Football's great but let's apply a sense of proportion

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The Independent Online
LAST SUNDAY - at about three o'clock British Winter Time - we went out into my mate's back garden and played cricket. Not, you understand, the white-clad, fresh-mown, MCC version. Rather, the post-prandial, mildly alcoholic, rather muddy, family rules. But, at least - in the kind of light which would have caused the needle to fall through the bottom of an umpire's meter - we played.

That morning, England lost the Test. The nation shrugged, dreamt of Euro 2000 and got on with cooking the roast. Not us. Having consumed half a pig, most of Ireland's spud population and a couple of vats of white wine, we went out to do something about it.

For approximately half an hour we forgot all about football. It was, I imagine, a bit like a fortnight in the Priory Clinic. For a brief and wonderful period we didn't have to feel dependent on our daily "hit" of goal flashes, transfer rumours and live games. Life (and sport) went on without them.

Okay, not quite. One of my sons still wore his Milan "Shevchenko" shirt and was constantly counting down to kick-off in the Chelsea game on television; the other (aged two and a half) acclaimed a "goal" whenever the stumps were broken. But cricket (approximately!) was the game we were playing.

I fear for the future sporting sanity of my friend's five-month-old if - blanketed against the cold - this confused image of our national games made any lasting impression on her consciousness. At least, though, she might realise that cricket exists and that football, therefore, is not absolutely everything.

Football entertains me, engrosses me, thrills me. I don't accept that there's too much of it. In fact, I could probably handle more. But I do worry about the extent to which our country's sporting mood has become dependent upon it ... and only it. The balance is in danger of becoming skewwhiff. There's too much weight on football's side of the scales ... and, under the load, it's struggling to cling on to its senses. Relative to the other sports that used to preoccupy us collectively, it has become disproportionately important.

My theory is that, within each of us, there is a finite extent to which we are capable of really caring about professional sport. The total amount of sporting care is generally in-born; its distribution is dictated largely by the prevailing mood of the day. Today , football comes close to monopolising that care. Fifteen years ago, the average 25-year-old man, for example, might have distributed his 100 units of sporting care around Formula One (10), horse racing (10), athletics (10), Test cricket (15), county cricket (5), snooker (5), golf's majors (10), rugby (10), Wimbledon (5) and football (20). Nowadays, he would tend towards a ratio of football 75: the rest 25.

This has two effects. First, of course, it leads to an unfortunate indifference about so many other great events. The rugby World Cup, the Test series, the Open golf championship, the Grand National etc, all have their day in the sun. They still generate big crowds and passion, but they can't sustain a long-term interest, eclipsed as they so quickly are by football's next transfer sensation or club in crisis. How long was it, for example, before Aberdonians stopped gloating over Paul Lawrie and began bemoaning events at Pittodrie again?

Secondly, the imbalance has an inflationary effect on football's "care market". Basically, these are ordinary people caring too much about one game and losing their sense of proportion. Nothing else matters as long as City/Rovers/United/England/Scotland win; defeat - once an integral part of every sport's emotional cycle - has become intolerable.

Such football-craziness is manifested daily and felt most uncomfortably by managers. England lost a home match against Scotland and, despite having qualified for Euro 2000, Kevin Keegan is considered a tactically-barren fool who should be relieved of his duties. Scotland lost a play-off against England and Craig Brown (arguably, given his playing resources, the most over-achieving coach in the whole of international football) is a target for the Tartan Army. Where on earth has reason and perspective gone?

I'm told now that there's pressure on Trevor Francis at Birmingham City. Really? In three seasons at St Andrews, Francis has led City to 10th, seventh and fourth in the First Division. Last season he was a penalty shoot-out shy of the play-off final. Now, hindered by a great pile of injured strikers (he was forced on Tuesday to play a centre-half at centre- forward), he's having to put up with disgruntlement at a minor dip in form.

You can only assume its people with nothing else to worry about. Look, people, keep following football, but why not have a round of golf ... take up tennis ... snooker's warm in the winter ... cricket's not, but...

Peter Drury is an ITV sports commentator.

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