Back in that other lifetime which featured prominently at the London Olympics, some of us wondered to what extent Premier League footballers would be inspired by what they were seeing.
Indeed, one of us was bold enough to put the question to a merry gentleman wearing a Chelsea scarf who happened to be queuing at Stratford’s bullet-train station after Britain had just won three gold medals in the Olympic Stadium. Less jovial now, his answer was not wholly encouraging. “Are you taking the p***, mate?” he demanded to know.
A seer of formidable proportions, no doubt. Perhaps he had a vision of Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley celebrating the end of the season – and his club’s escape from relegation – lying on his back on the floor of a Newcastle casino while decorated by £50 notes. Or his own Stamford Bridge hero David Luiz, while in the same prone position, chuckling at the artfulness of his contribution to the sending-off of his young compatriot Rafael da Silva at Old Trafford. Maybe he also saw arguably the most brilliant player in the entire league, Luis Suarez, chewing into the arm of Branislav Ivanovic.
No one, though, could surely have quite imagined that when it was all over Paolo Di Canio, who is, rightly or wrongly, widely regarded in polite political circles as football’s No 1 swivel-eyed loon, would put himself forward as the redeemer of the game’s professional culture at the end of a season which so frequently seemed to be hurtling hell-wards.
Now it may well be true some of Di Canio’s loyalties and attitudes and style of expression make easy sources of ridicule, but it is a lot harder to dispute the force of what he said after Sunderland’s somewhat fortuitous escape from the big drop. Remarkably, if not uniquely, Di Canio appeared to be drawing a line between what he considers unprofessional behaviour and his own dwindling levels of toleration.
The key quote was: “From now on I will be more strict because we have to improve our professionalism. In a week I have given seven players fines. It is not acceptable. I thought at Swindon in League Two arrogant, ignorant footballers did not know the score exactly because they had not so many chances at the top level. Will they play again for the club? No, not under me.”
Of course, it is as the Professional Footballers’ Association will tell us quickly enough. The sins of the few should not be visited on the many, though this does rather invite the question about what percentage of crass indiscipline is acceptable in an industry which offers such fabulous rewards and, axiomatically, is such a potent influence on so many young people.
Football has, of course, been askew on this issue for quite some time. When the Football Association appointed the ill-starred Paul Gascoigne as someone ideally equipped to give powerful lessons to tyro players, Peter Beardsley, the most admirable of professionals, wondered why it was that such a high-profile transgressor should be given such a role before thousands of much more dedicated footballers.
Di Canio’s candour at the weekend is certainly surprising when you set it against so much of the reaction of managers to the misdeeds of their players. Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez, who lived with impressively maintained dignity and a degree of success through the maelstrom of hostility provoked by his appointment, might have been expected to produce a more forthright response to the behaviour of Luiz at Old Trafford. Instead, he said that there was not much point in reacting because you had a match, a result, and whatever you said afterwards it didn’t change much, if anything.
When Suarez committed his biting atrocity – for a second time in his career – his manager Brendan Rodgers’ reaction was similar to his predecessor Kenny Dalglish’s when the player was found guilty of racism.
In all of this it should be remembered that some players plainly didn’t have to find their inspiration in the extraordinary achievements – and spirit – displayed by so many Olympians. Whatever you think of David Beckham’s celebrity status, there has rarely been a question about his understanding of what constitutes proper professional dedication. The same can be said of three other notable retirees, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.
In their different ways, all were superb representatives of the national game. All of them learnt their business with huge application and an awareness of both their professional responsibilities and understanding of their good fortune in doing something they loved for rewards they could not have dreamt of in other walks of life.
Before he was bedevilled by long-term injury, Owen was a thrilling vision of what a young footballer should be: intensely ambitious and also determined to behave properly on an off the field. At the European Championship of 2000, he declared: “I know how lucky I am to be in this position and I don’t want to waste it in any way. I want to be grow as a footballer – and also a human being.”
There were few more rousing statements of intent even at the great Olympics – and in the manner of their departures both Scholes and Carragher have declared their belief that if playing professionally at the highest level of football is a great privilege it is no deterrent to a well-balanced life and some secure principles.
These are players who in no small way have indeed brought some redemption to the image of a game so severely battered by the flawed behaviour by some of its most favoured sons.
You can take your choice on which of it was most wretched, and surely not the least of the candidates was the question posed by the Manchester City millionaire player between the defeats by Wigan Athletic and Norwich City. Was it time to pop the champagne at the dismissal of Roberto Mancini?
In a decent professional society, in which individual responsibility still has some place, there was of course never a time for that. It is, when you think about it, just another reason to applaud the stand of Paolo Di Canio.
Let’s hope cricket won’t take the Crowe road
In Sky’s now routinely excellent coverage of the first Test not the least riveting ingredient was a rerun of an interview with Martin Crowe, the fine New Zealand batsman who earlier this year stood down from the MCC’s World Committee in order to fight cancer.
He was asked how he saw the future of cricket and his answer was both unequivocal and unwelcome.
He said the future was Twenty20. This was not because of any fault line in Test cricket – as we saw at Lord’s, it is still a wonder of intrigue and suddenly erupting brilliance – but because it simply takes too long.
In modern life, Crowe was saying, there simply isn’t time to get absorbed in five days of fluctuating competition, or – in the case of the first Test –four of them, crowned by the superb performances of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad.
We can only pray nearly as hard that Crowe is mistaken as we hope that he wins his battle.
Ice-cool Jonny is the man to make Lions roar
With due respect to the firm of Anderson and Broad, and the latest rocket from the boot of Gareth Bale, there was no doubt about the weekend’s most compelling entertainment. It came from the assorted mercenaries of Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. Rugby union will never have a better advert in its furies and commitment.
Jonny Wilkinson was, naturally, in the thick of it and if his overall game wasn’t quite as overwhelming as it had been in some recent huge battles, it was still a model of fierce commitment and, when it mattered, icy nerve. The Lions, more than ever, would be mad to ignore his match-closing services in Australia.