Sex, violence and dwarf-tossing…

A punch-up between a semi-naked manager and his star striker is part and parcel of footballers’ Xmas parties.

David Bowden

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So, it’s that time of year again, when Britain’s streets are alive with the sound of police bells ringing, champagne corks popping and footballers roasting fans by an open fire. It’s still early doors, there’s a long way to go and everything’s still to play for, but for the football fan Christmas and New Year is a very special time. Not because of the prospect of a hungover Boxing Day game in freezing Blackburn or Sunderland, of course, but because of that other great football tradition: the Yuletide party.

This week’s alleged dressing-room punch-up between Stoke City manager Tony Pulis, naked after his shower, and star striker James Beattie over plans for the Xmas do is only the latest in a long line of bashes which for many symbolise the moral degeneration of sports stars in the twenty-first century. For years, the Christmas period has been acknowledged as a key time for football clubs: the time when a good start to the season can be undone as overachieving players run out of gas, when classy teams get undone on hard pitches in freezing conditions and, with the advent of the transfer window, a squad can be transformed by some cogent wheeling and dealing. But the Noughties also brought another new development: club star players getting banged up or hospitalised after overindulging during the party season.

Of course, for Joey Barton, this became as much of a ritual as pantomime, Christmas pudding and the Queen’s speech. In December 2004 Barton came to public attention for stubbing out a lit cigar in the eye of team mate Jamie Tandy at Man City’s Christmas party. In December 2007, as a Newcastle player, he seriously assaulted two men while out and about on the town and was later jailed. Incredibly, while in jail, Barton was again found guilty of a serious assault on another Man City team mate (although the sentence was suspended).

While Barton’s off-field problems are the stuff of legend, he was following a well-trodden path of yuletide misdemeanours. In early January 2000 the football world was rocked by allegations that two of Leeds Utd’s young stars had assaulted a student in a racially motivated attack. Although Lee Bowyer was later acquitted and Jonathan Woodgate was found guilty of a lesser charge of affray, it seemed to set the tone for the decade. In 2001 Robbie Fowler managed to get himself arrested at the – oh yes – Leeds Xmas do; West Ham’s Hayden Foxe got so drunk that he pissed all over the floor of a nightclub, and Celtic skipper Neil Lennon knocked himself unconscious on a kerb. The next year Lennon went even further by getting himself – and three team mates – arrested. And last Christmas, England under-achiever and Liverpool captain Steven Gerard even got in on the act, in a Phil Collins-inspired rampage.

But the naughtiest Noughties party of all was, fittingly, thrown by the decade’s most successful club: Manchester United. In 2007 their party made headlines, with teenage defender Johnny Evans accused of rape after a reportedly debauched night of orgies, strip joints and karaoke at an estimated cost of £4,000 per person. While Evans was never charged, the media thundered – in great detail – over their crassness, vulgarity and about what a terrible example they were setting. ‘Footballers need a good kicking’, said rent-a-massive-gob Janet Street-Porter.

Street-Porter wasn’t alone. The sex lives of footballers became a theme over a decade for those commentators looking to whip themselves into a frenzy. The Premiership did more than any other forum to popularise the practice of ‘spit roasting’ during the Noughties, forcing shocked journalists to explain in depth (with pictures and occasionally videos) and fume over what young, well-paid, mostly working-class boys and girls like to get up to in their time off. And, of course, the real vitriol is reserved for when it’s our boys – British players – getting up to no good. Nothing gets a sex scandal going better than the phrase ‘England star’. Remember the sex scandal featuring ‘England star’ Garry Flitcroft? Do you even remember Garry Flitcroft?

This past year has been oddly quiet on that front however. While it is unlikely that many Premiership players (the unfortunate Portsmouth aside) are feeling the pinch of austerity Britain – with so much handwringing now being directed at bankers for their bonuses, politicians for their duck houses and the human race for being wasteful in general – there’s been a marked decline in the quality of outrages against public morality committed by footballers. It is, after all, a World Cup year and, with the Premiership closer than ever, today’s top stars perhaps feel as though they have better things to be worrying about this Christmas.

Fortunately the evils of professionalism and wealth have started to corrupt others, such as the previously retiring rugby boys at Bath and hell-raising golfers like, erm, Tiger Woods. It looks like we have plenty of scandal to give us all a good chuckle into the New Year.

For all the multimillion-pound excess of today’s pampered stars, perhaps they could learn a thing or two about the simpler pleasures of life from football’s old guard. In 1994 Chelsea, instigated by Vinnie Jones, celebrated Christmas with a simple game of skill, athleticism and dexterity: dwarf-tossing. It’s difficult to see today’s top stars putting the Cristal and all the consensual intercourse to one side for such humble, earthy delights as that.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

Read on: spiked-issue: Sport

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