Football: Game needs saving from itself sometimes

LIBERO
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The Independent Online
THERE are certain memories that money can't buy, though I remember the cost of the terrace ticket being trebled to 15 shillings. To this youngster, it was worth every penny of his father's hard-earned cash, as well as the detention for missing school.

In 1970-71 Yeovil Town of the Southern League were drawn in the FA Cup's third round at home to Arsenal. As I recall, there was no talk of switching the game to Highbury from the Huish slope that had accounted for Sunderland in 1948, even when the game had to be postponed on the Saturday thanks to a frozen pitch.

Because of inadequate floodlighting, the match was re-arranged for an afternoon during the next week - not 10 days after. You needed to be in the ground two hours before kick-off to secure a decent place on the terraces among the 15,000 capacity but you cared not just to watch the team that would go on to the win the Double warming up, let alone catch a glimpse over all the heads of John Radford scoring twice and Ray Kennedy once in the 3-0 win.

Thankfully, in most ways, the game has moved on from then. Out of tragic experience, grounds are safer and less cramped. Yeovil's own new stadium testifies to the improvement and as much will be seen when Stevenage's Broadhall Way plays host to Newcastle United in a fortnight's time, courtesy of the FA's correct decision on Friday to insist the match is played there, having heard how the ground is properly graded and safety concerns have been satisfied.

There are ways in which English football should not move on for the sake of its own soul, however, and this was one of them. It is not overstating the issue to say that the tie going ahead as drawn was a test case and central to the culture of our football.

The League Cup has already been devalued - though all of a sudden the bigger clubs are beginning to take an interest, with Manchester United otherwise dominating every competition they take seriously - and the FA Cup could go the same way if its particular flavour is not retained.

Sadly, it often seems that those within the game care little about it. Stevenage would almost certainly have switched the tie had Sky not put up the money for live coverage. Newcastle's motives - apart from Kenny Dalglish's, which after Heysel and Hillsborough none should doubt - seem torn between possible embarrassment on the field and financial shortfall, with the odd safety worry thrown in.

Neither of the clubs has so far covered itself in glory but thankfully, the FA, though often maligned, mostly have their heart in the right place as guardians of the game. Sometimes, with money the reason, the game needs to be saved from itself and the voice of fans, via their representatives in the press, heeded.

As Monica Hartland, of the National Federation of Supporters' Clubs, said: "The FA Cup is about romance as well as talent. Sadly to Newcastle United FC, though hopefully not to its embarrassed supporters, it appears to be all about money and self-interest."

Now there will be a sporting chance for someone to cover themselves in glory on the day. And some youngster, no matter the score, will have a memory to savour, long after the revenue has been counted or lamented by the money men. Even if Dad has to cough up.

One grumble: why the late afternoon kick-off as darkness falls? Sky say the audience is better then but surely most of us would prefer midday, either in the pub or at home before Sunday lunch. Those attending will not have all day to fill, some elements no doubt with excessive drinking, and the Newcastle fans could be home by early evening.

SOMETIMES the game does seem to be getting ludicrously politically correct and inflexible. Eight days ago at the Watford v Sheffield Wednesday FA Cup tie, for example, the celebrated bare-torsoed, bald-headed Wednesday fan nicknamed Mr Tango ran on to the pitch long before the kick-off.

For his crime of kicking a ball into an empty net and raising a cheer, he was accosted by a jobsworth steward, soon joined by a humourless policeman, and one of the game's more colourful and loyal supporters was frogmarched out of Vicarage Road. Can we not lighten up now and then?

IN FRANCE last week, three top-division players were banned for six months for positive dope tests revealing traces of anabolic steroids. Quite apart from the cheating element, it seems staggering that footballers would consider such drugs helpful;though they are supposed to aid sprinting ability, they do not improve stamina.

What has been equally surprising in France is the leniency of the sentences. In Britain, players have been banned for much longer for use of recreational, non-performance enhancing drugs. More often, they are symptoms of other problems or cries for help rather than attempts to cheat.

Surely the French cases are far more serious? Perhaps it is time for Fifa, in conjunction with national associations, to lay down a more standard, and therefore just, system of punishment.

ONE IDEA that may be worth incorporating into the English game comes from France where Libero was taking in the Monaco v Niort League Cup tie last Monday (big shock for Manchester United's European Cup quarter-final opponents: not thecrowd being only around 1,000 but defeat on penalties by Lee Chapman's old second division club).

At one point, a Monaco player lay injured and the referee ran over to check his condition. After being convinced that the player was not feigning, he held up a green card to allow the trainer and stretcher bearers on. End of any confusion; everyone, crowd included, aware of what was going on.

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