Football: Tawdry tale of the tape

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The Independent Online
THERE was no small amount of consternation when Jack Charlton once let it be known that there were players in the old Football League who had angered him sufficiently to be marked down for retribution.

At the time when the Republic of Ireland manager was turning out at centre-half for Leeds United and England, he offended the authorities by claiming to be in possession of a little black book that listed all those who had sinned most grievously against him.

The book existed only in Charlton's mind but he had opened up a truth about football that is mostly invisible to the untrained eye, and there was much talk of him being charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

In raising a storm Charlton also raised a chuckle in the trade because fellow professionals did not think his bite to be much worse than his bark, or that he was even remotely the hardest case available to the management at Elland Road.

However, all this brought up in the minds of many people the suspicion that some footballers not only set out to win at all costs but are inclined to the sort of ruthless tricks that provide work for orthopaedic surgeons.

This brings us to Vinny Jones of Wimbledon, appropriately a former hod carrier, who has acquired cult status as one of football's foremost demolition experts through the interest shown in him by chat show hosts and the editors of pseudo-intellectual magazines.

Yesterday, Jones was charged with bringing the game into disrepute for lending his spurious expertise to a video that celebrates hardness. This in itself is no bad thing, but as there is a line so fine as to be almost indistinguishable between the coldly competent and the viciously callous, the outcry is as understandable as it was predictable.

Jones, in highlighting the careers of such notable performers as Dave Mackay, Billy Bremner, Nobby Stiles, Tommy Smith, Graeme Souness and Charlton, insults the memories many of us have of them.

Conveying the impression that he probably has a problem in making elementary contact with the natives outside his circle, he also ignores one of the big truths about football. It is that the most ruthless players seldom advertise themselves and get on with their work in a way that escapes public attention and usually avoids the wrath of referees.

Once in conversation with some Brazilian aficionados I was heaping praise on Gerson, a hero and midfield general of their 1970 World Cup winning team whose passing, especially through the air, was a joy to behold. 'Yes, but he was also quite vicious,' one of them said, 'there was no sense in upsetting him.'

He also emphasised that while Pele, the most complete footballer in history, wasn't a dirty player and didn't go looking for trouble, he was capable of doing some terrible damage when provoked.

Nobody played against the Leeds United of Jack Charlton's best time without being intensely aware of the retribution that could result from taking liberties with John Giles and, particularly, Bobby Collins, who at barely 5ft 4in was as deadly as a rattlesnake.

If you look in the football history books today there is nothing to suggest that Bobby Moore was quietly the hard man opponents knew him to be, or that it was extremely foolish of defenders to suppose that they could intimidate Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee of Manchester City.

What Jones fails to grasp is that his sort of bullying hardness would have been scoffed at in another time. It is unlikely that he would have lasted five minutes or for that matter been good enough to get a game.

Doubtless the issue will sort itself out and people will come to take up one of two positions, which won't necessarily be closer to the truth because they have been over-simplified.

Jones can only be described as a hugely limited footballer who has benefited from the decline in standards that afflicts the game in this country.

It won't help at all if the administration makes a big example of him. Sam Hammam, the Wimbledon chairman, has expressed a deal of admiration and affection for Jones, but considers that his contribution to the video amounts to a mouthful of diarrhoea. Quite. So why not introduce the lad to the cleansing properties of carbolic soap?