Peter Corrigan: Why the beautiful game swears by beastliness

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you want to get ahead get a hate. That is not a piece of homespun philosophy recently composed in the heat of the battle for the Premiership, but a phrase that came floating back to me from over 40 years ago while I was watching our heroes in action last week.

If you want to get ahead get a hate. That is not a piece of homespun philosophy recently composed in the heat of the battle for the Premiership, but a phrase that came floating back to me from over 40 years ago while I was watching our heroes in action last week.

I can't quite remember who coined it - it might even have been me - but it wasn't all that clever because it was just a play on an advertising slogan prominent in the early Sixties. In an attempt to boost the sales of trilbies, men were urged to improve their promotion prospects by donning the headgear. Sadly, apart from the horseracing fraternity, I don't believe the exhortation: "If you want to get ahead get a hat," made a lasting impression.

It wasn't long before the final "e" was added by some sports-page wag, and football managers picked it up as a handy encapsulation of the sort of commitment footballers need in order to perform at maximum effectiveness.

Working up a loathing for the opposition was scarcely a new concept even then. Ever since competitive sport began, it has been regarded as healthy to consider anyone blocking the way to your goal as an enemy.

If you are unable to rise to this level of antagonism, if you lack the essential killer instinct, you are liable to be dismissed as a nice guy, and we all know what happens to them.

This approach applies to all sports. We have seen top tennis players make a fine art out of acrimony. We have people in our golf club who can froth at the mouth in their hostility to anyone who stands between them and winning a 50p side bet. Every week, on remote football and rugby pitches throughout the land, men kick lumps out of each other without a penny piece, or any other discernable benefit, at stake. So we should not be shocked when those in pursuit of the highest rewards in football exhibit an aversion to their rivals that borders on the malevolent.

Some people are born hating, some acquire the habit and others have hatred thrust upon them. Into what category our plutocrat footballers fall I shall leave for you to decide, but what we witnessed at Highbury on Tuesday was an extreme example of the condition.

You cannot blame coaches when they demand their players get their fangs out for the fans, but Arsenal and Manchester United appear to have developed a mutual hatred capable of surpassing the deadliest local-derby rivalry; Rangers and Celtic excepted, of course.

There is no geographical or religious background to the antipathy between Highbury and Old Trafford, apart from the bad feeling that has grown like a canker between the two managers over the past few seasons.

It seems a touch forlorn now that Chelsea are commanding the scene, but Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have fought a puppet-masters' war to which it was impossible for both sets of players not to respond. The first violent manifestation of that response was the gang attack on Ruud van Nistelrooy by the Gunners' defence. Then came the soup-flying sequel to Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford earlier in the season and, now, a heavy home defeat that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

Wenger has been the clear loser in this battle of the blowhards, because his men have blinked first when the intensity knob has been turned to full. He will now be thinking that a more restrained policy would have been preferable, for his men to keep their heads when all around were losing theirs.

There are other reasons for Arsenal's retreat from the invincibility they wore like a suit of armour when they entered this season, but being drawn into mixing it with a United team much superior in the nasty department was a bad mistake.

If hate is a valuable motivational weapon in a contest, hate-management is just as important. One of the ways in which sport differs from real life is that when it is over you snap out of whatever mode you have managed to get yourself into. Boxers manage it best, often with a switch from the murderous to the cuddly magnanimous in a split-second. Rugby players make a similar transition.

It is just as well. Otherwise, considering the level of the personal animosity we see on our sports pitches every weekend, there would be scores of fights behind the grandstand. There are none, of course, although you get the feeling that Arsenal and United are getting more reluctant not to continue the fight once the referee has taken the ball home. Fortunately, much can happen to a man's courage when he is asked to demonstrate it without 50,000 spectators present.

We must hope that this feud has now run its course. No one wants the blood- and-thunder element removed from British football and, thankfully, there seems little chance of that. The fact that these days there are far fewer Britons involved in producing typically British games is a subject worth a separate study.

But there are aspects of the game requiring rapid action. Last week we urged the FA's newly appointed chief executive, Brian Barwick, to jump on diving. That was his first pledge, but it did not stop Ashley Cole demonstrating his fondness for the unassisted fall at Highbury.

Many would also put swearing at the top of the list, especially after Wayne Rooney gave the referee, and lip-readers everywhere, an example of his limited but violent vocabulary. Effing and blinding have become part of most people's lives, but when ceaselessly directed at officials it loses its charm and should be outlawed.

An evening date to avoid

We have long become accustomed to the fact that in football nothing is sacred, so the suggestion that next year's FA Cup Final may be played on a Wednesday evening should come as no surprise.

We can hope only that the Football Association are merely walking the idea around the block to see who shoots at it. Plenty have already done that.

They have a problem, because Sven Goran Eriksson has been promised that he will have a month clear between the end of the season and the start of the 2006 World Cup in Germany to prepare his England squad - always supposing that they qualify - and the existing date for the final, 20 May, would not allow that.

The Premiership season is due to finish on 13 May so the previous Wednesday would suit, but the complications that would bring for the supporters, especially during the London rush hour, do not bear thinking about. The final is intended to be the inaugural showpiece of the new Wembley but it could be as chaotic as the 1923 opening of the old Wembley, when it needed the services of a magical white horse to restore order before West Ham and Preston could kick off.

The problem could be avoided if the Premier League began their season a week earlier, but that would jeopardise their lucrative pre-season friendlies, so they would prefer to nudge the Cup final into some dark corner.

There's another possible problem. Any student of stadium construction will tell you that they are rarely completed on time, so it could be that the Millennium Stadium would have to come to the rescue again - and the prospect of Cardiff having to cope with an evening influx of 75,000 is appalling.

Comments