Football: Why swift justice would bring sheer relief

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The Independent Online
UNLESS they can quickly produce the fancy footwork necessary to extricate themselves from the Alan Shearer mess, the Football Association are in danger of scoring the first own goal of the 1998 World Cup. However morally justified they feel in their late indictment of England's captain for the now notorious collision between his left boot and the face of Leicester City's Neil Lennon, there would have been just as much justification available if they had said and done nothing.

While it is true that even in a game the search for justice should be blind to all considerations it is also important to remember that punishment should fit the crime. And Shearer's crime, if that is what it was, is suddenly capable of inflicting a grossly disproportionate punishment not only to him but to his country.

Had any other player been involved with Lennon in that incident at Filbert Street a week last Wednesday we would have heard nothing of it. It was purely the fact that the captain of England appeared in the culprit's role that made it newsworthy and the determination of television to repeat it endlessly drove it to the forefront of our attention and kept it there. There is no doubt that this media pressure was entirely responsible for the decision by the FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly, to order Shearer up before the beaks. It was a difficult decision to make and obviously caused a rift within Lancaster Gate. Last Sunday, a newspaper reported that Shearer was going to be charged but the internal arguments about it caused a delay and it was Wednesday before the announcement was made.

Had they waited a day or two longer, the FA could have persuaded themselves to let it drop. The referee hadn't taken any action at the time and no mention of it was in his report. Neither of his assistants gave any indication that they had seen it, nor did their colleague in the stand. The Leicester manager, Martin O'Neill, was livid at the time and complained that Shearer had not been sent off, but no official complaint was made by him or the club.

Although Lennon, the victim, also felt his assailant should have been sent off, he was widely quoted as condemning the furore and pleading for Shearer not to be charged. By last Tuesday the story had entirely disappeared from the sportspages and there was new violence capturing the headlines; a picture showing the Newcastle prop Paul Van-Zandvliet appearing to bite the head of the Leicester flanker Neil Back.

Both Back and Leicester played the incident down and Wednesday night produced another replacement horror. Paul Ince's tackle on his England colleague Ian Wright during Liverpool's victory over Arsenal easily surpassed the malice of Shearer's kick. It could have put Wright out of the game, let alone the World Cup. Since Liverpool were winning 3-0 at the time, there wasn't an ounce of mitigation to be found.

Ince went unpunished but his tackle provided a context in which FA inaction over Shearer would not have attracted any more attention. Since the FA do not have any set policy on making disciplinary decisions based on video evidence it would have been a relatively easy decision to defend.

Further description of the Lennon incident is not necessary because there's hardly anyone in the country who hasn't seen it several times on television. Neither are there many who haven't formed a firm opinion about whether or not he meant to do it. In the bars that I frequent, the predominant feeling seems to be that it was intentional. Shearer swears it wasn't and is wholeheartedly supported in his protestation by the England manager, Glenn Hoddle, which is only marginally less surprising than finding that Mrs Shearer is also right behind him.

When this conflict of opinions is going to be pronounced upon by the FA disciplinarians, however, is where the potential for great anguish lies. When Kelly announced that Shearer would be charged, he set in motion a chain of events that threatens to keep the affair simmering for most of the summer. Shearer was given 14 days to respond to the charge but the indications are that the hearing is not likely to take place until after the World Cup. England's captain and most powerful weapon, therefore, will go through the most important month of his career with the case not only on his mind but on the minds of everyone else; most notably referees, opponents and the media.

How much their attitude would be affected remains to be seen but what transpires in France is bound to influence those who will eventually sit in judgment over him. If he commits a serious offence and gets a red card - and referees are never more zealous than when on World Cup duty - the impeccable reputation that Hoddle spoke of will not be easy to present in his defence. And if he feels in the slightest way inhibited by that possibility will he be able to mount the fearless physical challenges essential to his position at the head of England's attack?

His success or failure could also threaten the impartiality of his judges. If he wins the World Cup for England with a hat-trick in the final, the prospect of a Draconian punishment would fade to nothing. If he lost the World Cup by missing a penalty in the last minutes, hanging would be too good for him.

Hoddle, who is making no attempt to disguise his anger that his best player has been seriously compromised, wants the FA to hear the case at the earliest opportunity and this would seem to be the only way in which they can escape the harshest consequences of the decision.

With the FA Cup final coming up, it is not fair on Newcastle to have Shearer's concentration affected by an appearance at a hearing this week, but the following week would still leave three weeks or so before the World Cup starts.

Can he get off? My first reaction was that Shearer brought his foot round on purpose, but having read reports of his version of the incident I would like to hear him describe what exactly he was trying to do. It could be that he could create enough doubt for him to be acquitted and that may well be the outcome.

Whatever happens, it certainly makes the case for a more consistent reaction to television evidence, especially as the cameras are patrolling our football pitches more and more thoroughly. A rapid response unit with the power to cite players who commit foul play out of the referee's sight would go a long way to cleaning up the game.

What football needs is a version of the drumhead court-martial at which allegations of indiscipline on the battlefield are swiftly dealt with. Unfortunately, Shearer is not a captain of infantry but of the England football team, and although there are similarities between the two the rapid dispensation of justice is certainly not one of them.

FOLLOWING their remorseless overtaking of Manchester United, Arsenal seem to have won the championship in a canter but that is not how posterity is likely to see it. If Arsenal lose to Aston Villa today - and the chances for in-form Villa look extremely good - and Manchester United beat Barnsley, which would hardly be a shock, Arsenal will have won the title by just one point. A small consolation for United fans, but it would be better than nothing.