Blackburn Rovers' misadventure in Europe this season was depressing enough before Wednesday night's extraordinary brawl between two of their players, but it now threatens the number of places allocated to English clubs in European competition.
The club itself predictably closed ranks yesterday following the incident which saw fists fly between two England internationals, Graeme Le Saux and David Batty, just four minutes into the Champions' League game with Spartak Moscow. The fighting came after the two had clattered into one another near the touchline and then traded insults.
The only statement forthcoming from the club, which returned from Moscow yesterday, was a short statement from the chairman, Robert Coar. "The club is disappointed with the incident. Ray Harford will sit down with the players tomorrow. If disciplinary action is deemed necessary it will be carried out internally," he said.
The Football Association, by way of contrast, reacted with remarkable speed and has already written to European football's governing body, Uefa, expressing concern and asking it to take action. The consequence may be the loss of a Uefa Cup representative next year.
England was one of three countries given an extra place this season because of its fair play record. Uefa, which does not accept video evidence, is awaiting the reports from the referee and match observer. If it takes no action, the FA may charge Le Saux and Batty with bringing the game into disrepute. At present it insists the match falls under Uefa's jurisdiction.
Whatever penalty Rovers impose - fining them two weeks wages would appear the minimum - it is not an internal matter. It could be argued that Rovers have been bringing the reputation of English football into disrepute ever since they embarked upon their Champions' League campaign. However, nothing, not even the woeful displays in East Lancashire, Norway and Poland, had prepared us for Wednesday night's madness in Moscow.
That the English champions would then end the match thoroughly beaten and reduced to 10 men heaped humiliation upon the shame. They were lucky to have 10. Players have been sent off for punching team-mates.
Oleg Romantsev, the manager of Spartak Moscow, summed up most people's reaction when he said: "It was most unexpected. This is the first time I have seen people settling scores on the field with a fist fight." Harford, the Rovers manager, was less forthcoming but he admitted: "I have never seen anything like it from players of mine. They will be dealt with within the club."
Whether Rovers can keep the matter internal must be open to question. "The club and Harford must punish the players now, in public, and the punishment must hurt," the local paper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, demanded yesterday with understandable vigour.
The incident underlined the depth of Blackburn's crisis, regardless of their improved domestic form. That Batty was involved would surprise no one, he has always been a midfield scrapper. However, the player who started the fight was Le Saux, widely regarded as one of the more thoughtful footballers.
He has, however, previously revealed a temperamental streak under pressure, even inappropriately lashing out at an Everton player during the Charity Shield. Indeed, he has been booked more times than Batty during a career of similar length.
The incident adds to the pressure on Harford. There is a feeling that Rovers' triumvirate of himself, Derek Fazackerley and Tony Parkes, for all their coaching qualities, lack the light touch which all teams need. It is all "bad cop" with no "good cop" figure to put an arm around drooping shoulders. There are also accusations that Harford has favourites, a fatal weakness in managing a dressing-room.
Quite what Blackburn's benefactor, Jack Walker, makes of it all can only be guessed at. Sadness was probably his overwhelming reaction. Throughout Europe Blackburn Rovers are no longer known for Alan Shearer's goals; they are the team who fight each other. For the first time since he reached for his cheque book Walker may have wondered whether it has all been worth it.
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