Strain game takes leave of its senses

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The Independent Online
IT IS 10 years ago this month that Arsenal went to play Liverpool needing a two-goal win in order to take the First Division championship. This result would put Arsenal level both on points (76) and goal difference (+37) with Liverpool, but they would then triumph by virtue of the narrowest of differentials, goal average. The match was played on a Friday night and broadcast live on ITV and, as we all remember, Arsenal did it, with a second goal in injury-time, scored by Michael Thomas. It remains the most enthralling climax to a championship in my memory.

The fact that I'm a Liverpool supporter doesn't spoil my perception of the night as an epic drama. We lost, but the consolation was that my team had participated in an event that transcended the mere allocation of a trophy. There was also that defining, post-Hillsborough moment when the Kop, in the face of acute disappointment, accepted that defeat did not really matter in the wider context and that the Arsenal team deserved an ovation for their efforts.

The memory of that night surfaced again last week, as we were obliged to witness the extraordinary outbursts of snarling tension in two matches that may have decided the English Premiership, and one that settled the Scottish. The violent images from the Celtic-Rangers game were no great surprise given the history of the fixture, especially after a wilfully naive decision to stage an evening kick-off had given the fans of Buckfastleigh Abbey ample time to indulge their support of its most infamous product.

Regrettable though the violence in and around the ground was, the faces of the players were the real horror story. Wild eyes and jutting jaws suggested a level of stress and antagonism usually only associated with military combat. At times, it was no different in two of Wednesday night's English "eliminators". We saw the ripped shirt of Roy Keane after a tete- a-tete with Paul Ince, Denis Irwin behaving completely out of character by scything McManaman into touch, and Alex Ferguson succumbing to stereotype by marching on to the pitch in an attempt to shake something other than referee David Elleray's hand. Meanwhile at Tottenham, the Arsenal full- back Nigel Winterburn was apparently moved to gesture provocatively to the losing supporters, and Tim Sherwood seemed to be conducting a verbal and physical campaign with anyone in a red shirt.

Following Ian Wright's attempt last weekend to host a new life-style programme called "Changing Referees' Rooms", these acts and images suggest a dangerous failure to recognise where the dividing line lies between competitive sport and the anarchy of a win-at-all-costs mentality. Indeed, some of the actions witnessed over the past week, if replicated in, say, a newspaper office, would render the protagonists liable to criminal prosecution and psychiatric scrutiny.

With several more decisive games to come, at both margins of the Premiership, it's no cheap, column-filling act of scaremongering to fear that some players, referees or even managers may be at risk of further violence or injury. Compare the atmosphere at Anfield last Wednesday night to the one I recalled 10 years ago, and you can perhaps glimpse a cultural shift in the game over the past decade.

Plainly, the same prestige is at stake in winning trophies. Medals and appearances in finals provide the contours for players to map out their careers, although it's a truism that some of the best never ended up with much on the sideboard. And while there is more money in the game, especially in terms of wages, this is more often cited as a disincentive to achievement than as a trigger for psychopathic desire. So what could have provoked the warfare of the past week?

The two prime suspects I'd nominate would be pressure and fear. Pressure from the fans seeking something meaningful and triumphant with which they can associate. Pressure from within the corporate structure of the modern clubs to maintain income and market position. Pressure from the rotating squad systems that put a player just one error away from internal exile. Each of these elements can generate the kind of fear that causes players to behave with irrational urges, to demonise their opponents to the extent that they don't care how much pain and injury they inflict on them. How many of the players who were involved in these violent outbursts of the past week would now accept that fear and pressure had reduced them to an altered state of mind?

By coincidence, a survey of our changing lifestyles over the past two decades last week concluded that most of us are working harder and under more pressure to produce than we were 10 years ago. The age of corporate competitiveness squeezes us ever harder for profits and success. For all their new money, managers and players are employees like the rest of us, albeit with the glare of cameras on their working lives.

But football used to be our escape, a chance to have a laugh and a moan, an opportunity to admire skill and to dream of emulating it. What a tragedy it will be if the changes wrought on football have now produced a gladiatorial sport that is both watched and played by people who think that only winning matters.

THE REFUGE from stress that football once represented to me has long since been supplanted by a day at the horse races. Indeed, even Alex Ferguson has come to appreciate the soothing effects that losing a few bob on the nags can generate, although in his case, he has typically taken to owning a few winners. Last Wednesday, a visit to Chester provided an escape from overbearing deadlines and non-appearing cheques. A 30-year gap since my last visit hadn't diminished my affection for the quaint Roodeye track that despite several new buildings, retains the flavour of a charming Edwardian fete.

Crowds spilled down the iron staircases from the city's sandstone walls to pack the pavilions, while the infield was part local garden show and part fashion parade. Despite the sunshine and the ready availability of drink, I saw nobody translate their personal neuroses into violence or loutishness and no winning punter gloat over the misfortunes of others, who were, naturally enough, in the majority. Those who won simply bought drinks for those who lost.

Even the Manchester United supporters I encountered, who were all en route for their team's visit to Anfield, managed to enjoy the day before the pressures of the night descended on them. Racing days such as this are so beneficial that they should be available on a prescription.

The one serious problem that racing's powers are experiencing - apart from the everlasting battle to claw money from the bookmakers - is the consequence of the regulations on use of the whip by riders. About half- a-dozen top-line jockeys will be ruled out for some, or all, of this week's big meeting at York, thanks to suspensions for misuse of "the enforcer". It may be the disease of excessive competitiveness infecting the sport, or just a disinclination to lose old habits. Either way, the punishment hurts the jockeys in the pocket, but also deprives race fans of seeing them in action.

Racing is already experimenting with "whip-less" races for apprentices, so might there not be a case for offenders to be deprived not of their rides, but of the instrument they have misused, for a certain number of days? That way, nobody loses - apart from the ones I've backed.

Peter Corrigan is away.