The Nick Townsend Column: A game of two centre-halves: honest heroes could mean the world to Sven

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The Independent Football

It is gratifying to read that, even among the new-age travellers of our national game, some traditions die hard. Footballers and Christmas parties. What is it about them? A generation or two ago, they implied nothing much more than a couple of drinks and a finger buffet with the directors and backroom staff. In recent years, though, they have combined to create a potentially lethal cocktail. Even eight years on, Jamie Carragher is still remembered for being caught in flagrante by the News of the World, cavorting with strippers at Liverpool's seasonal festivities.

There was something inev-itable about John Terry's prominence at Chelsea's do this year. As much a leader on the pitch as he is off it, he apparently trousered £200,000 at the casino tables before outlaying £30,000 on the bar bill for the Chelsea boys' bash. Jose Mourinho, who was otherwise occupied, picking up his Coach of the Year award at the BBC's non-Sports Personality of the Year night, was like an indulgent mum. "They are young boys," he cooed. "They have to do sometimes what others of their age like to do."

It is not the first occasion the Chelsea captain has occupied the news pages. He was involved in a nightclub brawl (though subsequently cleared of affray); that was followed by a post-9/11 incident when he and some team-mates went on a drinking binge and "offended" American tourists; he was the subject of a kiss 'n' tell after "romping" in his Bentley with a 17-year-old fan, presumably to the chagrin of his fiancée; and it claimed he is a gambler with a £5,000-a-week "habit".

The curious aspect is that far from this diminishing him in our eyes, the chorus for him to succeed - or replace - David Beckham as England captain has grown from faint to fortissimo. If so, he would join a line of flawed England predecessors, with Terry Butcher and Tony Adams springing to mind.

We prefer to retain our affection for Butcher as a headbanded, bloodied hero of club and country, even though, in his searingly honest autobiography, he writes of his excesses when trashing a hotel room in Holland while an Ipswich player, and of his alter ego, "a certain Mr Hyde, who is lurking in the shadows waiting to come out and shame me". Similarly, the lasting impression of Adams is of an inspirational, herculean last line of defence, although the Arsenal defender's personal weaknesses are well chronicled in his own memoirs.

We forgive centre-backs just about any of their off-the-pitch trespasses if we believe that they are endowed with character, courage and backbone; that they are essentially honest on the pitch. This afternoon, Mourinho is likely to receive nothing less from his captain at Highbury, just as this morning, when Liverpool encounter São Paulo in the final of the Club World Championship, Rafael Benitez knows he can depend on Carragher, who long ago eschewed his guise as an Anfield "Spice Boy" and is arguably the most improved defender in English football.

Terry possesses the constitution and the personality to deal with it all and appears to have learnt from those initial public aberrations. Mourinho scoffs at reports of Terry's betting shop and casino visits. As long as he does not gamble with clearances; that is the implied deal 'twixt manager and captain. Mourinho claims he is only concerned "with drink, not eating properly, going home very late... The next morning, I know what they did the night before. When the training is demanding and they have to be committed it's easy to feel - and to smell."

As we prepare for Germany 2006, Terry has confirmed himself a key vertebra in England's spine. But what of his potential accomplice come Frankfurt in June, with Rio Ferdinand damned by indifferent club form and Sol Campbell liable to injury?

Logic based on the past year in their respective Premiership and Champions' League cam-paigns should commend to Sven Goran Eriksson a pairing of Terry and Carragher. Eriksson, resembling a man suffering from Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, is unlikely to be persuaded against his predictable leanings.

Amid all the enthusiasm following his team's draw, it is disconcerting that Eriksson seems no more likely to deploy Carragher as a central-defensive pivot than consider three wise men at the back and divert from 4-4-2. Or, more pertinently, bring English football's most natural leader - now that Roy Keane has vacated that role - to the World Cup party by offering the captaincy to a man who would relish the role, not consider it a celebrity accessory.

Mockery with one special moment

Speaking of the BBC's end-of-the-year show, one can only assume that the scriptwriters credited were responsible for presenter Sue Barker's plunge into Bernard Manning territory, when she suggested that Wales could repeat their Grand Slam triumph if they were able to "keep Gavin Henson out of Church". Even making allowances for such misjudgements in taste; even passing over Gary Lineker's unnecessary mocking of the England cricketers at the other end of a satellite link who looked, well, like men who had just got up in the middle of the night a few hours before a vital match, it is surely time for a rethink on what is less the evergreen show its producers clearly believe it is. It is over-long, the audience is unresponsive, while the clever-clever clips are irritating. Only Jose Mourinho brought sufficient style and charm to engage all viewers as he presented a lifetime achievement award to Pele, indulging in some mutual hugging with the authentic Special One. He also managed not to say anything the least bit reprehensible about Chelsea's rivals, notably Arsène Wenger. On Friday, I asked the Arsenal manager if Mourinho's Coach of the Year award had been merited. "Yes," he replied magnanimously. A pause, then: "I have won two..."

Anti-racism reduced to a charade

Will Uefa's hope that a public embrace between Thierry Henry and the Spanish national team coach, Luis Aragones, who referred to the striker as a "black shit", be as effective an anti-racist gesture as they imagine?

It would be surprising, even if Henry and Aragones were prepared to participate in such a charade - the initiative of the sports minister, Richard Caborn, and his Spanish counterpart - at the forthcoming Soccer Against Racism event in Barcelona, so deeply entrenched are such attitudes. You may as well suggest to Paolo Di Canio that he finds a friend and turns his fascist salute into a high-five.

The former West Ham striker, now with Lazio (who have many far-right supporters), repeated the gesture against Livorno last weekend having once disfigured a derby against Roma with it. Uefa have condemned all acts of racism, calling on referees, match delegates and coaches "to monitor the behaviour of players and fans closely".

But shouldn't coaches and players take a lead, with a strong campaign, aimed at isolating characters like Di Canio?

Lest there is any complacency here, it's worth remembering that Bradford's keeper Donovan Ricketts is "considering his future" after claiming he was racially abused at Southend last Saturday.

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