Shirty response to an act of mischief

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IN THE vast and vulgar treasure house of sporting insults, the one issued by Birmingham City's Paul Tait against Aston Villa at Wembley last Sunday will be rated among those of extremely poor quality. I'm not sure it even deserves to be there at all and the fact that it brought such an outraged response indicates that football is ending the season in a state of almost hysterical sensitivity.

This is hardly surprising considering the multitude of misfortunes that have plagued the game during the past nine months but to register horror that Tait should unveil a T-shirt bearing the legend "Birmingham City - shit on the Villa" after scoring his team's winning goal against Carlisle would be an over-reaction even for the all the maiden aunts who are Villa fans.

It doesn't begin to compare with describing two referees as "cheats" which earned the Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear a £1,500 fine on Thursday. Referees can fairly be called all the doltish and officious names you can think of but cheating is a very nasty allegation. He also called one of them a "little Hitler" which is an appropriate sporting insult although I feel that Mussolini would provide a more fitting slur. Either way, referees do have a tendency to strut about with a burning conviction about being right all the time, but at least they make the games run on time.

You can't compare Tait's offence with Kinnear's and it wasn't as if the entire country was watching. When Tait celebrated his goal by taking his shirt off (an action to be discussed later in this column) he did so while facing the Birmingham section of the Wembley crowd, who would not have been close enough to read the contents of his chest, and the viewers of Central and Border TV stations only. Indeed, if the Football Association hadn't immediately charged him with bringing the game into disrepute the bulk of the nation would have been unaware of his action, and content to be so.

Typical of the hair-trigger reactions of the game at the moment, his club then proceeded to fine him two weeks' wages, the Professional Footballers' Association reprimanded him and even Birmingham City's owner, soft-porn magnate David Sullivan, felt moved to join in. Sullivan didn't get where he is today by allowing his employees to wear rude T-Shirts, or anything else for that matter, and he thought Tait was "very silly", which was just about what it was.

Tait is not only a Birmingham player but a life-long fan of a club that has had little to cheer about of late. The fact that 50,000 Birmingham fans went to Wembley for the less-than-glamorous Auto Windscreens Shield final reveals how hungry they are for success and a chance to compare more favourably with their neighbours and arch rivals Aston Villa. Tait's T-shirt should be seen in its proper context as an example of sharp-witted Midlands repartee and probably more representative of terrace eloquence than others we've seen recently. The idea that it would incite Villa supporters to any more positive response than to create an answering slur is fanciful.

Football, of course, is not alone in its capacity to misunderstand the passion that supporters have for their clubs. Most of them pay their money to watch a team, not a game. Rugby league has been learning that particular lesson very forcibly following their attempt to steamroller a few club mergers through before they report for duty with Rupert Murdoch's Super League next year. Nowhere was the opposition more fervent than in the south Yorkshire strongholds of Featherstone and Castleford. At Featherstone's final game of the season last Sunday, the following banner was unfurled:

Fev is Fev,

Cas is Cas,

Stick Your Merger

Up Your Arse

That is exactly what the league will do today at a meeting hastily called in order that they can perform a number of U-turns from the declarations they announced on receipt of the Murdoch money before Easter, not least the merger between Fev and Cas.

Sports fans may not be always pleasing to the eye or the ear but it is upon their enthusiasm and loyalty that our major games are founded and upon their future support that those games will depend. Violence is never forgiveable but insulting each other is part of the fun.

THE real shock at seeing Tait's T-Shirt at Wembley was not caused by what it said but that he should have been wearing one at all. I didn't think British footballers would dream of wearing anything under their shirts, unlike foreign players, even those from warmer climates, who appear to have no shame in this respect.

Generations of Britons who spent long winters playing on draughty public parks would have been hounded out of the game had they dared to wear any sort of garment under their shirt. Anyone not brave enough to face the cold usually elected to play in goal because of the access this position gave to a big woolly jersey.

These personal details would not be worthy of discussion but for the new and decidedly odd habit of goalscorers celebrating a goal by removing their shirts. Claudio Belluci, who scored for Sampdoria against Arsenal the other week revealed an undershirt as big as grannie's liberty bodice. When Lazio beat Roma on Sunday, they all tore off their shirts and threw them to the crowd. Paul Gascoigne, I was proud to note, was the only one who wasn't clad in the top half of his winter combs. And after Wales's great feat in holding the Germans to a 1-1 draw in Dussledorf on Wednesday there was a fine display of bare and manly chests when they swopped shirts.

Real footballers don't wear vests.

AS THE 2,000 Guineas and The Derby approach, so the country will become more divided about the correct pronounciation of wonder horse Celtic Swing.

Should we to use the hard "C" or the soft "C"? Is it hard as in Celt or soft as in Glasgow Celtic? The colt's trainer, Lady Herries, and his owner, Peter Savill, are united behind the soft "C", as are most of the television commentators for whom Seltic Swing slips more smoothly off the tongue.

But the man who named the horse has no doubt that it should be Keltic Swing. The Kent cricketer Graham Cowdrey, whose wife Maxine is assistant to Lady Herries, was given the task of finding a name when the horse was a yearling. "Celtic Swing" is the name of a tune on a Van Morrison album. It was played at the Cowdrey's wedding and undoubtedly has a hard "C", as in Cowdrey.

The word comes from the latin Celtae and describes a branch of the Indo- Germanic family of languages including Breton, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Gaelic and Manx. Unfortunately, dictionaries are no help, allowing both pronunciations.

I'm firmly in the Keltic camp myself and so, were he alive, would be the Welsh actor Richard Burton, who left no room for doubt when he was once cornered by a Hollywood bore.

"I suppose," drawled the bore, "that you should be described as a Selt". "And I suppose," replied Burton, "that you should be described as a sunt."