The Last Word: Sorry is the hardest word, especially if you mean it

The way of modern sport is to deny, or show contrition for reasons other than true remorse

This is no time to suspend disbelief, to surrender to sophistry and subterfuge. Ignore the arrogance which assumes an apology will suffice, regardless of whether it is neutered by a ghostwriter or nuanced by a lawyer.

Ask yourself a sequence of simple questions. In whom do you believe: Roy Hodgson, Ashley Cole or Kevin Pietersen? Should their contrition be trusted? Can their characters withstand scrutiny? Do they deserve your forgiveness? The answers will be deeply personal, but instructive.

For the record, I found Hodgson's response to his midweek gaffe perversely noble. Cole's apology, for his outburst against the FA, lacked authenticity. Pietersen's acceptance of the need to rebuild relationships was transparently tactical.

To broaden the argument, the fact John Terry has yet to apologise to Anton Ferdinand, and Lance Armstrong insists his conscience is clear, despite accusations he is modern sport's most malign influence, is damning and entirely in character. Deny, deny, deny. When the alternative is to shine a harsh light on the darkest recesses of your soul, reality is usually too uncomfortable to countenance.

Football's narrative resembles a Derek & Clive sketch. FA disciplinary judgements carry warnings that the contents are "unsuitable for minors", but the English game remains a global industry which promotes fictional virtues and artificial values.

Improbable sums are wasted on PR lackeys whose first instinct is to dissemble rather than share. They argue that, as prominent public figures and brand ambassadors, footballers should disguise flaws, deny mistakes.

They resist the admission of human error for fear of exposing the consequences of a client's ignorance or malice. They want to trade on the illusion of intimacy created by copy-approved interviews and sanitised public appearances.

It is not easy to own up to weakness or stupidity in such an overexposed, testosterone-driven environment as professional sport. So when someone of Hodgson's status apologises with clarity and humility, he is legitimised by his all-too-visible discomfort and decency. Hodgson's greatest gift as England manager has been the identity of his enemies. The headlines which mocked his slight speech impediment were rightly condemned as puerile and vindictive. He will be excused the embarrassment of becoming a victim of vigilante journalism on the Jubilee Line.

By contrast, Cole's instinctive anger defined the ugliness of his character. The apology, issued through his solicitor, might have conformed to a crisis-management strategy, but it lacked humanity, context and credibility.

Pietersen, too, read his stage-managed speech as if it were the menu from his local Chinese take-away. It was devoid of meaning or substance. His only compensation was the presence of ECB chairman Giles Clarke, a parody of pomposity. Pietersen's Orwellian reintegration programme compromises Andy Flower. It insults the intelligence of a man of principle and character. No one could blame England's head coach for resigning.

We live in strange times. Bizarrely, Pietersen's performance triggered memories of Tiger Woods's most notorious apology. The golfer, whose brand was tainted by domestic problems, has never recovered from an expression of sorrow which seemed to be directed at corporate America rather than the family he had fragmented.

The FA have yet to apologise for their manifest failings, of both process and personnel. But this is unsurprising, since football has been sucked so deeply into a vortex of denial and distortion that the truth is a challenge to convention.

Managers admit privately that they lie casually and consistently. Sir Alex Ferguson has demeaned himself by banning journalists for accurately reporting on Manchester United's injury problems. Senior Premier League executives accept their impotence, and do not bother to enforce their own statutes.

That is crass, self-serving and utterly typical.

Football dreams are made of this

The image was timeless yet timely, ubiquitous yet unique. It represented a reminder of innocence, an antidote to the malaise of modern football.

Ironically, it was carried on Twitter, the medium for much of the slurry which infects the game, on the day when Ashley Cole used fewer than 140 characters to destroy what remained of his reputation.

"The very proud Dad and my son in his England U 16 kit" ran the caption, on a photograph of Ayodele Amos and his son, Luke.

I came across it by accident, but there was something strangely reassuring in the easily discernable emotions of the moment. Even the ogres of the modern game were once driven by unblemished ambition

Luke is a central midfielder from Tottenham's academy who made his England debut in the 5-0 Victory Shield win against Northern Ireland in Dungannon.

He is a symbol of a dream that is too often distorted. A boy's hopes are fragile, and easily destroyed by poor coaching or external influences.

Amos is small, skilful and technically adept. He has made exceptional progress, but only a fraction of his England team will make it in professional football.

He will need good people around him, with his best interests at heart. He will need luck to avoid injury, and strength of character to avoid distractions.

At the risk of tempting fate, I hope football gives him a life. We need all the feelgood stories we can get.

Boot it out

Boxer Orlando Cruz has joined rugby player Gareth Thomas, cricketer Steven Davies and hurler Donal Og Cusack in coming out as a gay athlete. It will continue to be news until a footballer follows suit. A game struggling with racism must also deal with homophobia.

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