James Lawton: Deadly art of intimidation is still alive and kicking

Beckham's report of death threats in Macedonia proved tame compared with more lurid declarations of intent in a blood-curdling tradition
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The Independent Football

Those of gentle disposition can be reassured, utterly. Despite David Beckham's account of death threats in the seething cockpit otherwise known as the Skopje football stadium, from which he emerged miraculously without the loss of a single coiffed hair last Saturday night, international football has not suddenly become a snakepit of terminal violence.

Declarations of impending mortality, broken limbs and unfaithful wives are as old as the baggy shorts and droopy moustaches of the gaslit days

This was the indisputable point Artim Sakiri made quite nonchalantly when he was approached by two English reporters in a bar shortly after vowing to kill the England captain. Did he say that Beckham would be killed? "Yes," said Sakiri, with a shrug. "Is he dead? Footballers say that sort of thing all the time in England. It is quite normal."

Indeed, it is a hallowed tradition. Perhaps the least inhibited employer of intimidatory talk was the legendary Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith. His favourite form of introduction to an opponent was to point his finger and say "I'm going to break your f****** back".

"If people like Tommy had done to me what they threatened, there would be nothing left of me," says John Giles, who with his Leeds United midfield partner, the late Billy Bremner, adopted a particularly threatening manner towards one of their most respected opponents, Arsenal's Peter Storey. "We said some terrible things to Peter," Giles recalled, just a little sheepishly, yesterday.

"Before one game, we heard his wife had left him, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing the matter, always within his earshot. Billy asked me, 'Can you imagine waking up next to that bastard?' - and I shook my head. Peter never said anything during the game. He just kicked hell out of us. After the game, we always had a drink together.

"Unbelievable things are said on the field - and really, that's what they are, unbelievable. When I read Beckham's comments over the weekend I wondered who he thought he was playing against - perhaps al-Qa'ida?"

Once, while captain of Ireland, Giles was infuriated when his team-mate Joe Kinnear needlessly conceded a corner in a game in Chile. "If they score, I'll kill you," Giles said. They didn't and later Kinnear jibed, "What method were you going to use?"

Death threats are particularly frequent in international football and fly across the language barrier. One favourite is the swift drawing of a finger across the throat. The Italians are particularly good at this. It is an old Sicilian tradition and is carried off with great, if somewhat empty, panache.

In Test cricket, where fast bowlers are legally entitled to fire a 90mph missile at a batsman's head, the goading is generally a little more subtle. One classic is attributed to a paunchy Sri Lankan batsman getting heat from an Aussie paceman, who continually sneered that he was bowling against a useless "fat bastard". The batsman retorted: "The problem is that every time I make love to your wife she's so grateful she cooks me a fried breakfast."

One of the more memorable sledging battles pitted Pakistan's Javed Miandad against Australia's Merv Hughes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The talented, but not always agreeable, Javed was in superb nick, carving Hughes all over the ground. After each of his best strokes, he shouted to Hughes: "You're not a bowler of Test calibre, you should be a bus conductor."

Eventually, Hughes moved one off the seam and had his tormentor caught in the slips. The entire MCG imagined Hughes would run snarling into Javed's face. Instead he trotted meekly to the pavilion gate, which he opened for Javed, and then, when he passed, said: "Tickets, please."

It's just as well Beckham was born in Essex rather than Saskatchewan, where intimidation in junior ice hockey is particularly harsh. Dave "Tiger" Williams, who would eventually emerge as the most ferocious "enforcer" in the history of the National Hockey League, was especially adept at putting in the hard word.

Once, while playing for the Swift Current Broncos, he faced up to a promising but entirely green young opponent, whose parents ran a farm on the prairie. Williams whispered: "I know where your family live. If you make me look bad tonight, I'll come and burn your wheatfields."

The big question in English football dressing-rooms yesterday was why Beckham would make such a big issue of Sakiri's workaday verbal aggression. There was general scepticism that he had been intimidated or shocked.

A clue to this was the relish with which Beckham taunted Sakiri towards the end of the game, particularly in an extended keep-ball session at a corner flag. His demeanour was not that of a man under sentence of death.

One possibility, outrageous though it may seem, is that Beckham knew precisely the effect his revelations would have. They would be assured massive publicity in the Sunday and Monday tabloids. Which would, of course, not exactly retard the sales of his latest autobiography. David Beckham, for the record, is 28 years old.

Heskey the selection of last resort

Scarcely believably, there is a growing clamour for the reinstatement of Emile Heskey to the England starting line-up for the vital game against Turkey in Istanbul next month.

This is because the big Liverpool striker proved the catalyst for England's recovery from last Saturday's embarrassing first-half performance against Macedonia in Skopje.

The proposition is that, because Heskey is useful when England are forced by circumstances of their own making to play in a style that would never win a major tournament this side of hell freezing over, he should regain a starting position, almost certainly at the expense of Wayne Rooney, who demoralised the Turks with his sheer brilliance in the home tie.

Surely, Rooney's confidence will have been improved by his brilliant strike against Macedonia as England emerged from the nightmarish possibility of losing the match and their place in the European Championships at the hands of a team ranked between Jordan and the Dominican Republic.

Heskey is good when England are bad. This is not a sound basis for selection in international football of ever increasing sophistication.

Woodward's vision fosters winning team spirit

Sven Goran Eriksson has denied, not altogether convincingly, that he will ever make a "special case" of his captain, David Beckham.

Eriksson's rugby union counterpart, Clive Woodward, scarcely needs to make such an assertion. Woodward's decision to trim three British Lions from his squad for the World Cup this autumn, including the high-profile Austin Healey, and to bring back from an injury-imposed wilderness the experience and character of Mike Catt, speaks eloquently of a man committed to his own clear vision of what it will take to win the big trophy.

It is just another reason why England's rugby men seem so well placed to conquer the world.