London 2012 made manners cool - footballers should take note
Well done to Gary Lineker for introducing the return of Match of the Day without reference to the Olympics. Football is back, he said, after a busy summer of sport. As much as we loved the two-week festival the eulogies to it are beginning to wear thin. At some point we have to leave Christmas behind and embrace the New Year.
That said, allow me to contradict myself and beg for this column a final Olympic indulgence. One of the more powerful impressions left by the Games was the embrace of the audience for the spirit of the competition and the deportment of the participants. The fan experience across the board was positive, euphoric even. There was a connection with the athlete that has yet to be corrupted by celebrity, wealth and fame.
It is football's misfortune to crash the party. The first show of the season saw Match of the Day up against Jonathan Ross on Saturday night. Ordinarily no contest. Except on the peacock's couch this week were Tom Daley, Jessica Ennis and Usain Bolt, a sliding scale of excellence that forced the finger to waver over the select buttons. Let's just say the iPlayer is a welcome development.
The allure of the Olympians presents a problem for the beautiful game that was reflected in more than one radio phone-in last week. The debates are invariably disappointing but the questions sharp and asked if the success of London 2012 represented a shift in what the British public is prepared to accept in terms of sporting entertainment and the watching experience.
My own re-entry into the football atmosphere came at Euston station in London early on Saturday evening, where the concourse was populated by beery lads on the way home from the game. Deeply entrenched in the culture of the football fan is the idea of binning the norms and values that regulate behaviour from Monday to Friday. This allows them either to assume a new, bolder identity, endorsed and encouraged by their mates, or do away with conventions all together and return to Stone Age man.
The result is boorish behaviour, usually delivered in an amplified voice designed to draw attention to the speaker. The attraction of an audience that he would otherwise not have is guaranteed to raise the decibel level still further, most unfortunate when you are minding your own business playing poker on the BlackBerry while waiting for the platform number to drop on the board. Worse still when the shaven-headed warrior informs fellow boozed-up troupers that he is about to take his shaven-headed infant for a bowel movement. Rest assured, he did not express it thus.
The football demographic is becoming a broader church but at the fringes it remains desperate. I doubt the concourse boys would have considered Alan Pardew's manhandling of the linesman at St James' Park a problem. At least Pardew did and was quick to upbraid himself. Apology accepted, Pards. Football has taken huge strides in a generation. The atmosphere at grounds is a thousand times removed from the hostile, hooligan-tolerating terraces of my pre-Heysel youth. Yet in the kind of base behaviour I encountered the connection remains.
Much grog was drained at Lord's on Saturday but the atmosphere was non-threatening. I am not advocating supporters wear a tie and chinos to matches, civilising as the practice might be, but football, you feel, has to find a solution to the heels that proliferate around its fringes. My own view is that is starts on the professional pitch. The lack of respect for officials, the sense of entitlement that fuels a protest when a decision goes against a player, is an inveterate feature.
The Olympics demonstrated the possibility of a new utopia when Saturday comes. Football needs to understand that it is not unique, that it does not have a monopoly on passion, that the pressure is no greater at Old Trafford and Anfield than it is at Olympic Park, that the huge sums to be won and lost do not excuse dissent and the routine hounding of referees. This argument that it does was made by the eminently reasonable Paul Parker during an aforementioned phone-in on BBC 5Live. The old pro's point was the more pernicious for the sincerity with which it was made. The Olympics is every four years, he said. Football is every week, day in day out, and therefore the intensity greater.
Oh dear, Paul. The Olympics might be a quadrennial affair but the athletes in whatever discipline are at it day in, day out, working at their games, competing at tournaments across the globe. They may not be seen by the football community, but there is scrutiny nevertheless, and the requirement to deliver a performance under pressure.
Why accept behaviour from footballers that we would not tolerate in a child? Ah, the child. This is where it starts, of course, and why role models are a big part of the answer, which brings us back to the professional pitch, and to the Olympics. London 2012 made manners cool. They placed respect for the opponent at the centre of the enterprise and acceptance of outcomes was absolute. And guess what? We loved it. Get a grip, football, before it is too late.