Football: Learning the art of pain

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AS reported to me some years ago, two First Division footballers, of considerable repute and evil bent, diligently set about improving their centre- forward's prospects.

Well pleased with the fellow's industry, what they had in mind was not his shooting, heading and ball control, but an understanding of the advantage they saw in a reputation of being able to inflict pain and suffering.

'Up to a point, you're doing fine,' one of them said. 'But, every week, defenders kick lumps off you. It's time you learned to do something about it, get a foot in.'

Reluctantly, because he was not of a malevolent disposition, and mindful of the laws, the player was persuaded to undergo tuition in lunging a boot over the ball, a heinous but not uncommon trick that provides work for orthopaedic surgeons.

Central to this activity was the phrase 'roll it up slow'. By appearing to lose control of the ball, the instructors enthused, you invite a defender in, and then, bang, right over the top]

Seeing no discernible improvement in their pupil, the tutors grew exasperated. Gradually, the idea penetrated, though.

Shortly after the next match began, the centre-forward thought he saw a chance to put the trick into operation. 'Roll it up slow,' he said to himself, eyes on a mean opponent. It was the last thing he said before crying out with the pain of a shattered leg. He'd gone over the ball but the intended victim had come in higher. Significantly, the referee did not award a free-kick. He had not seen any malicious intent on the part of either player, merely an unfortunate collision.

I'm telling you all this because there is a case going on in the High Court, brought by Paul Elliott, formerly of Chelsea, against Dean Saunders, that could throw the government of contact games into turmoil. It is one that sports authorities should be observing fearfully because, whatever the outcome, it opens up a future in sport that may not bear much resemblance to the past.

As a matter of fact, exhortation may not be necessary. The Wimbledon footballer, Vinnie Jones, a Chelsea player at the time of the injury that ended Elliott's career in a game against Liverpool, was subpoenaed to appear in court by Elliott's counsel.

Jones expressed himself reluctant to give evidence against a fellow professional. Interviewed by The Sun, he said: 'I believe this case is damaging football. The FA, the PFA and the Football League should feel ashamed. This should have been sorted out in our own dressing-room, not court . . . the FA have got enough money to compensate players when they lose their careers. Because all this case is about is money.' Elliott is suing Saunders for up to pounds 1m.

My view of this episode is probably strange, and I ought not to ascribe to anybody else the shape of opinions that float up from muddled sensations. I feel unmoved by ideas that others feel strongly, and on the other hand I have some fears that others may not share.

The task of divining a player's intentions is assigned to the referee, who has trouble enough applying the laws under close video scrutiny, let alone being able to accurately distinguish between the viciously callous and the coldly competent.

If judges are to be called upon to determine the difference, professional sport, especially football, could be heading for a great deal of trouble. The authorities are frequently and shamefully lax when presented with proof of outright villainy. But, after all, physical injury is a hazard in most sports. To win, you've got to be there and compete. There isn't any other way.