The Last Word: How the once beautiful game can get rid of its snarling face

Football's rulers must copy rugby and put system in place to deal swiftly and efficiently with foul-mouths
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The Independent Football

Picture the scene: Manchester United are playing West Ham and they work the ball to the brains of their attacking operation on the edge of the opposition penalty area. He hammers a low drive into the net, then raises his right arm in fleeting celebration. He has a sheepish look on his face when two team-mates walk up to congratulate him.

"A Bobby Charlton goal is always one of the popular sights at Old Trafford, Manchester," Kenneth Wolstenholme says on the commentary. It could be EM Forster talking about a foreign country. That's what it feels like when you watch and listen to the reactions to Bobby's dazzler from September 1969 and the other blasts from the past on the BBC's 101 Great Goals video. They certainly did things differently then.

When Bryan "Pop" Robson (the goal-poacher who preceded the midfield dynamo of the same name) scores with a spectacular volley for Newcastle at Upton Park in 1970, there is no snarling or obscene gesturing from the home crowd. They break into spontaneous applause. When Justin Fashanu curls a stunning volley past Ray Clemence at Carrow Road in 1980 he simply raises the index finger of his right hand and outdoes Bobby Charlton on the sheepishness front. And there was a troubled young soul with reason to vent some spleen to the world.

Quite when the goal celebration became a vehicle for an outpouring of angst – the kind of King Lear meets Malcolm Tucker impression that Wayne Rooney performed at Upton Park eight days ago – is hard to say. There is no hint of it in the ancient football world depicted on 101 Great Goals. Gerry Francis does make a one or two-fingered salute after scoring for QPR against Liverpool in 1975 but, in his historical defence, he could possibly be indicating the score and he has a smile on his face throughout.

Let us pause for a little perspective here. The malaise of modern football goes far deeper than the passing moment of foul-mouthing that has cost Rooney a two-match ban, although the incident did offer a graphic illustration of how the once beautiful game has lost its smiling face. Rio Ferdinand was right to point out in the midst of a predictably over-blown media storm: "There are bigger things going on in the world." There were even things going on within the confines of the sporting world in England last weekend that were worthy of greater public disdain.

At the Twickenham Stoop, for example, where the props Marcos Ayerza and Joe Marler were involved in an ugly spat that involved a headbutt and an uppercut. Both were red-carded by the referee and have since received two-week bans. Then there was the incident at Franklin's Gardens that has led to the Sale and England wing Mark Cueto being cited for "making contact with the eye or eye area" of Northampton's Christian Day. Cueto faces a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel tomorrow and, if found guilty, a minimum ban of 12 weeks.

Apologists for Rooney and the rest of the routinely bad-behaving Premier League football set could point to such instances and to the apparent hypocrisy of Sir Clive Woodward criticising the Manchester United playerfor his latest misdemeanour. They would, however, be missing the big point. For all of its ills, rugby union has a system in place which deals swiftly and efficiently with those whose actions do harm to its image and its good name.

If the officers of the Football Association and the Premier League are truly serious about attempting to replace the snarling face of top-flight football with something like the old smile, they would do well to take not a leaf but a handful of them out of the rugby union book. For one thing, as well as drastically revising their own volume, they should start throwing it at any player or manager who chooses to swear or act in an aggressive manner towards a match official.

It was heartening to hear a Premier League footballer suggesting as much on Match of the Day 2 last Sunday – and advocating an adoption from the start of next season of the rugby union code of only the captain being allowed to question the referee. "If anyone else does it, they get sent off," Blackburn's goalkeeper Paul Robinson added. "Or if they're in any way aggressive and they swear at an official, they get sent off. All right, the first four or five games you're going to get three or four people a game sent off. But, believe me, it'll soon stop."

If we end up with farcical seven-a-side games, it will be worth it. Something needs to be done to start ridding football of the ritual of outraged players bad-mouthing and intimidating officials at every mildly contentious decision. It is a grotesque spectacle to behold and utterly pointless. As Brian Clough used to tell his players, any protest will not change the mind of the referee. "I prided myself on producing teams who didn't argue with referees and linesmen and who could anticipate a bollocking and a fine from me if they resorted to any form of dissent," he wrote in Clough: The Autobiography.

The adoption of the sin-bin system from rugby union might provide another piece of weaponry with which the football equivalent of the umpire could fight back – for dissent or other offences. The chances are that we will still be wringing our hands about the same matters in the penultimate month of the 2020-21 season, but there will be no stopping of the rot unless an effort is made. A concerted effort.

The bad attitude and aggression that is blighting top-level football, of course, stretches well beyond the field of play. There is a hint of that midway through the 101 Great Goals tape, when Allan Clarke scores for Leeds at Middlesbrough. It is a blast from the past on the terraces: a chorus of "You're going to get your fucking heads kicked in", circa 1975.