Football's gladiators who only talk a good brawl

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It is not unusual these days to come across football reporting that includes Homeric accounts of extra-curricular strife between gladiators who were in fact standing six feet apart and regarding each other with tender affection.

On Saturday, for example, I arrived home from the match between Derby County and Leicester City to hear on television that a brawl had broken out after the final whistle. Certainly, there had been a bit of push and shove between players and stewards in the dressing-room tunnel (caused by Robbie Savage's provocative antics after gaining a penalty in injury time that won the match for Leicester) but by all accounts not a blow was struck, which is frequently the case in these incidents.

A rather more serious matter loomed up when pictures from St James' Park showed Roy Keane aiming a slap at Alan Shearer immediately after being booked for hitting him with the ball. The Irishman's swipe was so badly timed that chortles of contempt could be imagined in pugilistic circles, but intent made his departure inevitable. However you analyse cause and effect this was Keane's ninth red card of his Manchester United career, and but for David Beckham's timely intervention the Irishman might now be looking at a prolonged spell of inactivity.

Because he has not learned how to control the darker side of his nature, Keane has laid himself open to adverse criticism, and has got more than he deserves. He will suffer for it, probably is suffering now. If it teaches him a lesson, he can profit from the experience. If, through stubbornness, he becomes embittered, it could warp an outstanding career.

Anyway, after many years of stumbling around sport, a conclusion I have long since reached, one that can be applied to people generally, is that when it comes to a bit of real argy-bargy the majority of footballers are all mouth and trousers. It was on this understanding that tough professionals of past eras came down heavily on aspirants who risked the predictable consequences of raising their fists. "You can do a lot more damage with your studs," was a common instruction when it was advisable to approach any number of genuine hard cases with the utmost caution.

One thing we have to remember is that many modern footballers of high standing are so preoccupied with themselves, so seduced by fawning attention in newspapers and across the airwaves that they easily conform to a strategy of deceit.

If cheating in sport reveals ignorance of values once regarded as central to the playing of games it isn't a recent phenomenon. With the benefit of meagre public scrutiny, footballers, some with considerable international status, were adept at tricking referees into awarding penalties long before a worrying upsurge in thespian activity.

Pele exploited the panic spread by his thrillingly athletic surges to win numerous free-kicks. During the 1998 World Cup finals, Glenn Hoddle imagined that Michael Owen's blinding pace might panic defenders into giving up opportunities for David Beckham.

It depends on how you look at things, but to my mind these were legitimate attempts to force errors. Trouble is that things have been taken too far. According to the popular prints, who have their way of reporting these matters, the language of football has become ugly. Brawl. Cheats. Thugs. Crisis. Shame. Another four dismissals in the Premiership last weekend, a total of 18 already this season. Under heavy criticism themselves, referees claim that they have no option but to deal harshly with offenders and that their task is being made increasingly difficult.

Let's take these things one by one. So far this season, either live or on television, I haven't seen anything that could have been legitimately described as a brawl even if one or two incidents have met the definition of quarrel in a public place.

Quarrels yes, but this onlooker was never far from the thought that a feisty amateur featherweight would have chased off the protagonists in no time at all. Since recent tragic events have brought home to us the fact of sport's irrelevance, in this context crisis and shame are merely convenient expressions. As for thuggery, anyone who saw or has since caught up with the 1970 FA Cup replay between Chelsea and Leeds United when practically every outfield player committed a violent foul, will know that most of today's players are pussycats by comparison.

Admittedly, there are important differences between then and now. The game has quickened in pace and nowhere is the competition more intense than in the Premiership. Maybe it's the speed of things that has made proper tackling a lost art. Another thought occurs. It is that referees should go easy on the yellow cards and tell every artless, overpaid lout to run off and play with the other children.