James Lawton: Mourinho right to defend his keepers but wrong to accuse Hunt of a deliberate foul
Believe me, a striker does not drop his knee. That is inviting serious injury
Tuesday 17 October 2006
Jose Mourinho has been quite specific in his technical explanation of how it was that his goalkeeper Petr Cech finished up in an operating theatre with a fractured skull. Though the Chelsea manager was open-minded enough to concede that inflicting a life-threatening injury was perhaps not the intention of the Reading striker Stephen Hunt, he was quite detailed in his description of the "deliberate foul" for which he is demanding a heavy punishment by the Football Association.
Said Mourinho: "Hunt clearly fixed his leg to catch Petr. He dropped his knee. He didn't go with the foot to try to catch the ball. He went with his knee at the keeper's head."
Hunt, while plainly guilty of a clumsy and ill-conceived challenge, vehemently protests his innocence and has received the total backing of his famously fair-minded manager, Steve Coppell, the former Manchester United and England winger who brought his team into the top flight without resorting to the kind of cynicism that is commonplace in most areas of the game today.
Though Chelsea have given official backing to Mourinho's stand, it was interesting yesterday to chart a groundswell of opposition among more independent observers. The consensus was that a credible gut reaction to Hunt's unquestionably reckless move almost certainly depended on some experience of playing the game at a decent level. This, unfortunately, disqualifies Mourinho, who has been known to defend ferociously the sometimes excessive physicality of his own players, most notably Michael Essien, who, since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, has been the author of some fouls so harsh that even the blood of hardened old pros has run cold. This was particularly true of a breathtaking demolition of the former Liverpool player Dietmar Hamann in the Champions' League last season.
However, this did nothing to restrain Mourinho, who also declared: "I don't know if Petr is a Catholic, but if he is he should go to the shrine of Fatima because he is lucky to be alive. It was that bad." Away from Fatima, where a vision of Our Lady is said to have appeared to a Portuguese girl, there was rather more down-to-earth assessment.
It came from three major figures in the game, two of whom - Ian St John and John Giles - were particularly adroit performers in the cut and thrust of football in one of its most violent phases in the Sixties and the Seventies. The other was Sir Bobby Charlton. All three of them were quick to say that while the Hunt challenge was unacceptably risky to the health of both the victim Cech and himself, it bore no evidence of a deliberate attempt to inflict injury.
St John, the great striker of Liverpool and Scotland, felt particularly sure of his ground. "I think anyone who played the game seriously would have a pretty clear idea of what happened. Reading faced a big test and this was the first minute of the game. The talk in the dressing-room would inevitably have been about the need to be aggressive, to take the game to Chelsea and so of course there would be quite a bit of adrenalin flying about.
"A striker like Hunt would be right in the middle of of that. Rightly or wrongly, he thought he could put Cech under pressure but as he ran at him it was clear he got his feet wrong. In those circumstances if a striker is trying to do 'the goalkeeper' he leaves his foot in - not his knee. That is fraught with all kind of risks, especially to the striker. Mourinho said he 'dropped' his knee. Believe me, a striker does not drop his knee. That is an invitation to serious injury - a striker dropping his knee is an unnatural act."
Giles, who over 10 years played 520 times as the general of Leeds United and who won 59 caps for the Republic of Ireland, said, "The lad should not have gone for the ball, but saying that is a long way from claiming that he tried to injure the goalkeeper. Ian St John is right. When it is the intention to hurt the goalkeeper the boot goes in - not the knee. I don't know how bright Hunt is but no one playing professional football over any length of time could be so stupid as to try to use his knee in that situation. It would be a form of professional suicide. No one who ever played the game for a living would dispute this."
Charlton said, "It wasn't a good challenge and you have to feel sorry for the goalkeeper but I have to say I didn't think it showed any intention to cause injury. It was one of those unfortunate things that are always going to happen in football."
Perhaps the point stretching beyond the unwelcome crisis the incident brought to a brilliant and brave goalkeeper is that Mourinho was once again utterly subjective in his view of the game in which he wields so much power - and influence. The headlines, as he would have known they would be when he made his charges, were lurid enough. "Make him Pay" declared one. "Hunt in dock as Cech suffers a fractured skull." Last season he accused Lionel Messi, Barcelona's star teenager, of play-acting when he was felled by Chelsea full-back Asier del Horno. A more objective view was that the Argentine prodigy had been obliged to take evasive action to avoid serious injury.
At such times the casualty is generally the truth. No one would dispute the legitimacy of a coach's concern for any of his players and if Mourinho had merely said that Stephen Hunt was guilty of a "stupid" challenge no one could have complained.
But the Chelsea manager went further than that. He pushed the truth beyond its limits, as he had in the notorious Anders Frisk case, when he alleged the Swedish referee had had private talks with the Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard. In this case, he said that Hunt had aimed his knee at Cech's head. It was a statement guaranteed to inflame a painful situation. No matter that it didn't make sense because, after all, you had to play the game to know that.
Cricket's values exhausted by the crazy pursuit of financial gain
England's impending disappearance from the Champions Trophy is not the best of portents for the Ashes series but patriotic concerns for the moment surely dwindle against wider concerns about the health and the morality of the wider game.
Positive results for the performance-enhancing drug nandrolone on the first samples of Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif are the latest indicators that the old game of manners may be subsiding ever more depressingly under the inevitable pressures created by a year-long treadmill of competition.
Ball-tampering, match-fixing and a failure to finish a Test match have all played their part in tearing at the image of a game which was portrayed so beautifully for a few enchanted months by England and Australia last summer. Now there is the spectre of drug use - an inevitable response, some might say, to the ever growing demands on the bodies of the star players.
In one drug scandal of the Tour de France the great Jacques Anquetil shook his head and said, "Some people are amazed that some of the boys use drugs. What really would be amazing if all of them were able to get round the course without them."
The same can be applied to cricket's crazed pursuit of the entertainment pound, rupee and Australian dollar.
Something has to give and of course it is the flesh and blood of the competitors. England go to Australia like a gathering of the halt and the lame - and two great Pakistani players are cast under a shadow. Already it seems that Ashes glory, that perfect competitive balance, happened in another lifetime.
Beckham is not England's answer
Apparently 70 per cent of England football fans are now craving the return of David Beckham... or put another way, three per cent more than those who want to see the summary dismissal of the new coach, Steve McClaren.
In all the angst there is an exquisite irony - that McClaren is suffering most for the decision to jettison Beckham, which was considered a formality if the job had gone to superior candidates like Martin O'Neill or Guus Hiddink.
However, they would have done more than say goodbye to the celebrity king. They would have insisted on fundamental improvements, starting with the knack of passing to members of your own team rather than any old Macedonian or Croat. Also, goalkeeper Paul Robinson might have expected something other than a hug after his fatuous mistake.
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