Brian Viner: Jordan v Gattuso is a heavyweight bout to savour – as long as there's no spitting

The Last Word
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Most sports enthusiasts are incorrigible fantasists, forever imagining how the best of one era might have fared against the best of another.

You know the sort of thing; assuming the same standards of fitness and nutrition, how would the Busby Babes have fared against Fergie's Fledglings, or the Real Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento against the Barcelona of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi?

With the same equipment, would Roger Federer have beaten Rod Laver; could Bobby Jones circa 1930 have overcome Tiger Woods circa 2000; what price Steve Waugh's Australians against Clive Lloyd's West Indians? I once saw an entire documentary exploring just this premise, pitting Muhammad Ali in his prime against Rocky Marciano in his. It was no less engrossing for its utter daftness.

All of which brings me to the belligerent Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, to whom grudging thanks are due for bringing this pointless but enjoyable fantasy to life at the Champions League match against Tottenham on Tuesday evening. We no longer had to imagine a physical confrontation between one of the more formidable bruisers of yesteryear and one of the nastiest pieces of work playing football today, because in having a go at 59-year-old Joe Jordan on the San Siro touchline, even administering the local version of a Glasgow kiss, the mwah Milanese, Gattuso sent us all spinning through time.

Afterwards, Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness tut-tutted at the stupidity of Gattuso's aggression, and he seemed well-qualified to comment, having himself been no Dale Winton in the uncompromising hard-man department. Which reminds me that I was once having lunch with darling Dale when his mobile rang. Bizarrely, it was Souness.

Anyway, Souey – as Dale calls him – suggested with half a smile that he'd like to shut the Italian in a room with Jordan for 10 minutes, not that his compatriot would need that long; five minutes would do. And Harry Redknapp later quipped that Gattuso clearly hadn't done his homework. After all, what madman would pick a fight with big, tough Joe, made in Scotland from girders?

The response, in other words, was light-hearted. Yes, Gattuso had proved beyond any doubt that might still have been lingering – and if it lingered anywhere it can only have been in the heart of his dear old mamma – that he's a headcase. Yes, it was disgraceful, a dreadful example to all the impressionable children watching. But at the same time, we can all have a bit of a giggle about it. Besides, menace is what angry men do.

Imagine, though, if Gattuso had spat at Jordan. The outrage would have reverberated for weeks, months, years to come. For it seems that there is no worse crime in sport, or at least nothing more likely to ignite universal condemnation. Tiger Woods shouted "fuck" during the Dubai Desert Classic last weekend, yet it was his spitting on the green that was described by Sky's Ewen Murray as "one of the ugliest things you will ever see on a golf course". Really? I've seen cheating on a golf course. Isn't that uglier? Come to think of it, I've also seen yellow-and-black tartan plus-fours.

Now don't get me wrong; spitting in public isn't very nice, and spitting in a place where someone's golf ball might roll over it (the prospect that seemed to turn Murray's stomach), is extremely impolite. As for spitting at someone, that's truly contemptible. Never the less, when did our values become so warped that we made expectoration the worst form of anti-social behaviour in a sporting arena?

I once interviewed one of the hardest men of 1970s football, harder even than Joe Jordan. He gave me the name of an opponent who had once spat at him, his face contorted with rage even in the act of remembering. Yet a few moments earlier he had told me, with a merry guffaw, that in the tunnel before games he sometimes used to pick out a vulnerable member of the opposing team, and offer him the local hospital menu, intensive-care being the fellow's likely post-match destination. How odd that intimidation and thuggery should be the stuff of cheerful sporting anecdotes, while spitting remains beyond the pale.

Gough would have struggled to bowl over the electorate

It was sensible of Darren Gough to resist the overtures of the Prime Minister, who wanted him to contest Barnsley Central for the Tories in the forthcoming by-election. Maybe Gough knows the story of Ilie Nastase, who 15 years ago was encouraged to run for mayor of Bucharest by a poll showing that 73 per cent of people would vote for him. Once he started campaigning, however, revealing an expatriate tennis player's comprehension of the issues, his support quickly evaporated. For Bucharest, read Barnsley; I suspect that 229, the number of Test wickets Goughy took in a splendid career, would have barely been exceeded by his votes.

The 'Sky Two' are now interest-free

Andy Gray and Richard Keys can perhaps be forgiven for not yet giving full vent to their opinions in their new show on TalkSport, and it could also be that they still feel a little lost without the bells and whistles that so enhanced their double-act on Sky, but in the meantime someone should tell them that blandness on the radio is, in its own way, as unforgivable as sexism on the telly.