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Friday, Aug. 30, 2002

PREMIER REPORT

Bad behavior hurting soccer once again


LONDON -- The beautiful game has been wearing its ugly face in the opening weeks of the season.

Christopher Davies

Manchester United and former Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane continues to dominate column inches in newspapers and hours on the airwaves after the serialization of his autobiography; Chelsea's John Terry and Jody Morris were found not guilty of assaulting a night club security officer (aka bouncer) while the Football League ordered Leicester City to reinstate Dennis Wise after the player had broken the jaw of teammate Callum Davidson.

And for good measure Crystal Palace manager Trevor Francis gave substitute goalkeeper Alex Kolinko a clip around the ear (of disputed ferocity depending which party you listen to) for apparently laughing when Palace conceded a goal.

Francis was reported to the police by an off-duty officer and could face action both legally and from the Football Association.

Welcome to the new season. Much of the football has been wonderful but great goals have been overshadowed by the threat of jail involving players and managers.

The Wise decision -- a contradiction of terms if ever there was one -- left the Football League open to ridicule, effectively saying that causing a double fracture of the jaw to a colleague is not a sacking offense. If that isn't, what is?

A row developed after a game of cards on Leicester's preseason trip to Finland. A while later Wise, no stranger to physical confrontations, went to the hotel room of the unsuspecting Davidson who may just say boo to a goose but would say it very quietly.

What happened next left Davidson with a serious facial injury. Leicester held an inquiry and sacked Wise, who had two years of his contract remaining, for serious misconduct.

Quite right too. Imagine someone you work with breaking the jaw of a colleague in such a manner -- what would your company do?

But English football is different. It is also quite barmy at times and as if to prove this the newly formed Football Disciplinary (Indisciplinary?) Committee of the Football League said yes, Wise did break Davidson's jaw and yes, it was serious misconduct but no, it was not a sacking offense.

"The offense did not warrant the termination of Wise's playing contract," the FDC (which could also stand for Farcical, Dumb and Crazy) said.

So players up and down the country can smash each other in the face and be handed no more than a fine of two weeks' wages, the maximum penalty allowed under agreement with the Professional Footballers' Association.

You would think -- hope -- the PFA would make a stance against such violence but chief executive Gordon Taylor said Leicester only sacked Wise to save money. "Leicester was trying to get the wage bill down," he said. "For that reason the punishment was excessive."

Not surprisingly Leicester is appealing -- the hearing will be this week -- because it does not condone such bad behavior. It is difficult to imagine Wise ever playing for Leicester again but if the club's appeal is unsuccessful it would have to pay up Wise's contract, which is worth around $4.5 million, to get rid of him.

"Crime doesn't pay," we tell our children. "It does if you're a footballer," they will soon be replying.

Terry and Morris plus Des Byrne of Wimbledon made the front pages after an incident in a night club where an employee was hit with a bottle (Byrne was found guilty of carrying an offensive weapon).

Exactly what went on we shall never know but while Terry and Morris were cleared of all charges, they were certainly guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, less than 48 hours before a Chelsea game.

The drinking culture continues to haunt English football and while it is unreasonable to expect rich young men to live like hermits, it is reasonable to expect such role models to behave respectively.

A problem with being a famous footballer is that in any restaurant, bar or club some will look at them with respect and envy, but there will always be those mindless morons who see big names as almost a trophy, especially if they play for "the opposition."

The rewards these days are fantastic. Wages of $40,000 a week are commonplace in the Premiership for relatively average players and most who play in England's top division can expect to retire millionaires (unless they drink or gamble it away).

If someone said to you: "Listen, I'm going to pay you $40,000 a week for the next 15 years. In return you can't go out on a Friday for a slap up meal while you will be allowed to drink only four glasses of wine a week" -- would you take it?

Or would you abuse it and put your career at risk? Some cannot believe it, but surely it is possible to go out and have a good time without drinking as if it is going out of fashion.

Keane has admitted he has a drinking problem and in this respect he is not alone. Such a condition is not to be dismissed lightly and many have recovered with the right help and advice.

But the most controversial admission in "Keane -- The Autobiography" was that the United captain sought out Manchester City's Alf Inge Haarland in April 2001 for special treatment.

Keane had been injured a couple of years previously when tackling the Norwegian when Haarland played for Leeds. The red mist was still there when the teams met 16 months ago and Keane's description of the worst foul many have ever witnessed was a collection of asterisks linked by the occasional word.

Keane was rightly sent off and in his book gave the impression the tackle was premeditated. City and Haarland have started legal action and there are calls for the Football Association to ban/fine/hang Keane.

While not in any way condoning the assault on Haarland, it is no worse a foul now than it was at the time when the City player would surely have had a strong case against Keane in the courts for a reckless and negligent tackle. The F.A. has it in its powers to add to the three-game suspension for serious foul play but those who govern English football decided to take no extra action.

Haarland has had a series of operations on the other leg -- the one Keane did not almost amputate -- but the legal eagles believe they have a case. Who will win remains to be seen but my learned friends will not lose.

The F.A. says it is awaiting the publication of the book at the end of the month rather than relying on serialization extracts.

Should the F.A. charge Keane no case could be heard until the civil action has reached a conclusion, which could take 18 months, so it would be three years after the tackle from hell that the United captain would be in the dock.

In no other sport, in no other country, could that happen.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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