Man's game handbagged by political correctness

Jeff Powell

Last updated at 00:00 17 February 2003

TO HEAR them talking, you would have thought it was football's equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Words like 'intimidating', ' physical', ' challenging', ' bullying', ' menacing' and even 'massacre' were being bandied about after Manchester United versus Arsenal.

Who do they think they are kidding?

'Handbags' would have been more appropriate, or ' playacting'. Better still, 'diving'.

At first glance it looked as if we were in for a rare treat, a good oldfashioned FA Cup-tie hewn from the valiant history of this most ancient competition.

No such luck.

The closer you looked, it was all wind and hiss.

A few extravagant lunges through thin air, some theatrical collapses to the ground, a lot of pushing and shoving... but hardly a tackle worth the name.

If not exactly a bunch of fairies, this lot should have run into Tommy Smith, Norman Hunter, Dave Mackay, Paddy Crerand, Chopper Harris and Messrs Giles, Gerson and Gentile in their prime.

Only one player got hurt. But David Beckham injured himself by chasing after a couple of Arsenal players like an irate schoolboy.

Oh yes, a lot of them went down as if they had been shot. Not least Patrick Vieira for the free-kick which yielded the decisive first goal. But for the most part it was overreaction to the mildest provocation, especially the crowding round the referee.

They made a melee out of a molehill.

AUDLEY HARRISON, Britain's Olympic gold medal-winning boxer and late-starting contender for the world heavyweight title held by Lennox Lewis, is to be sponsored by Cadbury.

So much for the cynics who said that if he were made of chocolate he would eat himself.

Part of the problem is that they are no longer allowed to get stuck in like they used to. Mistime one heavy tackle and you're off.

This man's game is being neutered by political correctness.

Once Roy Keane had been booked, even he played as if he had one set of studs tied behind his back.

How United missed Phil Neville.

Maligned though this brother has been through much of his career, it was Neville's authentic and abrasive tackling which had subdued Arsenal's midfield in the Premiership match here in December, which arrested temporarily the shift of power in English football from Old Trafford to Highbury.

While Neville sat watching from the bench on Saturday, Vieira, Pires, Parlour and Edu took control - Edu, above all.

The Brazilian's free-kick for that first goal took a huge deflection but his focused hold over the proceedings never wavered by so much as a fraction.

While the others sweated and strained, Edu ran the game.

Thus Arsenal were much the superior team. Still, United might have won. Such is the contrary nature of the game.

Arsenal played the football, passing their way out of pressure with wit and dexterity. United forced the better chances.

As well as that miss of the millennium, Ryan Giggs put a gaping volley out for a throw instead of PS: Has anyone seen Duncan Fletcher?

Please report, on a postcard, any sightings of England's Zimbabwean cricket coach.

into the net. As well as hitting a post, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer missed a sitter.

Four-two to the Manchester men would have been a travesty.

However, just as United's win in the League was not as definitive as they liked to believe, Arsenal's fifthround Cup victory left questions begging like open goals.

Has Arsene Wenger struck the killer psychological blow by winning at Old Trafford with a deliberately weakened team? Will Sir Alex Ferguson incite a backlash by his chastened team, starting against Juventus this week?

The final answers from these millionaires will not be forthcoming until they get the Gucci handbags out again in north London on April 15. Nasser Hussain, fed up with being left to speak alone in defence of his World Cup wallflowers, would like to know where to find him.

IT IS not every day that we receive a complaint about an affectionate obituary. But dear old Jimmy Hill is irritated by my suggestion that former ITV and BBC executive Mike Murphy, more than 20 years his junior, 'launched' his post-football career on the box.

A hasty choice of words on my part at the sad moment of a friend's premature passing.

'Directed' or 'furthered' would have been more accurate.

Happy now, Jim?

HAVING predicted as much in this column last Monday, perhaps I can be forgiven for emphasising the difference between the impassive Sven Goran Eriksson and the impassioned Clive Woodward.

It was the difference between losing to workaday Australia at football and beating flair-filled France at rugby.

Unsurprisingly, Eriksson went missing at the weekend. He failed to show up at Old Trafford for a scheduled TV interview.

Gary Lineker, apparently, was armed with questions which would have gone beyond the immediate substitutions fiasco to the detail of his entire selection policy.

Let me hazard a guess at what some of them might have been.

What the hell was Beattie doing out there? Who the hell is Konchesky to be given an England cap? Why the hell have we still not solved the riddle on the left? And, among the most vexing questions of all, if Joe Cole was good enough to go to the World Cup in Japan, then how the hell was he not among the umpteen players to appear at Upton Park, his home ground?

Truth is, there is no more pattern or purpose to Eriksson's choices than there was to the performance of the team. This is flavour-of-the-month selection.

Either that or England's commercial manager is trying to work his ticket.

There are hints now that Eriksson wants to live abroad.

Thus he could watch Champions League matches free from the pressures here, returning for perhaps a couple of days a week to watch games in the country paying him Pounds 3million a year.

Nice work if you can get it and, even if the FA don't like it, they don't have the Pounds 9m to pay up the remaining three years of his rashly-conceived contract.

Not that all is yet lost. If England fail to win in Liechtenstein - heaven forbid - they can pass the hat round the country.

Starting in the dressing room.