Friday 26 May 2017

Fearsome reputations come with a price -- and a value

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

T he weekend after I retired from playing I agreed to commentate on Millwall's game away at Watford for a London radio station. My plan was to get through the game without being overly critical of any of my mates. After all, this was radio, so I thought I was in a position to put a positive spin on just about anything. Just before half-time, defender Kevin Muscat would put this theory to the test.

In an incident off the ball, he appeared to stamp deliberately on a player already on the ground and was immediately shown a red card. He was not in a crowded area of players so everyone in the stadium could see what he had done. He didn't have the cheek to protest and marched head-bowed down the tunnel straight away. No 'heat of the moment' explanation would be tolerated here, so I knew I had to hammer him.

AC Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso went one step further last week when he headbutted Tottenham coach Joe Jordan following a heated verbal exchange. Rather amusingly, Gattuso later claimed Jordan had been "busting my balls" during the whole game.

Despite the best efforts of those around him at the time, Gattuso would not back down. Milan captain Alessandro Nesta is said to have warned him of the lengthy ban that would result if he were to continue. The tv cameras caught the moment from a few different angles, so there was no room for spin of any kind.

UEFA announced on Thursday they intend to charge Gattuso with gross unsporting conduct. His agent has let it be known that he was subjected to alleged racist taunting by Jordan in the lead-up. He claimed the term "fucking Italian bastard" was used which outraged Gattuso. For one with such a "strong sense of Italian identity", he said, this was "a most disgusting and unjustifiable insult".

I assume it may form a part of any line of defence they adopt, but Jordan has dismissed their version of events as ridiculous. In any case, if such a phrase is deemed offensive enough to reply with a headbutt, most games would involve quite a few. The hearing takes place tomorrow.

Having a team-mate with such a temperament is both an asset and a liability. The downsides are obvious and hardly need to be explained. On the upside, though, their reputation can often affect the performance of opponents and distract them just enough for the difference to be significant.

The advantage of standing alongside a player in the tunnel who is known for being something of a headbanger is enormous. Headbutting is obviously the extreme, but goading and fouling players is frowned upon by many observers of the game. However, the participants need no explanation as to their merits. Even the threat of such carry-on can serve a purpose.

The obvious point to make is that I only think this way because of an upbringing at Millwall, but the very best players at the biggest clubs know this too. Players such as Roy Keane have benefited from the fear opponents had of him. His performances alone won many games for United, but his reputation also played its part.

Whether for throwing punches or horror tackles, every red-card offence got great media coverage. Players are always aware of those they are up against. Once they are in any way hesitant about challenging for the ball or running at

opponents for fear of being hurt in the process, an enormous advantage exists.

Kevin Muscat had this on his side in almost every game he played. He is currently serving an eight-match ban for a red card he received while captaining Melbourne Victory in the A-League. He is due to retire at the end of the season anyway, but the challenge on Adrian Zahra of Melbourne Heart is as bad as any you are likely to see in professional football. Zahra is expected to be out of action for up to a year as a result.

The game at Watford I referred to earlier happened to be the professional debut of winger Ashley Young, now of Aston Villa. Then only 18 years of age, he would later reveal that Muscat told him in the warm-up that he would break his legs if he attempted to run past him in the game. His threat turned out to be pointless because he was sent off before Young was brought on as a substitute. Had he still been on the pitch, it's a fair bet Young would have had those words in his mind every time he had the ball at his feet.

As offensive as such behaviour is to most people who love the game, those who play it know it's effective.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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