When footballers attack!

The ‘Battle of the Buffet’, the ‘Battle of the Bridge’, China vs QPR... if there's one thing football fans enjoy more than a goal, it’s a mass brawl.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What is it with Chelsea and lawn mowing? The nursery rhyme ‘One man went to mow’, has been a Stamford Bridge anthem for years. Last Saturday one Chelsea groundsman went to mow. He went to mow a meadow. And then he tried to deck Patrice Evra. A ‘mowerment of madness’, as the Sun described it.

As ever there’s been a great deal of theatrical outrage over the so-called ‘Battle of the Bridge’ aka the ‘Flare up at the warm down’. ‘Patrice received a grave insult from a member of Chelsea’s staff,’ claimed Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez. ‘I have never seen anything like this in my career’.

Sir Alex Ferguson, typically purple with rage after United’s defeat, questioned the ground staff’s tactics. ‘Why were the lawn mowers on the pitch after the game?’ fumed Fergie. ‘Aren’t they meant to cut the grass before the game? There’s a question for you.’ Fergie’s comments have been interpreted as a thinly veiled allegation that Chelsea were keeping the grass long to thwart United’s passing game. In truth, if anyone thwarted their passing game it was United themselves who made little or not attempt to pass the ball to each other.

The mowerman at the centre of the row was Sam Bethell. He has now been ‘outed’ as a Millwall fan who, according to the Sun, ‘lists drinking and books about hooliganism among his favourite things’. Not the sort of hobbies you’d find in a Guardian ‘Soulmates’ ad admittedly (i.e. walking, gardening, ethical shopping, recycling). But not conclusive proof of guilt either. So what was the ‘grave insult’ in question? Not ‘keep off the grass’ I suspect. According to some press reports Bethell called Evra a ‘fucking immigrant’. This version of events has been disputed by ‘Chelsea sources’ who claim that he actually called Evra a ‘fucking idiot’.

Personally I agree with Sam Bethell. Not about the immigrant thing of course (if that’s what he said). But the groundsman quite rightly put the fracas into perspective: ‘It was handbags really,’ Bethell told journalists. ‘It was not as bad as it appeared’. He’s right. As punch-ups go I’ve seen much worse. There was a brief scuffle; a few punches were thrown; and that’s about the sum of it. A few bruises but no one seriously hurt. More ‘Handbags on the Half-Way Line’ than ‘Battle of the Bridge’.

Now here’s the thing about mass brawls. Despite all the ritual expressions of moral outrage, most football fans love a bit of argy-bargy. If anything is guaranteed to get the crowd going then it’s a good, honest punch up. Obviously goals can have a similar effect. But, no disrespect to the centre forward community, the problem with goals is that they are ten-a-penny. Even the Premiership’s bottom club Derby County, whose goal difference is an abysmal minus 63, have found the net 19 times this season. Pitiful yes but it’s still a goal every two games. By contrast how often do you see a decent mass brawl? Once a season, if you’re lucky.

And that’s the only regrettable thing about Saturday’s flare up. The fans missed all the fun. There’s a grainy video clip on YouTube but that’s about all. The same goes for many of football’s more celebrated dust-ups. None of us got to see Rio Ferdinand kick a female steward, albeit by mistake, in the Stamford Bridge tunnel after Saturday’s game. Nor did we see the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’ at Old Trafford in which Fergie was reportedly pelted with pizza slices. And there were no spectators when it all kicked off in the ‘friendly’ between the China Under-21 team and a Queens Park Rangers reserve XI – though thankfully the 30-man brawl was captured on camera and fans have been able to enjoy the action on YouTube.

The Chinese came off second best in that particular melee with defender Zheng Tao sustaining a broken jaw. Cue the inevitable howls of outrage. Refreshingly, Zhang Xinshi, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was able to rise above the moral guff and see the bigger picture. ‘We all saw the recent fight in England and they [the players] were beaten to a pulp’, Zhang told a Chines parliamentary advisory committee. ‘Sounds tragic? But if you are as strong as a buffalo how can they beat you up? Therefore I don’t think we should advocate the Chinese grain-eating tradition.’ Chinese footballers, Zhang argued, should eat beef and drink milk in order to compete physically with their Western counterparts.

It’s a moot point. I wonder whether diet influenced the outcome of the ‘Battle of the Bridge’. Some reports suggest that Patrice Evra left Stamford Bridge nursing a black eye. Does that mean that a footballer’s high-carb chicken and pasta regime doesn’t prepare him for a ruck as well as Sam Bethell’s beer, fags, and chips diet? (I’m speculating here. For all I know he could be a fan of Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy). Or what about the famous incident at West Ham’s training ground in 1998 in which Welsh striker John Hartson kicked Israeli team mate Eyal Berkovic in the head? Was that a victory for laver bread and Welsh rarebit over gefilte fish and falafels? The point I’m trying to make here is that there are two ways of looking at a football punch up. You might see it as symptomatic of moral decay. Or, like Zhang Xinshi, you could take the broader perspective that the rights and wrongs of fighting are irrelevant. What really matters is that ‘our boys’ win.

What is it about a mass brawl that excites us? Does it appeal to our inner hooligan? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, it shows that the players care. They are prepared to die for the shirt. (OK, well maybe not literally die. More like push, shove, and jab fingers for the shirt, but you get my drift). Unlike the act of badge-kissing, which is contrived and largely for show, there’s no purer expression of commitment to the cause than a full on 20-man fracas. Secondly, you can moralise until Kingdom come, but a mass brawl is brilliant entertainment – often more entertaining than the game itself. Adrian Chiles struck the right tone when discussing the warm down incident on Match of the Day 2. ‘Absolutely thrilling and rather funny’, was Chiles’s verdict. Quite right. Mass brawls are good. Football needs more of them.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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