FA's violent reaction to a rum punch

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W HAT dissenting adults do in the privacy of their own penalty area surely isn't worthy of creating the level of hysteria that has been ringing in our ears since the Blackburn Rovers players Graeme Le Saux and David Batty clashed during their Champions' League match against Spartak Moscow in the bitterly cold Luzhnike Stadium on Wednesday.

Denouncements of their personal tiff, during which Le Saux landed one blow and hurt his hand, have been not only noisily delivered from various quarters but with a degree of gravity we should be saving for football's first on-field murder; an event that can no longer be excluded from our expectations.

The incident, which the average policeman would be inclined to dismiss as a "domestic", took place early in the game and has completely overshadowed facets of that night about which we should be more concerned; such as our champions again being comprehensively stuffed in attempting to represent us at Europe's highest level, and that the Blackburn centre-back Colin Hendry was sent off for the more commonplace, therefore less interesting, offence of flooring an opponent.

This is not an attempt to excuse what occurred, and certainly not because Le Saux is a regular contributor to these pages (he can be found in reflective mood on page 25). What happened was a ridiculous spat. Regrettable, it undoubtedly was. A sad indictment on the state of British football it wasn't.

How can an isolated and aberrant incident that reflects badly on one player's self-control and one club's team spirit and discipline be taken as a reflection on the entire nation? It doesn't compare with the butting and elbowing that has been marring events in Scotland and neither does it measure up in seriousness to the pitched battle that took place on and off the pitch when Birmingham City played in Ancona recently.

When it comes to matters deserving of a collective blush, there has been enough going on in dicey transfer transactions and boardroom misdealings to keep our cheeks rosy for the next decade. The hugely public controversy at present splitting Chelsea between millionaires is less likely to set an example of club harmony than to prove that not only does money fail to buy happiness, it also falls well short of the purchase price of decorum.

Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of all this commotion that caused such a sensitive reaction to the Le Saux outburst. What was extraordinary was that the national hand-wringing was led not by sportswriters trained to get hysterical for a living but by the Football Association. Their call to Uefa asking for strong action was astounding. It had the tone of an admission that since we can't control our players, would they mind doing it.

They have now ensured that Uefa will feel obliged to do something. But will they be that bothered? Far from shocking the Continent, the sight of two English internationals falling out with each other so spectacularly would have sent guffaws echoing from the Urals to the Mediterranean. Had Le Saux thumped a Russian it would have been serious, but you cannot compare it with an assault on a team-mate.

We took it far more seriously, and a flock of spokesmen rushed to get in on the act. There is a flourishing market for indignation these days, but the trouble with professional spokesmen is that unless they are putting their spoke in they do not feel they are justifying their existence. One of the main reasons proffered for this flurry of dismay was that the incident might affect the ration of places that England are given in next season's European competitions.

England had an extra place this year because of their fair play record. But why should that now disappear? How can you be fairer to an opponent than by fighting among yourselves? Uefa are bound to take into consideration the fact that all three Spartak goals came from the flank on which Le Saux and Batty should have been harmonising.

As for setting an example, even impressionable little boys know that people who live in close proximity are apt to fall out in times of stress. Have they not seen their parents in conflict? Have they not been clouted by their elder brothers or sisters? What we saw on Wednesday was not a manifestation of some unfathomable national malaise. It was a reminder that even in the best-run teams not all is harmonious. For every passionate embrace that follows a goal, there are a dozen dirty looks and indelicate mutterings.

Le Saux suffers from the undoubted handicap of being an intelligent and sensitive man. That is not always an easy persona to carry through the rough and raucous world of professional football. In the nightmare that has so far accompanied his club this season, he has been the first to crack. This is not the stuff of national disgrace. The FA might feel obliged to punish him but it is a problem best left to Blackburn to solve. Sadly for the champions, it is one of many.

T HE introduction of profes- sionalism, as ordained by the Rugby Football Union, continues to be a tantalisingly slow and highly selective process. While the clubs and their players are forced to strain at the leash until next season, the England squad are already counting the rewards of their labours and now they are to be joined by their guides and mentors.

The England manager Jack Rowell and his fellow selectors Les Cusworth and Mike Slemen will share in the pounds 1.5m set aside for international players this season. And so they should; but it is odd that the union can waive the rules in favour of those whose services they urgently need but deny the benefits of rugby's new age to anyone else. The attitude is doing nothing to soothe the rebellious mood of the clubs.

Rob Andrew is no doubt delighted that his former team-mates can cash in at last on their efforts for England, but it is ironic that while they do so, the man who has made the most telling contribution to England's successes in the last decade should be unable to play competitive rugby for his new club, Newcastle. The 120-day rule is denying Andrew, as it is many others, and for no easily discernible purpose.

Among the other victims of the RFU's rearguard action are Harlequins and the former All Black full-back John Gallagher who played rugby league for Leeds and London Broncos. Gallagher could step straight into union in Wales - indeed he made an impressive appearance alongside Jonah Lomu in Ieuan Evans's testimonial at Llanelli on Tuesday - but it will be September 1996 before he can play in England. Quins reckon it would be easier if he joined a Welsh club and then transferred to them under the 120-day rule. Kent, for whom Gallagher is qualified to play, are threatening to defy the ruling and pick him for their county championship game against Hampshire on Saturday.

It reminds me of the Hollywood war films in which the Americans would win a battle against the Japanese and then, when they moved among the dead bodies, up would pop a Japanese to shoot a couple. We might think the old farts have been vanquished, but they're still capable of bagging a victim or two.