There is a fine line to be drawn between the viciously callous and the coldly competent

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In the verbal overkill of this sporting life, legitimate hardness is frequently put forward as calculated malice. Thuggery, of course, is off the board, but it is ridiculous to suppose that a case cannot be made for legal aggression.

What gets me off on this theme is a statement made earlier this week by Arsene Wenger that touched a raw nerve with other managers in the Premier League and gave encouragement to aesthetically minded football reporters.

Taking last Saturday's match between Arsenal and Leeds as an example, Wenger advanced the view that Dennis Bergkamp is not getting the protection that his gifts deserve.

I can only imagine how that would have gone down with some of the old- timers like Bill Shankly, who was once invited to inspect a leg wound inflicted on Terry Neill by Tommy Smith. "Aye, a hard boy, Tommy," the celebrated Liverpool manager growled.

Any game that allows for forceful acts of dispossession is bound to find itself dealing with outbursts of excessive belligerence - even the sort of disgraceful assault that caused the London Scottish flanker Simon Fenn to lose part of an ear during last week's match against Bath.

Because contact sports are now played at a pace beyond anything imagined at the time of their invention, and a great deal of money is now thrown at success, it becomes increasingly difficult to observe and maintain the original sporting ethos.

The decline from sport as an enjoyable end in itself to a spectacle designed to satisfy the lust of spectators for victory means that most people now accept that explosive incidents are inevitable. I even come across civilised men who look upon punch-ups as part of the entertainment.

In any case, there is a line so fine as to be almost indistinguishable between the viciously callous and the coldly competent. One of the tackles, delivered by the Leeds defender Lucas Radebe, that caused Bergkamp to protest last week met all the requirements of technique and legality. The old Leeds hero Norman Hunter, who is understandably considered to be an expert in such matters, thought Radebe's challenge to be perfect. "Take that out of football and you no longer have a game worth watching," he said.

When first called to Brazil's national team at barely 17, Pele was advised that he would not always be able to rely on referees for protection. "You had better learn how to look after yourself," Brazil's coach, Vicente Feola, said. Pele never went looking for trouble, but opponents soon learned the perils of trying to intimidate him. It was referred to as an accident, but Pele once broke the leg of a German defender who had injured him badly in Hamburg a year earlier.

Hardness in sport gives rise to a great deal of emotional disturbance, not only on the field but in the crowd and press boxes. Today's crop of football players, fans and writers seem to get much more exercised by it than their elders did. Maybe this is the erroneous memory of a veteran, but it is the impression here that players of 30 and more years ago went out expecting to be shaken up and got on with tasks set by their professors. They got annoyed, of course, and sometimes resorted to reprisals. But it was not then acceptable to go around whingeing.

They were more in tune with the realities of life, which was certainly true of an old miner when interviewed on television about a series of violent incidents in Welsh rugby. "Well, when you work underground and the roof is likely to come in on your head every day you go down there, you don't worry about a boot in the face on a Saturday," he said.

Wenger also said that foreign players, especially attackers, find difficulties in adapting to the tempo of English football with its constant tussles for possession.

Well, they will just have to get on with it and, in Bergkamp's case, take a lesson from history. Doesn't he know that the greatest teams his country had sent out, those of the 1970s, were stiffened by men with reputations to suggest that they should always be approached with the utmost caution?