James Lawton: A troubled game must look to its heart

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Who would have thought that Premiership football, so swaggering, so exuberant in its wealth and appeal, was destined to celebrate Christmas in a bunker? Or that a series of seasonal parties would end not on the tiles but in the confessional?

It would be nice to think that there was a package marked redemption under the tree yesterday, but when you cleared away the wrappings, not to mention the Sunday papers, evidence of real contrition, and the foggiest notion of how to put things right, would have been as startling as a pink elephant dispatched by Harrod's.

The problem is that, while contrition is cheap, real atonement can be expensive. If you could measure it in words, Leeds United's manager, David O'Leary, would have worked the oracle some days ago. But he, perhaps more than anyone in the game now, is learning that mere loquacity doesn't always get the job done.

O'Leary wants a football summit meeting to lay down a new code of conduct and disciplinary regime for players. Part of it, he says in one of his many recent exclusive interviews and book serialisations, would involve a ban on international football for anyone who steps out of line.

This is despite the fact that three pages of a recent Sunday tabloid – the one that bought the O'Leary book, Leeds United on Trial, "the one they all wanted," – were devoted to the author's belief that the Football Association was hypocritical in imposing a ban on his players Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate while they faced serious criminal charges. O'Leary's thesis did not defer to the fact that both players had lied to him about their behaviour when a young Asian was left near to death, and that Bowyer had admitted in court that he was "legless" on the night in question.

O'Leary also says that "there is no point in fining them money – it's just too easy these days." At the the weekend the manager made clear his enthusiasm for signing Bowyer to a new contract. The figure of £4m was mentioned.

You may say that the dreadful events that have engulfed Leeds United – and turned a trophy-chasing club into what has seemed these last few days a repository of the game's deepest problems – have been recorded and analysed to a mind-numbing degree. Perhaps so, but what has the process achieved when the man at the centre of the storm, the man whose job is to impose a set of standards, playing and ethical on his football club, continues to make public statements of vast self-justification and contradiction.

The more you sift the evidence, and try vainly to find a thread of profitable self-analysis of those involved at the centre of this crisis of will and decency, the more you see a need, at Elland Road and in all of football, not for a summit meeting but a ground-level look into the nearest mirror.

Football needs accountability – and honesty. It needs managers to understand that the truth is not a gift to all those who support the game with both their passion and their money, but a right. Here a degree of respect would be most useful. It might curb the kind of breathtaking dis-ingenuousness of Arsène Wenger when he shrugs away the current disciplinary problem of Thierry Henry by saying his player did not abuse the referee Graham Poll the other night at Highbury. But was this because of a modicum of self-restraint by the player or the fact that half the Arsenal team was obliged to hold him back? Similar restraints, might have prevented Lee Oswald shooting President Kennedy.

Beside the Leeds maelstrom, Wenger's defence of his player is a small matter, perhaps, but it takes us back to the heart of football's desperate problem of image. Relatively close monitoring of post-game Premiership football this season, reveals that only one manager has seriously deplored the conduct of one of his own players. That was the Tottenham manager, Glenn Hoddle, when his defender Mauricio Taricco sent Everton's Thomas Gravesen to hospital with a sickening tackle. After Newcastle's defeat of Leeds last weekend, O'Leary shrugged and said, "Is Bobby Robson still going on about that?" when told that the St James's Park manager was claiming that Mark Viduka should have been sent off for his treatment of Nikos Dabizas. O'Leary said that Viduka was a footballing striker. No doubt, but less partial eyes plainly saw him first put the lead arm in, then ferociously late tackle the defender, who did not reappear for the second half.

Honesty by managers would vastly alleviate the problems of referees who, because of their real status as human beings rather than gods of the universe, are always going to make a few of their own. But when Dermot Gallagher applied common sense to an incident between Leeds' Robbie Keane and Manchester United's David Beckham, he was promptly sent into exile.

Honesty is sometimes compromised for the most practical of reasons, and anyone demanding total candour from Sir Alex Ferguson when he felt obliged to leave Beckham out of a series of utterly vital games was probably asking a little much. But he might, at such a critical point in the history of both his club and the life of the Premiership, have maintained some basic link with the public beyond the club's own TV channel and one favoured Sunday newspaper.

But then, communication in football, as we have seen so starkly in recent days, is a deeply flawed aspect of the trade. It is not so much communication as propaganda and posing, the imposition of platitudes instead of the kind of frankness that would imply a touch of respect for the customers. Not, that is, the kind of customer who lionises a thug or a liar if he happens to be wearing the right colours, but one who loves the game for itself, for its spectacle and its release, and who is sickened by the foul language and racism that so regularly invades the terraces.

No, a summit meeting is not the answer. It would bring only more platitudes. The answer will only come when clubs and individuals inspect their own priorities – and hearts. The Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, has made some impressive noises and it is not hard to accept his suggestion that many lessons have been learned. Perhaps the most significant one concerns the need for humility, and a true understanding of the place of football at the heart of a community. With a firmer awareness of that, you have to believe Leeds would have done several things differently. Most importantly, they would have thought less of their own position and more of the ravaging effect of the affair on the lives of a decent local family who happened to be Asian. They would perhaps have made an accommodation with the family which, while not compromising them legally, would have headed off the new disaster of upcoming civil action. They might not have made such a bad joke of their brief stand of principle against an uncontrite Lee Bowyer.

Elsewhere, clubs and the Professional Footballers' Association might analyse more carefully the pattern of irresponsible behaviour that recently has so disfigured the game. They will see that the vast majority of it has come from homegrown culture, one of loutish drinking and Doomsday mentality. Football simply has to train men rather than pussyfoot in the face of maladjusted boys.