Penalty corner

Matt Nation believes that if players were knocked off their pedestals occasionally football as a whole would benefit

Every team has done it at some point; a goal ahead with five minutes left, a defender reaches a dangerous-looking through-ball from the opposition and attempts to welt it into a neighbouring county in order to waste a few more minutes. Although not laudable in itself, playing for time really is a great leveller.

At first glance. Only when the ball is retrieved is the truth winnowed from the falsehood. At a Premier League game, there is a good chance of it being tossed back in the direction of the nearest camera by a millionaire industrialist, a member of the House or the frontman of a drum ’n’ bass band sitting in the stand. Playing for time assumes a mantle teetering on the glamourous. At parks level, however, where there are no fans, errant defenders have to fetch the ball themselves. After climbing over a crumbling wall topped with broken glass, falling into a clump of stinging nettles and making the acquaintance of every heap of canine faeces within a ten-yard radius, the defender will emerge five minutes later looking like the victim of a cartoon explosion and newly-installed as an Aunt Sally for everybody present.

As football at the top atrophies under an avalanche of ill-discipline, such scenes from the lower levels could prove to be the St Bernard bearing the life-saving shot of the hard stuff. Fines for misbehaviour are but chaff for players who have lost track of how much they earn in two weeks anyway; furthermore, in an era where the quondam fairness of Lineker is eschewed in favour of building a career on the fact that one’s name is inked in on the post-match report before the game has kicked off, red and yellow cards are as effective a deterrent as burglar alarms on the outside of a Barratt’s estate home. It is the ego, vulnerable and readily available, that we should target: humiliation and denudement as a means of keeping gamesmanship at bay.

If Tony Adams would relish the idea of wading into the old Clock End to fetch one of his potential win bonuses of a clearance, the prospect of foraying into home fans at White Hart Lane may cause him to think twice about employing spoiling tactics in the future. And even if other fans at other grounds were slightly less hostile, there are further obstacles to consider: slipping and turning an ankle on the mounds of poop which flow inexorably from attendant police horses; wrestling with a jobsworth steward for not being able to provide proof of having purchased a ticket for the celebrated Row G in which the ball is proverbially deemed to have landed; being chased back over the fence by the bull terrier resident in the garden adjacent to the non-League ground which is hosting the Third Round cup tie; or, worst of all, having to retrieve the ball from that paradigm of humiliation, the old man with his chin resting on a walking stick, who disparagingly looks you in the eye, shakes his head and tut-tuts his unequivocal scorn for all to hear. They called it character-building in them days and, even today, a bit of direct feedback never did anybody any harm.

The process need not be restricted to deliberately wayward defending. Punishments based on themes loosely connected to the offence committed would slot in neatly with the efforts of those determined to sell the idea of a football match as the centre of an all-round spectacle. Penalizing yet another gall-and-woodworm assault by Neil Ruddock by forcing him to run for the rest of the match astride a child’s hobby horse, for example, could provide not only instant light relief for the supporter but also the much sought-after reason for having him on the pitch in the first place. Similarly, the petulant protestations of feigned innocence from penalty-box divers would disappear in a thrice if the perpetrator were handed a microphone and forced to demonstrate their verbal maturity with a rendition of The Good Ship Lollipop over the public address system.

And what better way to quell the looming bugbear of excessive foreign influence in our national game than the music-hall bedrock of “shorts around the ankles” for forwards caught more than five yards offside? Trouser-dropping would return to the national psyche – if, indeed, it ever went away – and the whole country would once again never have it so good.

Although perhaps not immediately evident to the victims of this penal system, the long-term effects of such a scheme would also benefit the players themselves. At present, a large proportion of a player’s time is spent either dancing to the soulless tune called by the media doers or being immersed in the equally solemn world of product endorsement and real-estate investment.

While this guarantees a certain financial stability, the rewards are ephemeral since such activities hardly represent a source of anecdotes for the lucrative after-dinner circuit which beckons when one’s playing days are over; a lecture on crowding-out and siphoning-off policies in the sports and leisure industry might interest young rugby players, but it is tales of “the look on Dazza’s face when I nutmegged him for a one-two off the flag when he was in the corner doing his stir for retaliation, what with him reciting Two Little Boys to the West Stand with his kecks on his head, thumb in his mouth and hand over his knackers” that will really pull in the crowds.

And with their fondness for military metaphors and a Lord of the Flies mentality, coupled with a smattering of spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child chairmen, players would probably welcome these rituals with open arms. We’ve heard so many uplifting stories about cracking bunches of lads, endless ribaldry in training and horseplay in wine bars that it is unfair for players to have to suppress the inner child and switch into adult mode as soon as they step out onto the pitch. They could show that they are human, if only we’d let them.

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month