James Lawton: Football in dire need of a moral compass

National game degenerates to gutter level as bluster and humbug flourish in soulless and damaging climate of self-interest
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Sam Hammam, who is some people's idea of a football folk hero, witlessly stimulates disorder in a football ground notorious for housing some of the nastiest fans in the game.

David O'Leary, who has more faces than Eve, and more positions than the Kama Sutra, complains that his 21-year-old serial offender Alan Smith, sent off for the sixth time, is cruelly imprisoned by his past. He then goes into the car park and has a row with Hammam that requires his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, to step in.

Claudio Ranieri is outraged at the idea that he should have thought twice before including in his squad, and eventually sending on to the field, John Terry, who a few months ago was stripped of the England Under-21 captaincy for his part in a drinking spree which outraged American travellers at the time of the New York terrorist attacks and now faces charges of affray and assault following an incident in a night-club less than 48 hours before an FA Cup tie at Norwich.

Chelsea's chairman Ken Bates is reported to have brusquely dismissed a Norwich fan who questioned the validity of the decision, but his famously blunt conversational style is not the issue here. However it was couched, the choice of Terry ultimately required his approval and this is the man who last week was extolling the intellectual superiority of his player Graeme Le Saux, saying how someone who often appears capable of provoking mayhem in a nunnery is more sinned against than sinner.

For weeks now the charge against football is that it is in dire need of a moral compass, some means of finding its way through to a consensus of decency before anarchy takes an absolute hold. But the blundering goes on, and all the while there is a lack of even one voice to say unequivocally that the national game has degenerated to gutter level. It means that each day football begins to resemble a little more some vast unedifying scrum, some spiritually-formless ground zero. Why? Is it simply a matter of greed and selfishness, a complete failure to understand that there is a point where self-interest becomes self-defeating? At root, yes.

Football lacks class. Football lacks respect. Most of all, it lacks intelligence.

One of the problems shared by the morally dim – a condition which of course does not prevent progress of the ambitious and the acquisitive in areas where a sure instinct for right and wrong is not essential, the City of London and football boardrooms being two notable examples – is that they are never able to draw a limit on their tendency to believe that however outrageous their actions or statements there is always someone mug enough, or cynical enough, to go along for the dubious ride. The current disastrous downturn in football's image is accentuated by a mass of evidence that this may be true.

Thus we had Hammam, whose cavortings during his Cardiff City side's victory over Leeds set an appalling example for those fans who eventually spilled on to the field and made the closure of the ground seem like an absolute formality, praised in the Sky TV studios as a wonderful character by his former manager and match "analyst" Bobby Gould. Tell that to Dave Bassett, the manager effectively driven out of Wimbledon after taking them from non-League to the top flight. Tell it to the janitorial staff at Upton Park who had to clean up the obscene graffiti left by Hammam's "Crazy Gang" on a dressing-room wall. Tell it to all those appalled by Hammam's fervent sponsorship of the player he thought of "like a son", the long-time football thug Vinnie Jones.

Tell it to Joe Kinnear. Tell it to the fans who believed Hammam when he said Wimbledon FC was his life rather than his fortune, which he guaranteed when he flogged the club off to some Norwegian businessmen. Tell it to the birds.

O'Leary, who yesterday launched his book, Leeds United on Trial, of which he says he is so proud in the face of suggestions that it may well be the shoddiest literary enterprise since Glenn Hoddle's World Cup diary, is angered by the fact that Smith is paying a price for his reputation.

As if Leeds are not the club who above all others in present circumstances should venture into the subject of natural justice with the circumspection of a bomb-disposal squad, O'Leary complains bitterly that the elbow thrown by Smith at Cardiff's Andy Legg did not warrant a red card. Perhaps a yellow card, then. That certainly would have triggered an interesting talking point in that earlier in the game Smith was caught on video aiming a petulant kick at Legg.

Smith has an appalling record – as O'Leary has accepted from time to time – which demands not special pleading but an understanding that too many liberties have already been taken. Last spring Smith was dismissed from a European Cup semi-final in Valencia for a dreadful, two-footed lunge at an opponent at a point in the game when the issue was no longer in doubt.

Leeds had paid heavily for the absence of Lee Bowyer, suspended on the eve of the game by Uefa, the governing body of European football, for an equally sickening offence, a stamping of the Valencia player Juan Sanchez in the first leg.

Despite the dancing of such disciplinary skeletons, O'Leary's emphasis at Cardiff was not on Smith's latest lack of professional control but the widespread deficiencies of referees, who, according to the manager, now lead lives of previously unimagined ease. Where, you had to wonder once again, was the football man willing to accept his own responsibilities before reminding everyone else of theirs?

Not at Arsenal, where one of the game's brightest individuals, Arsène Wenger, points out that his team's more competitive form this season coincides with a sharp increase in yellow and red cards. This was said in the wake of Thierry Henry's emotional rampage at Highbury recently, when he was so outraged by refereeing decisions he had to be restrained by his team-mates. At what point does a passion for success become a breakdown in professionalism? How many suspensions at any one time are acceptable to a club intent on winning major prizes? The whole argument is a nonsense, and its source is dismaying. Wenger's football belongs with the angels. His ideas on discipline should be kicked into the street.

Football may just argue that it is an easy target for a society not exactly redolent with moral vigour. But, if it does that, it misses another point. Football is a privileged world, of vast reward but also relentless attention. It needs saving not from its enemies but its apologists. That Sam Hammam, David O'Leary and Ken Bates should be able to operate in such a moral vacuum, that they should be granted credibility rather than unremitting scorn, is one huge part of the problem.

Hammam claims that he was simply behaving "normally" at Ninian Park. He always goes behind a goal before the end of a game. His intentions in running on the field were not to provoke a riot. Perhaps not, but did he think about the possible effect? Does O'Leary believe that his torrents of selective moral outrage have not yet been measured against his handling of the Bowyer-Woodgate affair, and the personal profit he will make from it at the bookstall, or that his platitudes still have the power to beguile anyone but the simple-minded? Does Ken Bates think that in the case of Terry he represents anything but appalling expediency?

Sooner or later the football tribe must stop to consider such questions, but it is hard to be optimistic. To solve a problem you first need to recognise it. Unfortunately, it is something that takes a little wit.