Petty, parochial and arrogant football

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The Independent Football

I guess most of the words you might have read on footballing issues over the weekend will have been written with some difficulty because, after the events of 11 September, it is futile to try to pretend that any game, even one which likes to be known as the world game, really means too much.

I guess most of the words you might have read on footballing issues over the weekend will have been written with some difficulty because, after the events of 11 September, it is futile to try to pretend that any game, even one which likes to be known as the world game, really means too much.

I was in Liverpool when I heard the news of the American atrocities, not for the European Champions' League, but as a guest at a city function to honour Simon Weston, the Falklands War veteran whose charity, Weston Spirit, works to help disadvantaged young people realise their potential in life. Understandably, the city authorities postponed the ceremony and I went home to absorb the unfolding news.

Next night I attended Blackburn Rovers' Worthington Cup tie against Oldham. Never for a moment did I think that the match would or should be called off. It was a domestic matter, without any wider significance or relevance. For me and the 9,500 or so who braved the foulest of east Lancashire evenings, the normality of the night was our refuge from the horrors we had seen on our television screens, and it seemed no bad thing. We were not directly affected.

The minute's silence was impeccably observed, something which football crowds have improved at over the years. The game itself seemed to be proceeding to some sort of plan for 80 minutes. The Premiership team, albeit at watered-down Worthington rather than Barclaycard solid gold strength, were coasting. Second Division Oldham were tidy enough, but limited in ambition, and the referee, Tony Bates, operating under the benign gaze of League chief Jim Ashworth, only had cause to issue two yellow cards.

All of a sudden, this Lancashire dish became a very hot pot indeed. I think it was a bad tackle and retaliation which sparked what the Football Association calls a mass confrontation and what the tabloids normally label an ugly brawl.

It would take far longer to describe than the actual duration of the incident, but I can summarise it thus. One or two punches were landed, the technical area was a swarming mass of pulling and pushing bodies, a policewoman intervened and the poor referee had a long consultation with his assistant before taking what the referee training manual calls the appropriate course of action. Darren Sheridan of Oldham was sent off, as was his colleague, Mark Allott, who had already been substituted. Marcus Bent, who had come on as a Blackburn substitute, suffered the same fate. What part the ubiquitous fourth official played in the fracas is not clear. Ashworth at this point left his seat in the stand. And Graeme Souness sent Mark Hughes on!

Asked later whether I felt it was obscene that highly-paid footballers could be scuffling about like little kids who don't know any better at a time when hundreds of bodies were being dragged from the rubble in New York, I replied: ''They don't think.'' Then later I reflected on my answer, and I recalled that not so many years ago I had been instrumental in instigating disciplinary action against a footballer not solely because of what he had done, stamping on an opponent, but because of the context of the match in which he had committed his indiscretion.

Roy Keane assaulted Gareth Southgate in an FA Cup semi-final replay overshadowed by the death of a fan in the vicinity of the original tie and many Crystal Palace supporters had been upset that the replay went back to Villa Park.

If we feel we are entitled to normality, whatever that is, we must expect the players to behave as they normally would, that is, within the parameters the game lays down for the exercise of their profession. It is not wholly their fault if childish, macho posturing has been tolerated for far too long.

It is not their fault if I can hardly summon up this week the anger I should feel when Oldham manager Andy Ritchie, not the most outrageous of his breed, dismisses the incident with the beautifully scornful word "handbags" that has come to so capture the arrogance and insularity of our game.

My passion about how this pastime might be bettered will most likely return as the horror of last week fades. However, the worry is that we may all be more directly affected by what happened than we at first thought.

In the meantime, Simon Weston's freedom of Liverpool award will be re-arranged. There's someone with cause for anger. Having been privileged to meet some of the inspirational young people he has helped, literally, out of the gutter, I pledge a return to normal service as soon as possible.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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