Airguns, owls, brawls: modern footballer’s behaviour in the spotlight

There have been so many examples recently of footballers behaving badly that BBC 3’s Christmas schedule of sporting clip shows must already be sorted for material. From Ashley Cole opening fire in the Chelsea changing room, to a player in Colombia executing a banana shot with an owl, to a 21-man brawl at the end of a game in League Two, modern players seem to be the sporting epitome of the mad, bad, and dangerous to know axiom famously coined by Lady Caroline Lamb to describe Lord Byron. What the wide boy of the Romantic movement would’ve thought of football can be left for another time – although I fancy he would’ve been rather drawn to the game – but the behaviour of Cole, Luis Moreno, as well as the players of Wycombe and Macclesfield, was certainly located more towards the moronic end of the Byronic spectrum.

Harking back to a nineteenth-century poet when discussing present day footballers isn’t just the aimless musing of an English literature graduate. It’s so easy when presented with contemporary examples of the crass, stupid, and aggressive behaviour of young men to react with shock and horror, and confidently assert that it can’t always have been like this. Is the moral compass of the modern footballer – the modern man – more wayward than ever? Has his stupidity plumbed new depths? After all, even Byron, who two hundred years ago fled debt and sexual scandal in Britain to gamble and sleep his way round mainland Europe instead, never kicked a bird.

In the case of Ashley Cole, his shooting of a 21-year-old man on work experience with an airgun seemed particularly extraordinary because until news of the story broke last Monday the majority of football fans would have assumed that it wasn’t necessary for players to go into training packing heat. If anyone else in any other sort of job – except, perhaps, policeman or zookeeper – not only went into work with a gun but then discharged it, accidentally or not, they would find themselves fired before they had had time to appreciate the irony of such a turn of events. Cole, however, is unlikely to be prosecuted by the police and will instead only face the “appropriate action” that Chelsea are promising to inflict upon him – presumably extending to a fine, the confiscation of his weapon, and cessation of chocolate rations.

The fact that the incident is not going to be pursued legally – despite nobody denying that the young man took the hit and shooting someone tending to be regarded as a crime – demonstrates that not only are footballers capable of behaving as if they are above the law, they are given ample encouragement to believe that they actually are too. The shootout at the Cobham Corral begs the question as to just how far footballers might try to push their luck now. Where will it end? A crossbow in the canteen, or with John Terry ordering the work experience boys to hold up archery boards on the training ground’s all-weather surface while Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda recreate the Battle of Agincourt?

Maybe footballers were better behaved in the past. Maybe they were more innocent beings back then. At the very least, it seems, they might have taken their firearm tips from the Beano not Bravo Two Zero. Speaking in March’s FourFourTwo, Johnny Giles – capped 59 times by the Republic of Ireland in a 20-year international career – describes the time he and three of his teammates at Manchester United thought it would be fun to drive around the city squirting pedestrians with a water pistol. Giles and his accomplices were summoned to court and fined for their aquatic assault on the general public, suggesting that Ashley Cole is lucky not to have been a footballer in the early sixties.

Giles’ antics do, however, suggest that the majority of top-level footballers have always had too much time on their hands and a shortage of grey matter between the ears. The player moved to Leeds in 1963, where he won the FA Cup and two First Division titles in a hugely successful spell, but Don Revie’s men certainly weren’t known for their spirit of fair play and cultured behaviour. Revie had only just left the club when, in 1974, Billy Bremner exchanged punches with Kevin Keegan in the Charity Shield. Both men were sent off and they even had the temerity to take off their shirts in disgust and leave the pitch bare-chested, at the risk of another yellow card. In the end, the FA fined them both £500 instead. With that in mind, the FA’s decision to fine Macclesfield and Wycombe £9,000 for their players’ recent contretemps proves that, while ill discipline in football is nothing new, the amount of money at stake is one thing that definitely has changed.