Hillier did not suggest, incidentally, that he thought the bag was a gift and, in any case, he intended to give it back at a later date

ON SATURDAY

One piece of football news was buried this week under the pile of old baggage which surrounded Terry Venables' decision to hang up his England tracksuit. David Hillier, the Arsenal midfield player, admitted in court that he had stolen a briefcase belonging to a Danish businessman.

It seems that on their return from a holiday, Hillier, along with Wayne Burnett of Bolton Wanderers, spotted the case apparently abandoned in a bus stop at Gatwick Airport and decided to liberate it. In fact, its owner had merely left it there while he went to retrieve his car.

The case contained pounds 3,000-worth of clothes and computer equipment, which might be considered a disappointingly small haul compared to the amounts other former Arsenal employees have found in bags left lying around by Scandinavian businessmen. Hillier did not suggest, incidentally, that he thought the bag was a gift and that, in any case, he intended to give it back at a later date.

Instead, the player threw himself at the magistrate's mercy, saying that he was distraught at his stupidity and that his form had dipped to such a degree since the incident, what with all the guilt and worrying, that he was now on the transfer list. The magistrate accepted his plea, although a closer observer of the game would have pointed out that it wasn't necessarily the crime: anybody's form would suffer if they were obliged to share the midfield with John Jensen and Martin Keown.

And a more astute legal process might have asked questions about the Arsenal youth system which helped develop Hillier's talent. He is a graduate of an operation which also produced Ray "Pizza" Parlour, who got into trouble in Hong Kong after a Dennis Wise-style altercation with a taxi driver. There is also Paul Merson, whose all-round personal problems led to a near-breakdown and Kevin Dennis, who never made it into the first team, not so much because he wasn't talented but because in September 1993 he was sentenced to 30 months for manslaughter.

At Dennis's initial hearing, the north London club, showing admirable loyalty to an employee, asked the magistrate if the case could be brought forward as they had a car waiting outside to take the player down to a reserve match. And we must not forget the Arsenal youth system's most decorated old boy, Tony Adams, who served 56 days of a four-month sentence for drink- driving in December 1990. An intriguing roll-call.

Luckily for Hillier, the magistrate decided not to delve too closely and simply to fine him pounds 750. Thus the player missed the chance to join football's most exclusive squad: those who have served time. Bring them together, and the British Lags XI would make quite a handy team.

The spine would have been constructed from the Sheffield Wednesday trio, Peter Swan, Tony Kay and David "Bronco" Layne, jailed for four months in 1965 for match- rigging. They might be getting on a bit now, but once would have been handy for helping the lads secure a result.

Alongside them would be yet another product of the marble halls of Highbury, Peter Storey, a Double winner with the Gunners and a double time-server too: he was given two years in 1980 for plotting to counterfeit gold half- sovereigns and then 28 days in 1990 for smuggling pornographic videos.

Ricky Otto of Birmingham (three years for robbery in 1987) and Jamie Lawrence of Doncaster (26 months for robbery in 1992) might have been useful additions to the team when it required some kit in a hurry, and endless injections of enthusiasm could be provided by Mickey Thomas, the evergreen Wrexham winger who was given 18 months in 1993 for passing forged banknotes (although it might be advisable to check his match fee carefully before accepting it).

You wouldn't let any of the rest of the squad anywhere near the wheel of the team bus without sniffing the air first: George Best (1984), Mick Quinn (1987), Jan Molby (1988), skipper Tony Adams (1990) and Terry Fenwick (1991) were all sent down for offences involving driving while over-refreshed. Or, indeed, to let the team's latest cap, Duncan Ferguson, anywhere near the opposition.

Hillier, although he would have made a fine contribution in a selfless fetching and carrying role, probably won't be losing much sleep about not being picked for the side. A pounds 750 fine, public humiliation and a criminal record might be regarded as serious enough recompense for his moment of stupidity, but things could have been much worse.

Judging by the way in which the leading contenders are running away from it as if from a man possessed by a terminal case of halitosis, if the magistrate had really wanted to punish the player he would have given him the sentence everyone in football fears: the job of England manager.

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