Lack of self-control is football's real blight

Ken Jones looks at the aggressive image the game has recently acquired but finds it not as hard as it once was
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the context of recent events and considering the issues at stake, it was probably thought surprising that Monday's match between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City passed without scandalous incident.

If referees have been over- zealous in their application of directives, the impression created in English football this season has hardly been that of a game coated in moral rectitude, responsibility and respect for authority.

The circumstances surrounding last week's FA Cup semi-final replay called for the highest levels of deportment, and yet Roy Keane, of Manchester United, and Darren Patterson, of Crystal Palace, were sent off for violent conduct. Correctly, both have been charged with bringing the game into disrepute. "Instead of fining players who are unable to control themselves on the field, clubs may have to think seriously about not selecting them," Jim Smith, of the League Managers' Association, said.

Pragmatism is more likely to prevail, but a fall-out of critical hindsight billows through the media. Attitudes that have been deemed excusable in winners are transformed into deplorable shortcomings. As positive as reaction to the Eric Cantona incident was, it was negative to football because of its stridency. But have standards of behaviour in the game slipped generally as far as Cantona's attack on a Crystal Palace supporter suggested?

The buzz-word today is commitment. Coaches stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players, but there isn't necessarily a direct correlation between psychological and physical aggression. What many managers and coaches fail to understand is that a majority of players find it difficult to be aggressive in an acceptable personal and social manner.

Going back 30 years, one of English football's most distinguished post- war managers, Arthur Rowe, who won the championship with Tottenham Hotspur in great style, noticed a distinct change coming over the game. "There was a time when you knew who the hard men were," he said. "These days everybody seems to be putting a foot in."

British football is faster than in Rowe's time, but significantly old professionals see less evidence of evil. Maurice Setters, who assists the Republic of Ireland manager, Jack Charlton, and turned out for Manchester United in the 1963 FA Cup final, was a renowned tackler. "Some of today's problems spring from the fact that few players have been taught how to win the ball," he said. In common with any number of his contemporaries, Setters watches frequently in anticipation of serious injuries. "When I see players lunging in recklessly, I wince," he said.

In truth, British football is probably less evil than it was in Setters' day and before. During one match in the First Division this season, a veteran coach was taken back in time by a crippling challenge that went unpunished. "It was a real old-fashioned job," he said. "Right over the ball, and done so cleverly that the referee thought it was an accident. He simply didn't know."

Of course, television has much to do with current perceptions. Hardly an incident escapes exposure. This does not excuse outbursts of childish behaviour, but it brings them into sharper focus. Until the Sixties, only the FA Cup final was shown live. Over the Easter weekend, Sky put out three Premiership matches, ITV one from the First Division.

Thus the popular concept of hardness differs. Formed from youthful experiences when reserve teams included wily old pros, patience and a long memory was once central to retaliation. An attacker of my acquaintance waited two seasons to settle an account. As a teenage professional with Southend United, I came under the influence of a tough figure, Wilf Copping, who was never sent off or cautioned when turning out for Arsenal, Leeds and England. "There's no sense in raising tha [sic] hands on the field," he preached. "Tha can do more damage with tha feet."

Throughout the game's history, footballers have drawn the line between acceptable and unacceptable aggression at different points. When asked to look at the wound Tommy Smith had inflicted on an Arsenal player, the Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly shrugged. "Aye, Tommy's a hard boy," he said.

A pathetic difference today is the amount of dissent. "Don't get upset if decisions go against you," the Celtic manager, Jock Stein, said before a Scottish Cup final, "they'll even themselves out."

As for demeaning stupidity on the field, how long would Cantona and Keane have lasted at Manchester United under Sir Matt Busby? "The `Boss' wouldn't have stood for them," said an international from the Busby era.

Football is at the mercy of managers and coaches who lay down principles of behaviour, and the organisation, which sets priorities. If standards have declined, that is where the responsbility lies.