Ken Jones: Meek response to Ferguson outburst reveals football's declining values

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The Independent Football

A few hours after being banished from the touchline at Newcastle last week for allegedly abusing a match official, Sir Alex Ferguson had a case made out for him by the urbane ITV sports presenter Des Lynam who took the view that conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman is excusable in this time.

To my consternation, and I hope that of many others watching the The Premiership programme, Lynam suggested to his sidekicks Ron Atkinson and Ally McCoist that Ferguson's unseemly behaviour was excusable in today's pressurised circumstances. Albeit with a hint of embarrassment, Atkinson and McCoist dutifully agreed.

This was loose thinking on their part. Even allowing for the provocation caused when a referee's assistant failed to advise action against Newcastle's Andy O'Brien for a pretty obvious last-defender foul on Ryan Giggs it would require an eloquent advocate indeed to make a convincing defence for the Manchester United manager. From here, no defence is discernible.

In taking the opposite line, and referring jocularly to the fact Ferguson was obliged to watch most of the match on television in Sir Bobby Robson's office, from where messages were relayed to assistants, Lynam contributed to the sad realisation that football continues to descend from values that helped to make it the world's most popular form of sports entertainment.

The decline of the game as an enjoyable end in itself to a spectacle designed to suit the showbusiness ethic has been rapid. The impression you get now is that almost anything goes, whether it be the hair trigger reaction of players to ills real and imagined or the angry complaints of managers and coaches. The big question for them all and their employers is what sort of an example does this set for an upcoming generation?

Fans turn out not merely in the hope of victory and seeing a game well played. They have learned to expect high jinks and low jinks as part of the show. I don't know why this has happ-ened but a fairly muted response to Ferguson's outburst has been discouraging for those of us who feel there is plenty of room for improved behaviour.

It is not that long ago since managers and coaches were required to remain seated on the touchline, conforming to a rule that prevented them from communicating with their charges during play. A disputable imposition, it at least had the effect of keeping emotions in check and avoiding disputes with officials. Most conformed, one or two didn't. The former Manchester City coach Malcolm Allison always had a good word for referees, and it resulted in quite hefty fines and at least one suspension.

Let's admit, sadly, that there has not evolved a decent ethic that can fully discipline football for the audience that has its mind more on the game than the millions the game generates. It seems that discipline can only be achieved through rules not personal restraints. Ferguson admitted as much when stating that a tightening up of authority obliges him to be more equable.

An upcoming generation of sportswriters take it all in their stride, arguing that football must move with the times, that eruptions of every sort are part of the entertainment and therefore acceptable. What they are hinting at is anarchy.

This is not a fear in any other sphere of sports entertainment. In rugby the referee's word is beyond dispute. Cricketers can be verbally vile during play but it is almost unheard of for umpires to be publicly accused of bias. Boxing, the hardest of sports, has a strict code of conduct in the ring.

Listening to Lynam's defence of Ferguson I cringed. Together with Atkinson and McCoist he should have gone off and washed out his mouth with carbolic soap.