Crunch match of Wigs v Tracksuits

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A LARGE plastic knee presided over Court 14 of the High Court in the Strand this week. Beneath it was a table-tennis table dotted with pretty wooden toys: two cameras and a formation of 6in-high men wearing red or blue shirts. The Sun has billed Elliott v Saunders as 'football's trial of the century'. For once, the paper is not exaggerating.

The claim - for negligence - goes back to a Chelsea v Liverpool league game in September 1992. Ten minutes into the first half, Chelsea defender Paul Elliott and Liverpool striker Dean Saunders both ran for the ball. The clash ended messily, with a severe injury to Elliott's right knee - hence the plastic model - which ended his flourishing career. (He was on the verge of playing for England.) Elliott is now suing Saunders and his former club for loss of earnings - possibly running to several million pounds - on the grounds that this was a foul that ended his career.

If Elliott wins, it opens the gates to a host of similar claims from injured footballers. On Thursday, however, not everyone appeared to be taking Elliott v Saunders altogether seriously.

During a long cross-examination about video-camera angles, an elderly member of the prosecution team, was apparently nodding off beneath his half-moon spectacles. One (female) court official turned repeatedly to a jumbo puzzle book. 'I'm learning, aren't I?' chuckled Mr Justice Drake, after correctly identifying rule 12M of the football code; this is the one covering 'ungentlemanly conduct'.

Indeed, the real contest going on in Court 14 was Class War, in this case Wigs v Tracksuits. The Wigs had ancient, Latinate names such as Augustus (Ullstein, QC for the prosecution); the Tracksuits had late 20th-century ones like Vinny (Jones, reluctant witness and Wimbledon midfielder) and Dean. The Wigs were Anglo-

Saxon with aquiline features; Saunders is short, Welsh and has a face like a happy potato; Elliott is of mixed race.

Naturally, the Wigs wore wigs, the sort that have to be powdered; Elliott has a goatee and flat-top haircut; Saunders the classic footballer's gelled perm. The Wigs wore black gowns; Vinny Jones appeared - subpoenaed and four hours late - in a pair of jeans. A fridge-sized associate of Saunders wedged himself into a public gallery pew wearing an enormous red and black checked jacket.

The day before, a particularly vigorous clash had taken place between Mr Antony Berrisford, who is leading the Saunders defence, and England midfielder Dennis Wise. 'You have never played football, obviously,' declared Wise, tetchily, as he tried to explain 'stretching for the ball'. Their altercation ended with Wise snapping: 'There's no need to get the hump, I'm just saying what I feel.'

By Thursday, however, it was the turn of the more experienced Tracksuits, who remained calm in hostile territory. Brian Hall is a bluff Lancastrian who played for Liverpool in the late Sixties and Seventies and now handles the team's public and community relations. He adopted a strong defensive posture and refused to budge under cross-examination: he had seen the Elliott-Saunders clash and it was not a foul. His technique was never to answer 'Yes' or 'No' - always a good tactic when playing the Wigs. 'I've seen worse on a football field,' he replied to a question about the tackle in question.

'Do teams have hard men?' enquired Mr Ullstein. 'They do,' agreed Mr Hall. Maliciously hard? 'Difficult to say,' replied Mr Hall. It is possible that he confused his opponent by wearing spectacles - though, unlike the Wigs, he did not take them off at strategic moments to glare into the middle distance. When Saunders took the stand, his wife, Helen - a glamorous brunette in a cream and black jacket - put on an enormous, clear-rimmed pair.

The stands have been packed all week. There are, of course, the fans, such as 20-year-old Ron, a night worker for British Gas. Does the case represent a bad precedent? 'Yes and no,' said Ron, in classic Tracksuit-ese. Why? 'Don't know, really,' he said. 'It's just a bad precedent.' Brian, a 34-year-old hod-carrier and Liverpool supporter who had taken two weeks off work to attend the case, was more outspoken. 'If Saunders had shit out (of the tackle) he'd have got hell from the management and supporters,' he said. 'The fans,' he added, 'are fanatical.'

Apart from representatives from the Football Association and other interested bodies, the publicity had attracted a large number of sad, High Court groupies. John, a 62-year-old former hotel worker and lifelong Chelsea supporter, shows up at the Strand every day. 'It does let you see how the other half lives,' he said. As Elliott left the court, John trotted close behind, hoping to be caught by the television cameras.

Naturally, there is an element of theatricality to these courtroom clashes, with the barristers enunciating the football terminology - 'clattering', 'nipping in' - like RSC actors chewing on indigestible matter. When questioning his client, Mr Berrisford paused for a good four seconds following the player's replies, allowing plenty of time for the reporters to scribble it all down.

For 30-year-old Paul Elliott, the case is deadly serious. Who can blame him? Win or lose, his professional career is over.

Sandra Barwick is covering the European elections.

(Photograph omitted)