To wake up this morning and watch the sport segment from the BBC’s Breakfast programme, one might have figured that League Two had witnessed the beginning of the decline and fall of western civilisation rather than a fight at the end of a football match. Brows were furrowed and the tone of the presenters was hushed and dark. Indeed, it was almost difficult to believe that they had just watched a video of bunch of young men in polyester throwing punches at each other for thirty seconds.
Just as Rome was neither built nor collapsed in a day, the world will not end because a handful of players from Bradford City and Crawley Town couldn’t rein it in at the end of last nights match at Valley Parade. Sure enough, to start pushing, shoving and throwing your fists around in a football pitch is not the smartest thing in the world to do, and even if we allow for the likelihood that the average professional football isn’t necessarily the sharpest tool in the box, the players involved last night should surely have known that, but a rush of blood to the head can do strange things to the brain of the male of our species. These things happen, and it seems unlikely that no amount of hand-wringing can prevent this.
None of this means, of course, that the Football League won’t act upon last nights incident. There is a strict, almost ritualistic protocol that is followed in such cases, and the slightly weird process of what we might call football justice will be seen through, likely to its fullest extent. It is understood that five players – three from Bradford and two from Crawley – were shown red cards, and few of them can expect much leniency. The extent to which the clubs as institutions will be called to account remains to be seen, but in the current climate of indiscipline it would be unsurprising if the proverbial book was thrown at both clubs. We don’t know whether the ultimate sanction – points deductions – might be the eventual outcome for the two clubs, but anybody with any experience of football’s wheels of justice will be fully aware of the authorities’ propensity to make the rules up as they go along, and neither side can have much reasonable mitigation for what happened last night, regardless of the whataboutery that might come out over the next couple of days or so.
Regardless of what sanctions the Football League or the FA decide to mete out, both clubs may well find that there are significant side-effects on the rest of their seasons in any case. Bradford City have been slowly sliding towards the relegation places as the season has worn on, and last night’s result means that they are four points from falling out of the Football League altogether, just eleven years after their two year stay in the Premier League ended. With battle against relegation as tight as it is – five points separate Northampton Town in eighteenth place from bottom of the Hereford United – slip-ups cannot now be afforded by anybody in this group of seven clubs, and the experience of Lincoln City and Stockport County in the Blue Square Premier this season provides a chastening example of what can happen should that trapdoor swing open.
Crawley Town, meanwhile, are back in the automatic promotion places at the other end of the table, but only by one goal on goal difference from Rotherham United, but they may yet find that such distractions are the last thing that they need as the season reaches its climax. It has been suggested that last night’s events were the inevitable culmination of a season of gamesmanship in extremis from the Crawley manager Steve Evans, but the evidence might even suggest that his team were more sinned against than sinning last night.
This, however, might count for little in cold light of day and if whichever disciplinary panel is involved finds itself investigating this matter finds itself being influenced by Evans’ behaviour elsewhere – whether consciously or subconsciously, whether rightly or wrongly – there will be few that have much sympathy for him. Ultimately, the cost of suspensions to both clubs – and it is worth bearing in mind that the five sent off may not be the only players to find themselves landing in hot water – could prove to be greater than any embarrassment that the supporters of either club feels this morning.
For all the moral indignation that will be swirling around this morning, though, the fact remains that the primary impulse to incidents such as that seen at Valley Parade last night is to laugh. There is something fundamentally ridiculous about the sight of grown men in brightly coloured football shirts throwing punches, and it is also worth bearing in mind that such incidents make the headlines in the way that they do because of their comparative rarity – the days of mass brawls on the pitch being commonplace are as yet not quite with us. There are plenty of aspects of football that we should be angry about, but it feels as though occasional bouts of rage on the part of players should be fairly low on that list. The decline and fall of western civilisation hasn’t quite started yet.
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