Football: Cole salves ego with unforgivable outburst

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IN 1924 George Bernard Shaw covered an exhibition baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants in London for a newspaper. Anticipating anthropologists and psychologists who would direct their attention to games, Shaw wrote this mocking introduction:

"It is a noteworthy fact that kicking and beating have played so considerable a part in the habits of which necessity has imposed on mankind in past ages that the only way of preventing civilised men from kicking and beating their wives is to organise games in which they can kick and beat balls."

How, one wonders, would Shaw have viewed sport today, the incessant clamour of its projection across the airwaves and in newspapers, its supposed social significance.

According to an article in this newspaper's media section on Tuesday, a quarter of all pages in general newspapers in the United Kingdom are taken up by sport, compared with just 10 per cent devoted to politics, seven per cent to crime and five per cent to entertainment and the arts.

No longer simply escapism, the "magnificent irrelevance" of Hugh McIlvanney's perception, sport today is considered to be so elevated in public appraisal that issues of no great consequence are presented like disturbances in the solar system.

Yesterday, for example, the Sun newspaper carried on its front page the revelation that an agent representing Andy Cole of Manchester United has fired off a complaint to the Football Association following his client's omission from the squad assembled by England's coach, Glenn Hoddle, for last night's match at Wembley against the Czech Republic.

Cole, it seems, is most put out by Hoddle's assertion, first advanced before the World Cup, that the ratio of goalscoring opportunities taken to opportunities made is not in his favour. Hoddle is not alone with this point of view but as when stating that Michael Owen is not a natural goalscorer - meaning the Liverpool prodigy is not a poacher, an Ian Rush or a Gerd Muller - he has suffered again from clumsiness in exposition.

However, for Cole to declare that Hoddle's statements about him are "cowardly", to add that they are "diabolical and disrespectful" is unforgivable, a reason for anyone in their right mind to think twice about coaching England in the future.

Once something like this starts, there is bound to be more debate about its possible outcome than the rights and wrongs of Cole's case, whether he had a right to think himself ahead of Dion Dublin and Ian Wright in Hoddle's mind when injuries prevented Owen and Alan Shearer from playing.

Not so long ago, it was stated in this space that footballers, and for that matter performers in other fields of sport, have developed a boring habit of running off at the mouth whenever something comes along to bruise their egos.

Last week the Arsenal left-back Nigel Winterburn responded caustically to George Graham's pretty obvious conclusion that the vaunted defence he put in place at Highbury cannot last much longer. "Nigel has been around long enough not have got involved," Graham said.

Often these days, you have to wonder how great football managers from the past, men who never allowed their authority to be questioned, would cope in the present circumstances.

Doubtless, with more difficulty than they ever allowed for, although it has to be imagined that Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley would have prevented the erosion of values that are at the root of Liverpool's problems.

What they and their contemporaries understood, and it applies as much today as it did then, is that many footballers are naturally inclined to expand every inch they are given. "Play every angle before the angles start playing you," was the sound basis of Brian Clough's philosophy.

Shortly after Graham's recent appointment as Tottenham manager, I fell into conversation with one of their old players about the past recruitment of a fitness coach who was not opposed to occasional outbreaks of hedonistic behaviour. The training for anyone who came in under the weather would be tailed off accordingly. "Smiles broke out in the dressing-room," I was told, "and one of the players said, `I have been waiting for this guy all my career.'"

As for Andy Cole, he should wash out his mouth with carbolic soap and get on with proving that he is as good as his agent thinks he is.