leave the pitch when shown the red card.

"The referee's job is getting harder than ever and we have to help them by accepting their decisions - not just for the benefit of the manager's blood pressure but for the general health of the game," he said.

Similar views have been often aired in this space but sound more substantial when the source is so close to those whose lack of control is central to the game's hair-trigger temper. No matter how much you change the rules and call for referees to have electronic assistance, each game requires a multitude of decisions and one man has to make them in split-seconds.

The only hope for the game is for everyone concerned to accept that a goal is not a goal, a penalty not a penalty or a foul not a foul, unless and until the referee says it is. If they want to argue about it, they should do it where the rest of us do it; in the boozer afterwards.

Taylor is right to warn that the louder the clamour and the wilder the frenzy that those in the game create, the more acute the danger that football will boil over. "Violence nearly got the game stopped in this country," he says. "We all have our part to play in making sure crowd trouble doesn't return."

If the force and tone of the views he expressed last week about football's troubles is carried through into his address tonight, it is a downright shame that two such important figures as Banks and Kelly will not be there; even if all they do is to nod sagely at the appropriate times.

WISDEN, the most prized and pored over of all sporting annuals, came out firing from both hips last week. The editor, Matthew Engel, has selected targets as diverse as the growing rumours that one-day internationals are fixed for betting purposes, and the MCC for staging a Diana, Princess of Wales, memorial match at Lord's on Dr W G Grace's 150th birthday.

He writes that no one doubts that this gambling takes place or that cricketers are involved, and he calls for the International Cricket Council to try to discover the truth. As for Princess Diana, Engel points out that her connection with cricket was somewhat remote and is sorry that "the MCC has, uncharacteristically, opted for the obsession of the moment rather than a rare chance to honour English cricket's most illustrious star".

Wisden - or to give it its full name, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, 135th Edition (John Wisden, pounds 27.50) - also takes swipes at Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, for not having the courage to fight for his county cricket reforms and to the spread of nastiness from Test cricket into schools matches. Under Engel's editorship it has become cricket's most effective biting force. They ought to rename it the Wisden Teeth.

The decision by appeal judges that a golfer, even if he shouts "Fore", is liable for damages if he strikes someone with a mishit ball will be worrying many golfers this weekend, me included.

Our worries are compounded by figures just released by Golfplan Insurance, who themselves have four personal liability claims pending settlement. The number of hospitalised golfing accidents reported by the DTI over the eight years up to 1995 was 65,537, an average of more than 8,000 a year.

The injuries requiring hospital treatment in 1995 were: Striking contact (club and ball), 2,486; fall on course, 1,097; acute over-exertion, 310; crushing/piercing eg thorns, 110; bites/stings, 147; others 1,426.

As a frequent mishitter I've long been aware of the danger I pose. Now I don't know who to worry about most - myself or the others.