Challenge to game's moral dimension

Leeds United's future depends on tackling tarnished public image in aftermath of Woodgate and Bowyer trial
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The Independent Football

Two Leeds United footballers leave the dock, their reputations variously cleared or sullied, depending on your perspective. Step forward, then, Leeds United FC. There will be no court of law for Leeds and their impressive chairman, Peter Ridsdale, but the implications of the verdicts – Jonathan Woodgate guilty of affray, but both he and Lee Bowyer found not guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to a young Asian student – will remain with the club long after the precise details have been replaced by the latest episode of millionaires behaving badly.

Bowyer and Woodgate can return profitably to their professions, in the colours of club and, quite possibly, of country; Leeds have to confront a further tarnishing of their public image, an image that Ridsdale, who has endured worse opprobrium than this as a lifetime Leeds fan, has done his utmost to change. The club has to walk a very fine line. Once, a visit from Leeds under Don Revie was like the Jesse James gang riding into town. And that was before Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles, Norman Hunter and Paul Reaney got to work on the park. The malevolence was a significant part of the club's unwavering success just as the antics of the Crazy Gang were an integral part of Wimbledon's rise to prominence.

David O'Leary, the loquacious Leeds manager, would not want to smooth too many of the rough edges of his young side and with Robbie Fowler, Bowyer, Alan Smith and David Batty as residents, the Leeds dressing-room will never be mistaken for a gentlemen's club. But, equally, a lot more is at stake for the future of Leeds than the mere counting of points. Any more of the publicity generated by 12 months' worth of lurid evidence from Hull Crown Court and Leeds will be on a one-way ticket back to the dark ages, isolated, unloved and bereft of commercial support. Sponsors and television have a part to play in helping clubs define their wider responsibilities, but the imminent publication of O'Leary's book, United On Trial, serialised in a Sunday newspaper today is not an auspicious or judicious response.

Football's memory is so notoriously short that no sooner had Bowyer walked free, the words of Mr Justice Henriques that his evidence was "littered with lies" doubtless already in full retreat from his head, than his name was being pencilled into Sven Goran Eriksson's England team. Forget the battered face of Sarfraz Najeib in the aftermath of the attack and the emotional words of his father after the verdict, Bowyer could be the solution to England's left-sided problem. The Football Association are legally bound to allow Bowyer the right to selection for the next international squad. Bowyer is a free man. But there is a moral case for sport's justice being rather more protracted. Frank Lampard was "not selected" – dropped – by Eriksson in the light of a drunken spree. By the same token, Eriksson should resist pressure to promote either Bowyer or Woodgate into his next squad. Some England sponsors might have a quiet word as well.

Any discussion of the futures of Woodgate and Bowyer must take into account the identity of the ultimate victim. Mr Najeib's physical injuries have healed, but not the mental scars. As Woodgate and Bowyer pick up their next pay packets, Mr Najeib will be wondering whether to continue his studies at university. But the Leeds United pair have cut wildly differing figures through the affair which began with a chase through the streets of central Leeds and the savage beating of an innocent student.

Woodgate is a weak character, brought up in a neat home by loving parents, but totally ill-equipped for his arrival in football's boom town. He has absorbed most of the more unpleasant aspects of footballing culture, including arrogance and an attraction for keeping bad company, but his demeanour throughout the last year – as Justice Henriques remarked during sentencing – has conveyed some sense of contrition. He has not started a match this season. Bowyer has simply played on, seemingly thriving on his dual life. The law has only ever been at arm's length for the former Charlton apprentice, who has a previous conviction for affray for attacking two Asian staff at a McDonald's restaurant in east London five years ago. One presumes that Leeds had done their homework on what they were getting for their £3.5m. Whether a warning and a £4,000 fine will be enough to reform Bowyer will be central to his future at Leeds and, hopefully, within the game.

Woodgate's rehabilitation will surely be more prolonged. He is young enough to put decent distance between him and Hull Crown Court. He might not feel it, but he is a lucky boy. His celebrity won him a reprieve. It is up to the young and highly talented defender to resume the career which brought him an England cap under Kevin Keegan and erase the nightmare of the past 12 months. It was not a promising sign for football that one of his first duties on the court steps was to sign an autograph. You wonder what the requester of the signature has in place of a conscience. It is down to Leeds United now to ensure that the signature Sarfraz Najeib will carry for the rest of his life makes a more profound impression on the club's psyche.

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