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James Lawton: Another week when beautiful game sank further into the gutter


Papiss Cisse and Johnny Evans were involved in a spit spat during Manchester United’s victory over Newcastle United

Papiss Cisse and Johnny Evans were involved in a spit spat during Manchester United’s victory over Newcastle United

Getty Images

Papiss Cisse and Johnny Evans were involved in a spit spat during Manchester United’s victory over Newcastle United

After the stomach-turning exchange of spittle between Jonny Evans of Manchester United and Newcastle's Papiss Cisse TV pundit Phil Neville declared that in the cold light of dawn the culprits would feel "embarrassed".

But how could he be sure? Who, after all, would comfortably bet a bad penny on anyone in the £5bn Premier League displaying any sure instinct in the matter of the difference between right or wrong - or the need to protect the image of a league beamed into the planet's every corner?

The trouble is that if Evans and Cisse were the champions of squalor this week it was still impossible to see them as anything other than two more miscreants in a routine which is becoming more dismal by the day.

Will anyone stand up for football's good name, cry for some kind of stand against the pollutants of a whole new generation of young people?

The evidence is dwindling alarmingly and it really shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

It is, when you think about it, less than a year since the league's chief executive Richard Scudamore coupled apologies for sending out sexist messages with condemnation of the whistle-blower - and was backed up by all 20 clubs.

There was not a squeak of a question about the head honcho's suitability for his role, one that is regularly laced with platitudes about the organisation's success in reaching down into the community.

Reaching down? Or stepping, with mind-numbing regularity, into the gutter?

That was the conclusion most difficult to sidestep when Neville somehow found the optimism to anticipate the remorse of this week's guilty men and his studio companion, former Liverpool and Newcastle midfielder Dietmar Hamann felt obliged to make some kind of stab at reality by saying, "It is just not acceptable - it is disgusting."

That was also a reasonable reaction when Malky Mackay, while manager of Cardiff City, was caught out in his sending of a stream of racist, homophobic and sexist emails, but he marches on as manager of Wigan Athletic.

Where is the decency, you might ask, but perhaps the more relevant question is about the quality of leadership. From where might it spring?

As long as 20 years ago great football men like Denis Law and Bobby Charlton complained that diving and penalty area grappling too often made watching modern football not so much a pleasure as an ordeal. Now the curses are endemic.

There was certainly a bleak irony in the catalyst of the disgraceful touchline scenes between Gus Poyet of Sunderland and Hull's Steve Bruce. They had to be separated with the skill of a nightclub bouncer after Jack Rodwell, recently one of the brightest hopes in English football, produced a dive of absolute shamelessness.

The managers went to war over the direst piece of cheating but was Poyet inflamed by his pain over the damage to football? No, he was more exercised by the loss of a potential advantage.

And then there was Bruce's reaction to the grotesque injury sustained by Stoke's Stephen Ireland when tackled by Maynor Figueroa. Ireland's manager Mark Hughes spoke angrily about how easily his player's career could have ended when he received a three-inch gash in his calf.

Bruce seemed to imply poetic justice when pointing out that Ireland should have earlier been sent off for his tackle on David Meyler. Some justice, and if it was poetry it was hard to imagine that it could have been much more macabre.


It is truly a terrible phase in the development of the Premier League. It is unaccompanied by any coherent standard of behaviour. Everything is relative to whose ox is being gored. Jose Mourinho railed at the injustice of Nemanja Matic's suspension after being provoked by a sickening tackle. But he doesn't see anything morally amiss in the needling venom of his own Diego Costa.

How often does a manager react to the misdeeds of a player? Almost exclusively it is when the offender is not his own man. Louis van Gaal gave us a classic example in the wake of the Evans-Cisse collision.

He might have said, as Newcastle's John Carver did, that he would review the evidence and come down hard on any proof that the reputation of football, and Manchester United, had been compromised. Instead, he declared, "I didn't see that from the bench because it is too far away to see spitting. But I cannot imagine Jonny Evans would do that because he is a very modest person - maybe spitting on the floor but not in the face."

Where is the appetite to lay down a standard - and say that it will be enforced not only because it is the right thing to do but because it might just impose a little bit of discipline, a touch of understanding that when a player goes out on the field he has to win something more than a dubiously achieved edge over his opponent.

Evans' old team-mate Paul Scholes, one of the more impressively candid new arrivals in the army of football analysis, was similarly disappointing. He said, "It's not very nice but I think Jonny is spitting on the floor. I know Jonny. He's not that type of person. If he wants to do that then it's not hard to miss. He's only stood a yard away. But what Cisse did afterwards is unforgivable."

How, quite? Presumably his crime was greater accuracy. You might say it is a fool's debate. But the issue is serious enough. It is about how the Premier League doesn't seem to see itself, doesn't have the capacity to measure what it takes from the public and what it gives back.

There are other problems of course and high among them is the breakdown in the authority of referees.

The prime reason is the archaic belief that the man with the whistle is generally right, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The need for him to have the support of quick and efficient technological help is now beyond all argument but still the errors accumulate and the spirit of the game goes on declining.

Unfortunately, trying to make this point is in one way a little like joining the company of Evans and Cisse. It may be less offensive, but it is still sadly a case of spitting in the wind.

Irish Independent