Offside, 7 April
Chill out: the Bowyer/Dyer bout was top-notch entertainment.
Footballers’ Wives might be back but its real-life equivalent Footballers Behaving Badly is far more compelling. This week’s episode saw our roasting, nightclub-brawling, bling-dripping, bank-note burning, drink-driving, playboy footballers sink to new depths of depravity. In a twisted homage to the film Fight Club, ‘Loathsome Lee Bowyer’ and Kieron ‘King of Bling’ Dyer, as they were dubbed by the Daily Telegraph, staged a bare-knuckle boxing match on the pitch at St James’ Park. Don’t miss next week’s episode in which the very fabric of society unravels.
Normally I can’t bear to watch Match of the Day after watching Palace lose but last Saturday I couldn’t wait to tune in, not for the goals you understand, but for the most talked-about punch up in football this year. Like comets and solar eclipses, a fight between team-mates is a rare thrill that doesn’t come around very often, so you’ve got to savour the moment while it lasts.
You think I’m being facetious? Well I’m not. As far as I’m concerned the Bowyer v Dyer bout was top-notch entertainment – if anything it was broken up far too quickly. And I don’t think I’m alone in holding that view. Of course, plenty of seething Geordies have registered their disgust on radio phone-ins and internet message boards. But even Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye, that some people might have actually found the incident funny. Indeed, an online poll on the popular Football365 website suggests that many football fans were more likely to be entertained than outraged by the scuffle. In answer to the question ‘So did you also have a good laugh at the Toon brawl?’ an overwhelming 92 per cent voted ‘yes’.
But predictably, although fans might have been chuckling, the media didn’t see the funny side. So instead of headlines like ‘Nation in stitches as team-mates attack’ or ‘Football fisticuffs funnier than Ant and Dec’, we were offered the usual sanctimonious tirades. ‘[I]t is difficult to know if football can sink any lower’, wrote Sue Mott in the Daily Telegraph (1). The Independent’s James Lawton lamented ‘the game’s spineless refusal to impose proper levels of discipline’ (2).
Of course no decent sermon about footballers behaving badly is complete without a reference to school playgrounds. Cue Martin Ward of the Secondary Heads Association who recently called for a clampdown on foul-mouthed footballers. ‘This is another case of the extremely bad example set by footballers. It is getting worse and something needs to be done’, said Ward. ‘An assault needs to be treated as an assault and if the police acted in this case it would send out the correct message to everyone but especially to children.’
These sentiments were echoed by politicians. ‘They are setting an appalling example to youngsters watching them. The club should sack them and they should be banned from the game’, said Labour MP for Blaydon John McWilliam. Sports minister Richard Caborn also expressed concern that the players’ behaviour would be ‘replicated in the playground’.
It’s high time this tiresome claptrap about children imitating the bad behaviour of footballers was laid to rest. Fighting in school playgrounds predated Lee Bowyer, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick and Sky Sports. Children have always fought in school playgrounds and always will. What’s different today is not that footballers are setting a bad example but that teachers are no longer able to maintain discipline in schools. Never mind Loathsome Lee, I think it’s more worrying that teachers are blaming footballers for their own inability to control children.
Such is our all-consuming obsession with football that we often forget that it is just a game, the objective of which is to score more goals than the opposition, not to create a virtuous society. Despite the best efforts of FIFA to emasculate it, football remains a very physical, competitive, and aggressive sport. As Tony Cascarino put it in The Times, ‘show me a dressing-room full of nice polite players and I’ll show you a dressing-room full of losers’ (3). Inevitably, the uneasy equilibrium between aggression and discipline does have a tendency to veer over into physical violence but it is disingenuous of Richard Caborn to say of the fight that ‘in any other walk of life it would be a sackable offence’. Putting in a bone-crunching tackle or ‘reducer’ to intimidate an opponent would be a sackable offence in most workplaces but it is perfectly acceptable in a physical contact sport like football.
Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer certainly contravened the laws of the game and seriously undermined team unity and discipline, but their brawl was hardly a hanging offence. It was childish and unprofessional, but it is a problem for Newcastle United alone not for society as a whole. Politicians, journalists, and headteachers should stop turning every footballing misdemeanour into a national morality tale and let the rest of us enjoy action replays of the punch-up in peace.
(1) Can football sink any lower, Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2005
(2) Bowyer and Dyer’s disgrace shows ugly side of football at Newcastle, Independent, 4 April 2005
(3) Newcastle should pull no punches, The Times, (London), 4 April 2005
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