The Nick Townsend Column: A 'criminal' challenge - but let's keep the Thatcher case out of the courts

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The Independent Football

It's football's version of absolute privilege. Once out on that hallowed turf, you can commit just about any act of malevolence, without legal censure. Roy Keane, Sunderland's reported manager-in-waiting, did. That image of the then Manchester United captain directing a studded boot into Alf Inge Haaland's leg, the belated retribution for a perceived ill, isn't easily erased.

Possibly worse was the manner in which he gloried in the assault in his autobiography. "Alfie was taking the piss. I'd waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that, you cunt. And don't stand over me again sneering about fake injuries."

Perhaps fortunately for Keane, Haaland's tibia and fibula remained intact. Red card. Man's game. Accept the knocks. Some rumblings of discontent from Manchester City, and threats of civil action, but nothing more from the FA than a fine and five-game ban. For the penned admission, not the act. Had Keane behaved similarly outside in Sir Matt Busby Way, he would have been charged with assault.

To Ben Thatcher's relief, no doubt, Pedro Mendes's brain doesn't appear to have been damaged following his forearm smash in the face of Portsmouth's Portuguese striker on Wednesday - although the player is to undergo continued neurological supervision. Who knows what the legacy of Wednesday night's assault by the Manchester City and Wales defender might have been? The culprit has since apologised, but rarely is sorry the hardest word.

Rightly, the Football Association have acted with decent haste in charging Thatcher, the recipient of only a caution at the time from the referee, Dermot Gallagher, for "serious foul play"; there apparently being no crime on the FA's statute book of wanton thuggery. The game's governing body could have contrived to bind themselves tighter in the red tape which decrees that there cannot be further sanctions if the referee has seen the incident. Would a predicted six-game ban be too draconian? Few would argue if the FA barred Thatcher until Christmas.

His club have already issued him with a suspension of their own. But is it appropriate for the Boys in Dark Blue to make a closer inspection of the callous act perpetrated by the man in light blue? The players' union chief executive, Gordon Taylor, has raised the spectre of legal action. That presumably could be civil or criminal, or both.

Already that familiar phrase "Duty of care" has been uttered, which will have had the lawyers mentally calculating their fees. For the moment, the Greater Manchester Police are merely conducting an "investigation".

Thatcher's manager, Stuart Pearce, is concerned about the ramifications of police involvement. But this was so far on the outer limits of acceptability it was out there with Pluto. Such was the apparently premeditated and violent nature of the act by the 30-year-old Thatcher, who comes with a record of "previous", including a not-dissimilar elbow on Nicky Summerbee six years ago, that he could scarcely complain if his culpability was indeed examined in a criminal court.

The response it didn't require was an overreaction by Keith Hackett, who goes by the title of general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd but is better known as the "referees' chief". Seemingly more intent on appeasing those callers to Radio 5's 6-0-6 who habitually complain that "the ref lost us the match" than rationale, Hackett has already "dropped" Gallagher from officiating yesterday for failing to dismiss Thatcher.

As Hackett put it: "He'll be somewhere gardening this weekend." Two other referees, Rob Styles and Peter Walton, have also been demoted, albeit temporarily, from the 17-strong select group to the Coca-Cola League for "clear errors that I can't defend".

It is gesture management. Hackett concedes that Gallagher had told him that from his view he was not 100 per cent certain that a red card was warranted. He thought Mendes had sustained the injury from crashing into the advertising hoarding.

As an ex-official himself, Hackett can surely differentiate between an erroneous appliance of the laws and a failure, because of the referee's positioning, to identify a sending-off offence, or in the case of the other pair (Styles, in the Sheffield United-Liverpool game and Walton in the Everton-Watford fixture) wrongly awarding a penalty?

Clearly, if Gallagher had witnessed the Thatcher incident in all its horror, as it was captured by one particular TV angle, the Oxfordshire official would have done his duty.

The irony is that for all the well-meaning campaigns, post-World Cup, demanding the elimination of diving and cheating, it is the kind of heinous challenge that we believed had disappeared with the dinosaurs that is exercising us.

A challenge that was not as severe, but nevertheless should have no place in the game, was that of Middlesbrough's Chris Riggott on Reading's Dave Kitson last Saturday. As Kitson, who is out for who knows how long,recalls: "Riggott cleaned me out completely. When someone tackles you waist-high on the halfway line, it's just crazy. I thought my whole knee had gone.It went out the side." Riggott escaped with a caution and not a sign of retrospective justice. The referee, Mark Halsey, was yesterday officiating at Tottenham-Everton, so Hackett presumably has overlooked that performance.

Thankfully, such moments are rare. A harsh sentence handed down to Thatcher, preferably by the FA rather than the courts, would impress on players the desire to keep it that way.

Keane adds an edge to reborn Championship

So, is Roy Keane prepared to put his mouth where Niall Quinn's money is ... and employ it to exhort Sunderland's players to do something they have failed to do consistently for over a year, which is to win matches?

It would be a somewhat bizarre turn of events, given the pair's history during and after the 2002 World Cup. "Muppet" and "coward" were among the descriptions articulated by Keane about the new Sunderland chairman following his walk- out from Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland squad.

Keane's impetuosity clearly precedes him, which is presumably why the bookmakers make him only 5-2 to quit by Christmas. Keane is a wealthy man who doesn't need to work. He would not be seeking a sinecure at the Stadium of Light.

There must be some doubts about whether Keane can cope with the frustrations he will inevitably confront at a club where the light has for too long been dimmed.

Certainly he would swiftly discover that man-managing players who are his inferiors, both in talent and desire, requires different skills from those required at Old Trafford. It could be exasperating.

However, the former midfielder, who flourished first under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and then as captain of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, lacks nothing in his grounding for the job. He is a driven, dynamic character, if at times intemperate.

His appointment, should he decide to accept Quinn's mission, would provoke all manner of intriguing possibilities in a Championship season which has suddenly acquired a renewed fascination.

Certainly, 25 November would be a date to note. That is when Keane would be in the opposite corner, so to speak, from McCarthy, now manager of Wolves. The bookmakers offer odds of 100-1 against him throwing a punch at McCarthy. He might just settle for the sweetest of victories.

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