This week’s spat between Joe Jordan and Rino Gattuso prompted the usual sanctimonious outpourings about the disgraceful behaviour of footballers, as well as the usual counter-responses from fans that actually we really enjoy the occasional on-pitch contretemps. Both opinions have more or less reached the point of cliche, but like many cliches, both have some degree of truth. Although causality is rarely direct, players do need to be more aware of their responsibilities at times in situations where there is considerable tension – ask the police what Glasgow is like on a night after a contentious Old Firm derby, for example. On the other hand, most games are not played in anything like such hostile circumstances, and while you wouldn’t want it happening every week, a little bit of fisticuffs now and then can brighten up an otherwise dull game.

But I don’t propose to analyse the rights or wrongs of it in any more detail – this is simply a gratuitous excuse for me to recount my own favourite footballing fight. (And feel free to add your own underneath.) I’ve seen a few over the years, but far and away the funniest came, not in the charged atmosphere of a Champions League knock-out tie, but in the utterly tensionless cauldron of a pre-season friendly between Raith Rovers and Hearts at Stark’s Park.

It was August 1994, Hearts’ high hopes for the season were accentuated by the appointment of a new manager in Tommy McLean, highly-rated after a decade at Motherwell which included a Scottish Cup win in 1991. Raith had just been relegated after one season in the Premier League, but had kept the core of the team together under Jimmy Nicholl, including future Scotland internationals in Colin Cameron and Steve Crawford.

There’s not an awful lot to be said about the game. Raith led 1-0 through a Gordon Dalziel header as we approached half-time, and there was nothing at all to suggest that the evening would be anything to live in the memory for much longer than the game itself lasted. The very last action of that first half saw Dalziel with a chance to add to the lead – he put it wide, there was a mild oooh from the home crowd at whose end these events took place, and then before Hearts could prepare to take the goal kick, the referee blew for half-time and most players headed towards the tunnel.

Anyone in the crowd who was too quick off the mark to get to the toilets or the pie stall missed a treat. Apparently, footage of the next few seconds does exist somewhere and has been known to pop up on Sky, but I’ve never seen it and am reliant on my own memory, which may not be perfect – not least because I was only half paying attention to begin with. But as I gazed vacantly across the penalty area from my seat in the Railway Stand, I became dimly aware that the Hearts centre-back partnership of Craig Levein and Graeme Hogg were squaring up to each other, apparently in a dispute over who should have picked up Dalziel for that last attack.

Accounts vary a bit as to what happened next: some say Hogg was a largely innocent victim, guilty of nothing more than a bit of pushing. My own impression was that he contributed his full share to the proceedings – for a few mental seconds, both of them lost the plot and went for it. With fists flying, it was only a matter of time before one of them connected properly. It was Levein’s fist, and Hogg’s nose, sending the latter player straight to the ground. I’m not sure if the ref saw the incident, but the railway side linesman had a good view and started waving his little flag as if his life depended on it. Both players were, of course, shown red cards, though Hogg would hardly have been able to see it, he was stretchered off with blood gushing visibly from that broken nose. For the record, Raith were only able to put one more goal past the remaining nine men in the second half (Jason Dair, I think) to finish 2-0 winners. No one, of course, was talking about the scoreline afterwards.

It was bizarre, not just because it was so out of keeping with the tone of events surrounding it, but because it occurred between two such senior pros who should have known better. Hogg may have had a bit of a hard man reputation at times, but by this stage he was thirty, a very experienced player with a few clubs and plenty of experience behind him. Levein, just a few months younger, was club captain and already had a reputation as a reasonably intelligent and articulate man, as well as a fairly cultured footballer.

McLean was another man who hadn’t seen the scrap, but Hearts acted swiftly in the aftermath, stripping Levein of the captaincy and suspending, fining and transfer-listing the players. It was a bit of a shock, however, when both players were given ten match bans by the SFA. Hearts thought that excessive, and revoked their own internal punishments as a result. The police investigated but took no action, which I thought was quite right – though I would note in passing that it was a far more violent incident than the pretty innocuous one for which Duncan Ferguson had been prosecuted, and eventually imprisoned, the previous season. Which also, coincidentally, came in a game against Raith. There were no such repercussions for Levein, and come the new year, he was able to work his way back into the team, and if anything this incident was eventually to enhance his reputation in some circles, as a man not to be messed with despite his softly-spoken exterior.

The incident presaged a rather difficult season for Hearts. They finished sixth, but only seven points off the bottom, and dispensed with McLean’s services after just the one season. That did at least herald the start of the more successful Jim Jefferies era, culminating in their own Scottish Cup win in 1998 – one of the goals being scored by Cameron. (Cameron and Crawford, incidentally, have recently been reunited and are now playing together at Cowdenbeath, under the managership of …. Jimmy Nicholl.)

The Rovers, in contrast, were about to embark on the most successful season in the club’s history, but I won’t bore you with the details here. I will note, however, that several of the people involved in this incident went on to manage Raith in subsequent years. They offered McLean his return to football in 1996 – only for him to walk out after a mere six days on getting a better offer from Dundee United (then under the chairmanship of his brother Jim). Dalziel, a club legend as a player, came back in 2004 for an unsuccessful management stint, albeit in difficult circumstances. His immediate replacement on being sacked in 2006 was none other than Craig Levein, who agreed to a temporary stint while the club looked for a more permanent solution. He also went to Dundee United after a month, having helped the club to secure John McGlynn as his replacement – for which they will always be grateful.

Amidst all these subsequent interconnections within the incestuous world of Scottish footie, one name conspicuous by its absence is that of Hogg. He became something of an outcast after the incident, never played for Hearts again and returned south the following year to play for Notts County. Sadly, although he wasn’t a bad player, he is now remembered up here mostly for his broken nose, and down south mostly for being considered one of Man United’s worst players during a pretty indifferent spell in the club’s history. While Levein enjoys the rare honour of managing his country, Hogg disappeared from the game after retiring as a player, and the last mention of him I can find on a Hearts messageboard suggests he was working as a temp at a Parcelforce depot in Edinburgh.

I confess, I’m curious to know what the two of them would say to one another if they were to meet again now.

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