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Courtenay in the dock over scuffle

TOMORROW morning, John Courtenay, self-made man, football club owner, sportswear manufacturer and television personality, will appear in Gainsborough Magistrates' Court. He is charged with behaviour or language likely to cause a breach of the peace. It is a charge he will be fighting, but there are those who would argue, and Courtenay might not disagree, that the peace is al

TOMORROW morning, John Courtenay, self-made man, football club owner, sportswear manufacturer and television personality, will appear in Gainsborough Magistrates' Court. He is charged with behaviour or language likely to cause a breach of the peace. It is a charge he will be fighting, but there are those who would argue, and Courtenay might not disagree, that the peace is always in danger of being breached when John Courtenay is around.

The case is entangled with the fortunes, such as they are, of Carlisle United Football Club, 15 points adrift at the bottom of the Football League. It is John Courtenay's club and it has become his passion. He insists Carlisle will not be relegated this season, he insists that he has no regrets about his decision to buy the club (so far he estimates he has put stg£4 million into Carlisle) and he insists that he made the right decision when he sacked Roddy Collins as manager earlier this season, despite their high-profile alliance, documented in The Rod Squad, shown recently on RTE.

These matters may not be touched on in court, but if Courtenay takes the stand, the judge is liable to hear a lot about Carlisle's bad luck and the incompetence of referees who, as Courtenay would have it, should stand in any dock before he does.

They are relevant to the court case, naturally. Last season, Carlisle travelled to Lincoln for a game that was, even by their standards, eventful. "We had a good referee that day who had no idea what was going on," Courtenay dryly recalled on Friday, sitting in his Dublin office off the M50, juggling his mobile in one hand and his cigarette in the other. "Early on, there was some girly stuff between Richie Foran and one of their lads. The referee didn't see it, but the linesman did and he called the referee over. The referee sent the two of them off."

It seems things then got a little hairy. Courtenay says a Lincoln elbow in a Carlisle face went unpunished, but the retaliation got a red card. One thing led to another and, as Courtenay breezily concludes, "We ended up with eight men."

Carlisle responded to adversity and the referee helped them for once and awarded a penalty. "He couldn't not give it because the fella jumped up and punched the ball - well he could have not given it because the guy against Cheltenham didn't (Courtenay will appear in front of an FA Disciplinary hearing shortly, charged with abusing a referees' inspector following a defeat against Cheltenham)."

Carlisle scored and went into the final stages of the game leading 1-0, but with only eight men.

"I knew he'd give them a peno and right enough, on cue, two or three minutes to go, a fella runs into the box, falls over with nobody near him and he gives them the penalty."

Courtenay watched this from the directors' box where he had brought the three dismissed players when he saw there was nowhere for them to sit. "There were too many of them," his son Jonathan suggests.

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Lincoln missed the penalty and Courtenay, the Carlisle Three and a few reserves jumped up in the stand in celebration. "This guy went berserk and claimed that we were spitting. Richie Foran, whose mouth was dry after playing, had put his head down and spat on the ground - as you would in a stand at a football match."

The players were told to leave by stewards and Courtenay chose to accompany them to the tunnel. In the tunnel, Courtenay and Foran became involved in a dispute with stewards, who wouldn't let them watch the final minute of the game. According to Courtenay, Foran was grabbed and threw the steward off, but tumbled back into Courtenay, who fell into a crash barrier, where the steward pounced upon Carlisle United's chairman.

While this was going on, Carlisle were securing the three points and Courtenay forgot about the scuffle as he repaired to the dressing-room in celebration. "There was a knock on the door and there was a policeman and he said, 'Who was he?' and somebody pointed at me. Nobody got hit, it was nothing, but the copper wouldn't let me talk and he was listening to the other guy. Just to wind him up, I asked him was this an anti-Irish thing but I was just having a laugh. I went home and thought no more about it.

"Now they've produced witnesses who say I was drunk, my eyes were glazed and I will call witnesses, including Lord Clark, another director at Carlisle, who will say that I wasn't. I drank less than half a pint of beer more than an hour before the match kicked off.

"I may have been obstreperous but I wasn't causing trouble, I've never been in trouble in my life. A detective who was sitting in the very back of the stand who couldn't see anything because there was a wall in front of the tunnel, he says I was drunk. From up the back of the stand! From down the far end!"

There was another witness. "THE REFEREES' INSPECTOR!" Courtney exclaims, "who was sitting way behind the directors' box, says my eyes were glazed and he was sure that I had intoxicating liquor. The fucking referees' inspector! What's he looking at me for? The referee is sending people off to beat the band and he's able to tell that the chairman has been drinking. Man, it's frustrating.

"So they've charged me. It's not even a breach of the fucking peace. I didn't get round to that. All my mates from Crumlin are disappointed, 'You mean, John, you didn't even have a breach of the peace?'"

He may not disappoint when he is called in front of the FA, following the incident in Cheltenham where a different referees' inspector has complained about the foul and abusive language Courtenay sent in his direction following a defeat at Cheltenham and the failure of a referee to award a blatant penalty. Courtenay admits to using foul language but will cite as provocation the referee's performance and the fact that he heard laughter from the referee's room as he waited outside.

"I thought they had Billy Connolly in there. I said to the referees' inspector, 'Do you think it's funny, did you see the handball?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm not laughing at that' and I said 'You shouldn't be fucking laughing at anything. I'm running a football club at the bottom of the football league, my money is in here, my time is in here, my life is in here and we work all week and he has robbed us'. Now he's reported me to the League and I've requested a personal hearing. I'm going to have that out with them. I'm going to tell them they're a crowd of pricks as well when I go to see them."

But he will take on the referees because he believes that they are destroying Carlisle's hopes of staying in the Football League. He does not believe that the luck will balance itself out. Carlisle's isolated location in the north of England doesn't help, he insists, as referees are unhappy to be there in the first place. "Our next-door neighbour is Nanook the Eskimo and by the time a referee gets up there he's in a bad mood. We don't get home refereeing when we're at home but we suffer from it when we're away."

"The one thing that would make me walk away from Carlisle is the refereeing. The standard is universally accepted as being appalling and nothing is happening to make it better. Not once, but twice, we have had referees running into the ball and knocking the ball to their centre-forward to score the winning goal. I'm not saying the referee was trying to pass it to him, but what is he doing getting in the way in the penalty box?

"Many of them just don't have a clue. And some of them are headless chickens. Why can't they make a referee's salary sufficient so that ex-pros will go in? Lots of them are coming in with no jobs and nowhere to go. They would understand the game."

Courtenay's frustration comes from his own determination to make whatever he does successful. He works hard but expects results. At Carlisle, he feels that hard work isn't rewarded because of the actions of officials. But he will work as he always has and he feels that the club, now out of administration, is going in the right direction.

Twenty years ago he was struggling. His company needed capital. For 17 months, Courtenay worked 9 to 5, got home, had a quick rest, went out and drove a cab from seven in the evening until seven in the morning and then he would go straight to work again. "I've never met anyone with money who didn't have to work hard to get it, unless they inherited it."

He is a celebrity in Cumbria, where he is accosted on the street whenever he goes out by supporters who have ideas that could save Carlisle. He has a new celebrity in Ireland since the television programme, a fanbase consisting, it seems, mainly of children. "I was getting petrol the other day and a group of kids followed me and started shouting 'You're the fella off the telly. Why did you sack Roddy?'"

LAST Friday, Collins spoke out on BBC Radio Carlisle, saying that Carlisle were wrong to sack him. When Courtenay found out that Collins had been in contact with some of the Carlisle players, he stopped them from talking to him.

"I don't want to get into an argument with Roddy and I don't have any dispute with Roddy, but anybody in football knows that you live or die by results. We put up with a lot of bad results last season and the budgets were never really stuck to. We lost our first five games this season. It wasn't solely my decision, there is a board and, in fact I was the one who wanted to hang on longer and I hung on as long as I could.

"I now wish he would leave us alone to get on with things. It's not helpful. Realistically, we didn't succeed when he was there and if you're not successful in football you get fired."

The dream of two Paddies taking control of an English club on and off the pitch is over. Courtenay is now running a more streamlined club. Collins' grandiosity is missing but the club remains ambitious and Courtenay's passion ensures that they will never be orthodox. Survival is currently the only issue. "It's like the mafia say, it's back to the mattresses. I do have a strange feeling that Al Capone is waiting for me.

"To pretend it hasn't been a chastening experience would be wrong. It has. I'm proud of the fact that I was the first Irish guy to ever take control of an English club, but there's not a lot of pride if I cock it up."

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