Peter Corrigan: The roam danger: don't play it again, Sam

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The Independent Online

No wonder there are complaints about the abundance of money in football when they can afford to throw so much on to the pitch. Similar profligacy applies to bottles that we used to take back to the shop for the deposit.

As for meat pies, the chucking of one on Thursday night will cost a Millwall fan a lifetime ban. Most meat pies at football grounds are only dangerous if you eat them, but as the Millwall chairman, Theo Paphitis, said: "If you allow a meat pie today, who knows what they will be throwing tomorrow?"

What has been happening over the past weeks is no laughing matter, but it is difficult to maintain a seriousness of sufficient gravity when each development brings a fresh wave of wry mirth.

Sam Hammam, Cardiff City's owner, has been responsible for a steady flow of the more lurid stuff. The revelation that his personal minder was once banned from every football ground in the country after being convicted of hooliganism offences was rich material indeed to throw into the continuing drama.

At Cardiff's home game with Peterborough yesterday, Hammam issued each spectator with a 3,000-word pamphlet explaining Cardiff's view of the situation and the "evil and wicked" media campaign against them. "We will close ranks and unite under the motto one for all and all for one," he said.

Well, not quite all. Hooligans would be fought very robustly, he said. This is at odds with the reforming zeal with which he had rescued his shaven-headed minder, Neil MacNamara, from the ranks of thuggery. Even that may not be what it seems. MacNamara would accompany his boss on his famous walks around the pitch and Hammam would beam at the rapturous reception he received from the Cardiff fans. But had he listened more carefully he would have heard that many of the rougher specimens were chanting "Macca, Macca". The lads were obviously heartened that one of their own had made the big time. It's the first time in football history that hooliganism has proved to be a career move.

Hammam has vowed to stand behind his man, which is a good idea when the opposition fans are throwing stuff, and went on to boast: "Find me the biggest nutter and I will change him." He won't have to look far because, pound for pound, Cardiff have for years possessed the most virulent army of troublemakers in the game. I happen to live close enough to Cardiff to have friends who are passionate devotees of Ninian Park – I was not averse to invading that pitch myself as a youngster – and they say that there has been an improvement in the behaviour of the unruly element recently.

In past seasons, the Cardiff crew have caused havoc at places like Stoke, Brentford and Reading, but they have been much less active away from home this season. It is different, however, when fans of other clubs invade their patch. Tens of thousands of supporters of English clubs came to watch their teams play in the FA Cup and Worthington Cup finals plus other matches last year, and the only real problem the South Wales police had was to keep the Cardiff City fans away from the city centre. The fact that their team were not involved did not dissuade them from trying to attack the visitors.

When Cardiff play at home, it is normal for the police to have to escort the visiting fans from the station to the ground via the back streets and back again. They did this with the Leeds fans last Sunday.

It is fair to say that, but for this heavy police escort, football at Ninian Park would have largely been impossible for many years, and without the constabulary last Sunday what locals regard as a regular scene of confrontation between rival fans would have been really serious.

This seems an appropriate time for Hammam to decide whether he intends to turn Ninian Park into a home for repentant hooligans or try to remove them from the scene. For the latter option he will need a lot of help from the football authorities and the courts.

Unfortunately, subsequent misbehaviour by fans, players and managers at Aston Villa, Fulham, Stamford Bridge and Millwall has buried the Cardiff case in a heap of disciplinary problems that are very difficult to solve.

It has been suggested that perimeter fencing should be brought back. Another Hillsborough could be prevented by having collapsible fencing that could be controlled by a button. Which way would they collapse, I wonder; inwards on to the fans or outwards on to the police and stewards?

A fine distinction

On the subject of discipline, the Rugby Football Union fell a touch short of the draconian on Thursday, but we were all glad to learn that the short sentence handed to Austin Healey was not in any way caused by their anxiety that he should be available for England by the start of the Six Nations.

It hinged more on a dictionary definition of what constitutes a kick. If they had ruled that he kicked the Sale winger Anthony Elliott he would have got six weeks' suspension, but they felt it was halfway between a kick and a trip, so he received only three.

The judgement on whether Sale's Alex Sanderson spat at an opponent was even more convoluted. Part of his defence was that he produces an abnormal amount of saliva which he is obliged to unload often. They let him off with a reprimand because he didn't seem to spit at one opponent but in the general direction of them all. His lack of accuracy, therefore, saved him from a ban.

Thankfully, I have not seen pictures of the spit, but I am told that had it found a target the player would have been in danger of drowning.

The visionary thing

Boasting is not part of this column's nature, but it is hard to refrain from pointing out that Cardiff's victory over Leeds was forecast in my predictions for 2002 carried in this space two weeks ago.

But it was another, even more outlandish, bit of soothsaying to which I want to draw attention. Much taken by the new interactive television service that even the BBC have now introduced, I envisaged rapid developments in viewer participation. By next season, I predicted, viewers will be able to have players substituted if enough of them press the right button on their remote controls.

Less than two weeks after indulging in that crazy clairvoyance, Stevenage Borough FC, who play in the Nationwide Conference, are to go interactive in a world first that will allow the public to play a part in picking the team and would have allowed them to make substitutions as part of a new television programme.

Stevenage will take part in a Channel 4 programme called You're the Manager in February and March. Three places will be left blank in the team each week and spectators will be asked to vote on which players should fill them. In addition, fans who register were to be able to vote for a substitution via messages on their mobile phones. If there were enough votes, manager Paul Fairclough would have had to change the player. It would be like the Colosseum in Rome. Instead of voting with their thumbs, the spectators would vote with their fingers.

Sadly, on Friday, the Conference vetoed the substitution plans. Although they will allow the fans to help pick the team, they feel that spectators deciding on substitutions would be "unethical".

At least it is on the agenda, and perhaps my other prediction that fans at home will one day press buttons to decide whether miscreants get a red or yellow card will soon be taking shape in some television whizz-kid's mind.

The trouble with trying to be a visionary is that the imagination can barely keep pace with the reality.