Brian Clough would have known how to treat the troublemakers. In his pomp at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, the greatest manager England never had was not averse to using the electronic scoreboard to demand good language or even to clipping the occasional pitch-invader around the ears.
Ol' Big 'Ead was present last night at what must now be termed the East Midlands' premier club, working as a local-radio summariser. Almost unrecognisable without his trademark green sweatshirt, and accompanied by one of his grandsons, Clough cuts a more circumspect figure these days. Even so, it was perhaps as well that there was little in the atmosphere to offend his, er, distinctive moral code.
No booing of the Serbia and Montenegro national anthem (and this, remember, is a nation on whose capital British bombs were dropped barely four years ago). Not only no booing, in fact, but polite applause, although that may have been for the singer not the song. No racist abuse, either, and certainly no fighting, or youths in Burberry deerstalkers charging on to the field of play at any opportunity.
"No trouble at Walkers Stadium" is one of those negative headlines that usually accompany a non-story. (A Luton paper used to specialise in them; eg. "Hatters not to sign Royle" or "Town not in for Toshack"). It will nevertheless be a relief to the Football Association after their disciplinary from the sport's European ruling body, Uefa, following April's Turkey shoot at Sunderland.
The mood was more reminiscent of Derby's Pride Park two years ago, when Mexico visited for a friendly. That night was a giant love-in, with families sitting together and the nutters and fighters heavily outnumbered if not absent. In contrast, the Stadium of Light fixture was not only competitive, it was also against Turkey, with whom English fans have a history of hostility and who brought a sizeable, vocal following.
This time there was scarcely a Montenegrin in sight. And although one interviewee on Sky's vox pop had questioned whether there was anything racist about chanting "We hate Turkey", one suspected the Burberry boys were watching the action in their pubs.
The real test, therefore, will come when England venture overseas the Euro 2004 campaign takes them to Macedonia and Turkey in the autumn although there are some in the FA hierarchy who are considering the idea of not accepting tickets for any away match before the finals in Portugal next summer.
With the threat of a possible ban from the tournament in mind (not that England have qualified yet), the FA was taking no chances. On arriving at the Leicester ground, every one of the 30,900 spectators found a poster-cum-polemic from Lancaster Gate wedged into his or her seat. On one side, a black England player, Darius Vassell, was pictured being mobbed by ecstatic white team-mates above the slogan "the FA against racism".
On the other came a stark warning. Under the headline "This is serious" the racists and hooligans need these things spelling out to them the FA admitted that the violence and incursions at the Turkey match had "almost forced Uefa to make us play Slovakia [the qualifier at Middlesbrough next Wednesday] behind closed doors". The majority of "decent fans" were urged to shop the "small number of bigots" to the stewards.
As the stadium began to fill up, the public-address system reinforced the message. David Beckham's taped plea for good behaviour was listened to reverently and even applauded. "Racism, foul language and booing the [opponents'] anthem have no place in football," the public-address announcer said, echoing England's missing captain. "It's disgusting and disrespectful and could lead to England being banned from the European Championship."
Important words, if a quarter of a century overdue. After all, a nasty, boorish tendency, dismissive and insulting to non-white players and spectators, let alone to foreigners, first attached itself to the England side in the 1970s. The xenophobes really came into their own when English clubs were banned from Europe following the Heysel disaster.
Clough had already conquered the Continent by then, of course. To see him looking in rude health in the commentary box alongside one of the players who helped him to do it, his former Forest striker Garry Birtles, provided a pleasing throwback to a bygone era.
There were precious few on the pitch, notwithstanding a few flashes of the playmaker's art from Steven Gerrard. From England's point of view, however, the lack of any similarity to a sordid night at Sunderland, itself like a bad trip back in time, was as satisfying as it was perhaps predictable.Reuse content