James Lawton: Cheats let off the hook by Allardyce and Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce should be marched to a television studio - or maybe a padded cell - and forced to watch a rerun of what happened between Wayne Rooney and Tal Ben Haim at Old Trafford last Sunday. Then they should be dared to repeat some of the self-serving, unconscionable drivel with which they marked the closing stages of a football year in which cheating has become an epidemic.

Ferguson says that the FA decision to ban Rooney for three games is 'immoral'. Allardyce, having originally agreed, more or less, that his player was plainly guilty of overreaction when the United prodigy pushed him in the face, says that he will appeal against a charge of "improper conduct".

Both responses are sickening in their lack of concern for the image of the game but before saying that with absolute conviction maybe we, too, should go back over the details of the incident. The points of most valid interest: the breaking of the law and behaviour that might turn the stomach if it took place in a schoolyard.

What happened was that Rooney dived, outrageously, presumably in the hope of winning at least a free-kick, and maybe, as a little bonus, earning a caution for Ben Haim. The Israeli compounded this tawdry, but depressingly familiar, little scene by suggesting that he had been hit by a bullet fired from a elephant gun when Rooney, tiring of his complaints, flung out his hand dismissively.

None of this invites any kind of forensic examination. The facts were plain enough to any casual witness. Rooney broke one of the basic laws of football which says that in no circumstances is it permissible to raise your hand to an opponent. Ben Haim, as they say around Bolton, behaved like a girl's blouse. Both in their different ways summed up the lack of responsible behaviour from professional young men who are earning in a week more than most of the people on the terraces and in front of their televisions who keep football going can hope to draw in a year of honest and skilful labour.

But this, of course, is not the worst of the scandal. The really dismaying aspect of the affair is the failure of Ferguson and Allardyce to understand the revulsion created by their refusal to set standards.

No, of course, Rooney didn't commit an act of unbridled violence. But he did something that was in clear violation of the rules of football and if Ferguson has any rage to spare it should not be directed at the FA. It should be concentrated on the disturbing signs of anarchy in a talented but plainly hopelessly indulged young player, who just a few weeks ago behaved like a thug in the Bernabeu stadium which used to be graced by great men like Di Stefano and Puskas and Gento.

Ultimately, Ferguson banished the David Beckham circus from Old Trafford. Now he, in public at least, is putting the value of Rooney in three games - no doubt considerable - before the chance to make a point that would be hugely beneficial both to the development of a wonderfully talented young player and the game itself. Ferguson could say that there is a price to pay for breaking the law and before any peep from the FA he could have fined the player, as heavily as he could, and banned him for the statutory three matches.

What a message that would send to all the snivelling little wiseacres of football, who spend most of their time on the field trying to con referees and cheat their opponents. What a rebuke that would have been to Arsenal's Mr Magoo, Arsène Wenger, and all the other managers who put their own interests before the good of football?

Allardyce would surely have won respect for himself and his currently crisis-ridden club by a gesture in support of the belief that footballers have a duty to behave as men rather than cringing boys.

However, all Sir Alex and Big Sam can agree upon is a nicety of football law. If, says Allardyce, Rooney is guilty of violent conduct, how can his victim be charged with improper conduct? Ferguson, in a blinding flash of open-mindedness, hitches up his silk and agrees with his learned friend.

The point that screams out is that if football law, like any other kind, can be an ass, it is no reason to abrogate the need for decent behaviour. Rooney broke the law irresponsibly, and Ben Haim responded with a disgusting banquet of fake distress.

In their failure to respond properly, to show a scrap of concern for the dignity of their profession, Ferguson and Allardyce tell us all we need to know about the crisis of the game. They prattle on about the rules of football when they should be addressing the not-so-slow death of its spirit.