Why this football season has left me so dispirited

Lee Bowyer is as nasty a piece of work as has ever disgraced an English sporting arena
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The Independent Online

Yesterday afternoon, after an interminable time on the road, the vast juggernaut that is the English football season finally juddered to a halt. In Cardiff, oddly enough, where in the First Division play-off final, two of the Football League's most venerable clubs, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United, scrapped it out for the domestic game's richest prize - Premiership status.

The juggernaut will now be refuelled before roaring into life again in scarcely six weeks' time. I for one wouldn't mind waiting a bit longer. Well as the team I support - Everton - has done in the past nine months, and excited as I am by the emergence of the Everton and now England prodigy Wayne Rooney, for lovers of football at large, as opposed to fans of particular clubs, this season has finished dispiritingly.

The main reason for my disillusionment, although there are many others, is the purchase by Newcastle United, from relegated West Ham, of the 26-year-old midfielder Lee Bowyer. Even if you don't follow football, you will probably be aware that this young man is as nasty a piece of work as has ever disgraced an English sporting arena.

While a Leeds United player, Bowyer was acquitted of taking part in a savage attack outside a Leeds nightclub that left an Asian student, Sarfraz Najeib, in a coma. However, the judge forced Bowyer to pay £1m costs, saying that his interviews with police had been "littered with lies". And during that trial, further details emerged of an incident at a McDonald's on the Isle of Dogs in 1996. Bowyer, then Britain's costliest teenage footballer, was so incensed that the restaurant had stopped serving food that he wrecked the joint. He was duly fined £4,000 and told by the magistrate that he was fortunate to be spared jail.

This violent nature also spills on to the field of, erm, play. In a Uefa Cup match between Leeds and Malaga last December, Bowyer stamped on the face of the prostrate Gerardo Garcia. The Malaga man was lucky not to be left permanently disfigured, and Bowyer lucky to be handed only a six-match ban in European competition.

Now, call me breathtakingly naive - in fact I'll save you the job and do it myself - but with breathtaking naivety I had entertained the faint hope that as they strengthen their sides for next season, self-respecting Premiership managers might decline to add Bowyer to the payroll.

Bowyer is undoubtedly a talented footballer (though not much of an asset to West Ham, the club he supposedly adored as a boy, which paid him £30,000 a week but got lacklustre performances in return). There are those who think that, not having raped or murdered anybody, he is still entitled to a career. I disagree. He is already rich way beyond his childhood dreams, and how potent a message it would have been, had he been unable to find another club. Here was an opportunity for football to show that in an age of rampant greed, certain ethics still prevail. Inevitably, football blew it.

Specifically, Sir Bobby Robson blew it. That makes the whole business doubly disappointing, because Robson, a man of integrity and passion, has for years embodied all that is best about English football. He admits that he thought long and hard before signing Bowyer, but obviously not long or hard enough. And if the player prospers with Newcastle, then he will doubtless be picked again for his country. The very thought makes me want to weep for long-lost standards of morality.

But I'm also realistic enough to know that in the Venn diagram of life, sport and morality barely intertwine. A former England cricket captain, Mike Gatting, has said of his erstwhile teammate Ian Botham's ferocious desire to win everything from cricket to snap, that Botham probably thinks "Corinthian spirit" is a drink. That's fine. Like most other followers of the England football and cricket teams, I want our boys to pursue victory with ruthlessness, not romanticism.

But there has to be a limit, which brings me to another reason I am glad to see the back of the 2002-03 season. In the closing minutes of the FA Cup final, Arsenal players protecting a 1-0 lead over Southampton shielded the ball by the corner flag in a display of time-wasting startlingly at odds with what the Cup final is meant to represent. That the worst miscreant was the best player on the pitch, Thierry Henry, made the spectacle even more depressing.

It is questionable whether an Englishman, brought up on Cup final lore, would have initiated the same reprehensible tactic. There is no doubt, xenophobic as it always sounds, that the most influential overseas players have introduced some bad habits to English football at the same time as illuminating it with their skills. And when Lee Bowyer pulls on the black-and-white stripes of Newcastle United for the first time, we can reflect that English football can ill afford to import bad habits; it breeds plenty of its own.