Football must look back to regain its sense of perspective

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The most dangerous footballer I've ever come across - a practicing schizophrenic - never once raised his hands on the field and if he ever questioned a referee's decision it was in the most polite manner imaginable. He inflicted a great deal of pain but, as I remember it, was never sent off and seldom held accountable. "I can do more damage with my feet than my fists," was one of the things he liked to quietly go around saying.

The most dangerous footballer I've ever come across - a practicing schizophrenic - never once raised his hands on the field and if he ever questioned a referee's decision it was in the most polite manner imaginable. He inflicted a great deal of pain but, as I remember it, was never sent off and seldom held accountable. "I can do more damage with my feet than my fists," was one of the things he liked to quietly go around saying.

No case is being made out here for this fellow's cleverly concealed wickedness but it would have amused him to happen upon reports that described an incident during last Sunday's fifth round FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Chelsea as a 15-man brawl. As an example of the unruly behaviour in sport, it is properly the subject of investigation but if it was a brawl these eyes are certainly not what they were. A half-decent featherweight would have seen off the lot of them.

One opinion held here too long to be lightly dismissed is that the number of footballers from any era who could handle themselves in a fight would fall short of double figures. I've known a few but not many. As my Irish-born grandmother used to say about belligerent boozers, the majority are all mouth and trousers.

However, perhaps with the wages explosion and the overwhelming desire for success there has grown up a tolerance of postures that once would not have been acceptable. If so, what effect does this have on an upcoming generation?

The extent to which attitudes have changed was emphasised this week by the repeat on Sky television of an interview given to Brian Moore by the Tottenham Hotspur winger Cliff Jones. When asked about the Double team of 1961 in which he played a leading role, Jones paid tribute to the greatest of Tottenham's managers, Bill Nicholson.

As I recall from that time, Nicholson, a hard taskmaster, saw no future in hounding officials. "Bill simply wouldn't stand for us chasing after the referee or mouthing off at linesmen," Jones said. "He used to say that none of us really understood the rules of the game and that in any case we made more mistakes in a game than they did. I think we were a better team for that."

Listening to Jones reminded me of advice handed out by the famed Celtic manager Jock Stein when addressing his players before a Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park. "Don't get upset by decisions," Stein firmly declared. "Usually, they even themselves out." If there was a practical aspect to Stein's philosophy it carried the benefit of setting an example.

Bearing this in mind, it might be worth setting out the thoughts of Ray Warren, a member of the corporate board of Citizenship Through Sports Alliance in the United States. "What we are trying to get across is that children should not see sport as winning but playing," he said. "We're talking about parents becoming involved in sport. Parents don't know how to educate. They become part of the game. Unfortunately, they don't realise this. Kids are impressionable. When they see bad things happen in games they think it's the way to behave. They should be told: 'Hey, don't do this'."

Warren is also the president and chief executive officer of Raycom Sports, a marketing and television company that puts out a syndicated weekly half-hour programme called More than a Game, which, he says, "is about good guys in sport. The show reminds people why they became sports fans in the first place."

Warren cites many worrying examples of behaviour among children and parents linked to professional sport. "The violence was startling," he said. Thirty parents were arrested for fighting over a decision in a game for five-year olds. A father died after a fight that developed over rough play in a youth ice hockey game. There were numerous examples of parents abusing coaches and assaulting officials. "The idea is is to get information down to high schools and colleges to reassert principles we once took for granted," Warren added.

Perhaps nothing can be done to alter the fact that leading sports figures today are not encouraged to comport themselves in a manner befitting highly-paid professionals. It should, though, be possible to make them act like adults.

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