Sport: Wright stuff is all wrong

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The Independent Online
ON television the other night Steve Coppell, a temporarily unemployed football manager, was saying that it would be extremely unwise to interfere with the quirks of nature that make it difficult for Ian Wright, of Arsenal, to avoid being drawn into conflict with the authorities.

As Wright is already pounds 5,000 worse off as the result of a misdemeanour committed in last season's FA Cup final replay, the idea is unlikely to wash with his bank manager, but no matter. The point Coppell was making is that in football management you have to suffer some things in order to get others. On the one hand Wright, by all accounts a decent fellow, is a gifted goalscorer. On the other, and this may have something to do with being a late developer, he cannot be relied upon to avoid the wrath of referees.

This does not make Wright unique. It applied equally to Denis Law, one of the great finishers who, pathetically in my view, was denied the Footballer of the Year trophy in 1965 as a result of being sent off and suspended for a month. Utterly brave, quick as lightning, a man of generous virtue (except when it comes to handing around cigarettes), he could be exceedingly spiteful on the field which, I have to say, was one of his strengths. As a practising schizophrenic, he was a model of consistency. That is a hard game they are playing out there and, as one of the most brutal defenders in the First Division at that time put it: 'If you kick Denis, he'll kick you back.'

Wright is more inclined to speak back. He speaks back to referees, opponents and members of the audience. This does his credit no good at all, but it corresponds with the feeble notion that verbal aggression in sport is good for the soul. 'It shows how committed the guys are,' one of cricket's luminaries said recently. This means that while standing close enough to detect halitosis, it is in order to threaten a batsman with retributive violence and question whether his parents went to the trouble of a wedding ceremony. It is known as sledging.

If he has heard tell of this, it will amuse an old footballer of my acquaintance, not an Englishman I must add, who would have been only marginally more deadly had he carried a stiletto in each stocking top. In the heat of one battle, it was imprudently suggested that, far from being marks of distinction, his international caps were given away with packets of corn flakes. 'From the way he looked at me I knew right away that I'd said the wrong thing,' the provocateur said afterwards, rolling up his trouser legs to reveal cuts and bruises. 'And he never said a word.'

It is incumbent on me at this stage to declare support for an upswing in brother love that would make sport a happier world to live in, with or without busted brows and knees, elbow-scarred features and similar marks of the man of culture.

Trouble is that only people who love sport for its own sake - and there must be 12 of them at least - decry the sort of behaviour that antagonises officialdom. There are probably some motor-racing fans who do not like to see accidents, too; followers of boxing who detest knock-outs. Some cricket lovers prefer Test matches to the limited overs version of the game, and some people like football without frenzy. Unfortunately, that is not the place to invest your money.

Not exactly going out of their way to make the job easier, the majority of sports fans today are obsessed with victory. When Alec Stewart, who came close to the captaincy of England, and his Surrey team-mate, Graham Thorpe, were reported for showing dissent in the fifth Test, who gave a hoot? The public knew who the real culprit was. His name is Ted Dexter.

More years ago than I care to remember, the Tottenham and Northern Ireland captain, Danny Blanchflower, a marvellously gifted half-back and fully paid up romantic, ventured the laudable opinion that football was not about winning but glory. If Blanchflower raised his voice on the field, it was to speak wisely. If he was ever booked, it must have been a case of mistaken identity. In a match against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he was sent crashing into the advertising boards by a truculent young opponent, who then snarled into his face. Picking himself up, Blanchflower smiled. 'I didn't get to see a programme,' he said. 'What's your name again?'