James Lawton: Pampered players defraud the fans

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Slip another image into football's portfolio of shame, this time Leicester City players being hauled off in a Spanish paddy wagon. But don't let's be too disappointed if some representative figure, say the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, doesn't leap to his feet with a ringing denouncement of these days of wine and bedraggled roses.

The problem will have little to do with the outcome of legal niceties in the wake of yesterday's investigation of six Leicester City players (all of whom deny the claims) over allegations of "sexual aggression" during what was supposed to be a recharging of Premiership batteries. It is essentially one of an ever deepening shortfall of responsible behaviour by hugely rewarded professional footballers.

There is also another critical deficit. It is of rage. Rage that this most pampered generation of sportsmen should so repeatedly disfigure a national game that has heaped upon them wealth and celebrity to the point of financial collapse. Rage that each successive example of breakdown in discipline and any sense of dedication acts not as a warning signal but some bizarre provocation for fresh anarchy.

Events in La Manga serve as a classic illustration of the gap between expectations and performance by footballers, some of astounding mediocrity, who earn more than men and women in the forefront of science and medicine.

Whatever the outcome of criminal charges against the Leicester players, certain facts are not in dispute. Club directors who, having controversially negotiated the dangerous waters of financial administration and under the fierce pressure of another possible relegation, had to be persuaded by the manager, Micky Adams, that lashing out on a Spanish break for players struggling to hold on to a place in the top flight was a sound investment.

Now Adams is said to be "distraught" at the way the trip disintegrated into drunken scenes in the public bar of the La Manga resort - quite apart from the ensuing developments which led to the involvement of the Spanish police after the complaints of three German women.

The first phase of the disaster was painfully familiar for Leicester supporters, who will remember that a few years ago another break in Spain ended with one of their players being censured for discharging a fire extinguisher in a public bar. That was Stan Collymore, whose career as a BBC sports broadcaster was terminated this week after he had been caught in a tabloid "sting" in a car park notorious as a negotiating centre for casual sex. The point here is that Collymore has now paid for what he thought were private indiscretions; before these were exposed, he was given the privileged status of a commentator on the game which his own career as a professional did nothing less than mock.

This surely is at the root of the behavioural morass which the new Leicester saga highlights.

What is the penalty for bad behaviour if you are a big-name footballer? It is true that Rio Ferdinand is now serving a nine-month ban for failing to take a drugs test, but the sentence was greeted with horror in many areas of the game. The PFA's Taylor said that it was another story of a footballer being hung out to dry. Ferdinand had not encapsulated the epidemic of indiscipline; he was a martyr.

His Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville attempted to stage a strike of England's players in protest at Ferdinand being dropped from a vital game. David Beckham, the England captain, "dedicated" the ensuing 0-0 draw with Turkey to Ferdinand. And then, when Neville was sent off for diving and head-butting an opponent, he used in The Times to proclaim his lack of regrets.

Vinnie Jones's career as a professional was an assault on decent sensibilities. He was given the Welsh shirt once worn by John Charles. He had his knuckles rapped for producing a video nasty which glorified the kind of physical outrage which became his trademark. But the celebrity of Jones only soared. Broadcasters couldn't get enough of him.

A few months ago, the game braced itself for a tide of devastating publicity when Premiership players were linked with the complaints of rape by a teenaged convent girl. That crisis passed, and no charges were brought, but not, we have been vividly reminded this week, the sense that a culture of hedonism and professional irresponsibility is now deeply entrenched.

This, no doubt, is hard on those many professionals who do have an idea of how important the game is to the millions who give it life with their support. Certainly it is a travesty of the meaning of the career of a Gianfranco Zola, the former star of Chelsea who breathed his passion for football - and his gratitude - and also that of Michael Owen, an English counterpart who lives under the self-imposed pressure of striving for the highest levels of performance in the inevitably brief span of a professional career.

For all those who have any influence on the game, and not least the PFA, there is surely one burning question today.

It concerns the effect of the alleged episode in La Manga on the supporters of Leicester City. A passionate bunch, they have known some of the worst of times over the last few years, but their enthusiasm and belief have been undimmed. What do they think now when they look up from their factory benches or office desks? Do they feel part of a football dream? Or, perhaps more likely, the victims of fraud?

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