Peter Corrigan: Society in the dock on a disrepute charge

Click to follow

Attempting to defend our national game against the attacks frequently launched upon it can be a forlorn occupation because some oaf from the pitch or the board-room is likely to undermine your arguments by doing or saying something indefensibly stupid.

Attempting to defend our national game against the attacks frequently launched upon it can be a forlorn occupation because some oaf from the pitch or the board-room is likely to undermine your arguments by doing or saying something indefensibly stupid.

(Unknown to me, even as I wrote those words Chelsea's rising defensive star John Terry was languishing in a police cell along with Wimbledon's Des Byrne following an alleged drunken brawl outside a London club.)

But there are times when that risk needs to be taken and before the new year gets any older it is worth dealing with an outbreak of outraged criticism of football that occurred just before Christmas. Unfortunately, retaliation could not take place at the time because all keyboards were directed to seasonal duties but since it is obvious that the subject is going to be with us for a while it can be justifiably revisited.

I refer in particular to the Jonathan Woodgate-Lee Bowyer case in which the two Leeds United players appeared in a protracted prosecution arising from an attack on a young Asian man. There is no reason to go into the details, apart from reminding you that Woodgate was sentenced to do 100 hours community service for affray and Bowyer was found not guilty, although a few stains were added to his reputation.

The affair is not finished yet because a civil action is said to be in the offing, but the case was enough to let loose the avenging hounds to whom the scent of a footballer in trouble unfailingly creates a great slavering about the jowls.

Drunken high jinks at the Christmas parties of certain clubs were gathered as further evidence of football's decadence and the game's critics swung into action. Not that you could blame them. It was an appalling episode, and still is in some respects, and called many aspects of the game into question. But some commentators went so far over the top they are probably still up there.

One right-wing columnist – not a footballing right-wing, sadly, because if he was you would love to play left-back against him – wrote that "professional football is a catalyst for almost everything offensive and destructive about our country today".

In case you were off school the day they did catalyst it should be pointed out that the word refers to something that precipitates a change. While fully accepting that the ills and frailties of our society too often manifest themselves through football and football supporters, the idea that the game is responsible for them is bizarre.

This column is straying well off- limits by delving into history and anthropology but the British male had a penchant for aggressive and riotous behaviour long before football was invented and this side of our nature may not be unconnected with our fighting prowess on land and sea over the centuries nor with the acquisition of an empire. I venture to say that we produce more louts of all classes per head of population than any other comparable nation in the world and if any were to run us close they would be our former colonies.

At no time in our history have we had to look far for evidence of that. Indeed, only the other day documents released by the Public Records Office revealed that drunken behaviour by British day-trippers in Calais became such a problem in the mid-Sixties that the British ambassador in Paris feared it would damage Anglo-French relations.

One Calais bar owner petitioned the Queen for help after being permanently injured by rioting tourists, but the Foreign Office took the view that it was a problem for the French to sort out. That's a familiar stance. This happened before hooliganism began to grow into the monster it became in English football – and we did nothing for 30 years about shipping that lot to the continent either.

Our columnist friend overlooks the sterile attempts of his favourite political party to control the hooligans in 17 years of power. In fact, some people referred to them as Thatcher's children, which is just as daft as blaming football. The seeds of that despicable crop had long been planted.

Continuing his tirade against football, which he admits to loathing, he goes on to talk about "its poisonous cultural influence infecting so much of our everyday lives". I'm curious to know what part of his everyday life is infected. Perhaps his wife is football-mad and they have only one television set.

Bowyer, who he correctly identifies as like "too many violent, abusive and nasty young men in our country today", has not had his nature shaped by football as he claims, but is a product of society and it is within society that the faults lie. In the best part of 50 years' close observation of the game, I believe that there is no greater ratio of bad 'uns than there has ever been. The difference is that the modern lot have more opportunities, and much more money, to exhibit their wantonness on a grander scale, but that applies to every class and category of young men and women. And if their excesses get more media coverage it is simply because there are more media.

Inevitably, the huge wages that players are paid are held up as part of the problem, but how do the rewards of top players distinguish them from the other young men who are making loads of money these days? Misbehaviour in the entertainment business is accepted as part of an image that sportsmen should not attempt to emulate, but elsewhere where the money flows demonstrations of wealth are not regarded as tawdry.

At least, footballers' money comes from honest sweat and highly competitive and pressurised toil to which many aspire but few reach. None of this defence should suggest that football does not have a problem and it is one that the Football Association have to confront. They were right to refuse England shirts to the Leeds players while their trial was progressing, but the indications are that both will be considered for places in the World Cup squad.

As guardians of the game's integrity, the FA will have to make an example or two. The old charge of bringing the game into disrepute seems perfect for this very purpose. Football may provide a glaringly uncomfortable reflection of our yob culture, but it is certainly not the cause of it and we all need to be reassured that it does not intend to tolerate it.

Clear as mud

I don't know which TV commentator it was – it's difficult to remember which channel you're watching let alone which voice you're listening to – but one had a dig at newspapers last week for suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson may change his mind about retiring as Manchester United manager at the end of the season.

Since it was Sir Alex himself who created that impression with an off-the-cuff remark I don't see why the press should take the blame, but the incident was typical of the confusion we all have to wade through these days.

Communication of clear facts should not be difficult. Sometimes secrecy is necessary, and speculation always fills an information vacuum, but as an avid media monitor I spent last week mystified over what was happening to Paolo Di Canio.

And I have given up wondering about David Beckham. I can accept that he is having form problems and that United are faring better without him but what was the point of putting him on with five minutes to go against Newcastle? Not only was the match as good as over, it was a shambles by then and there wasn't enough time for him to get warm.

It looked like an insult to a player who did prodigious service to his club and country in 2001. I trust it was not intended that way.