Michael Duggan

The lost art of the football punch-up

There was an honour to the brutality

  • From Spectator Life

Fifty-five years ago, in a match at Highbury Stadium, the Leeds United goalkeeper Gary Sprake punched Arsenal midfielder Bobby Gould hard in the face. Gould had jumped to try and meet a cross with his head. As he was returning to earth in a kind of pirouette, he swung his right heel back in the direction of Sprake, jabbing his studs into his opponent’s ribcage. Crafty. Nasty. Sprake then took his revenge, laying out Gould with a left hook.

In these incidents, some kind of masculine code of honour kicked in

What happened next is a 90 second lesson in older forms of masculinity and an older form of football. As Gould is crashing to the floor post-punch, one of the Leeds players – Paul Madeley, I think – half-catches him in his arms, rather daintily breaking his fall. Several players gather at the scene, but their overall demeanour is of a bunch of men on a work break waiting for the one with the lighter so that they can spark up a ciggie. No Arsenal men so much as remonstrate with Sprake.

At one point, one of the Leeds players grabs his head as if he has been hit by something thrown from the crowd – a coin, perhaps? But nothing comes of this. Sprake’s ribs get a long, vigorous rub by a physio who is looking a bit annoyed to have been dragged from his spot on the bench for this nonsense.

When Gould is back on his feet – in no time, really, considering the force of the blow – the referee booked him, the punched man, first. Gould looks mildly disbelieving, but then pops his mouth guard back in (yes, his mouth guard) and trots off. The ref moves on to Sprake and has a long word in his ear. The goalkeeper, wearing a penitent look, nods his bowed head repeatedly. His name goes in the book. The penalty area empties. The game can restart.

This has all unfolded right in front of the old Clock End which is packed tight with Arsenal supporters. Some of them are as close to the violence as if it was happening in their front room and they were watching from their armchairs. All of the supporters in shot are men or boys. Several are wearing ties. They mostly observe the events with a resigned, slightly weary air. One older gent in a nice hat and scarf, and with a fag glued to his lower lip, has a short, animated discussion with the fellow next to him. You can hear some general booing on the tape, but it’s pretty mild. A couple of the boys behind the goal try a bit of jeering and whistling, maybe some swearing; but, otherwise, most of them behave just like the grown-ups around them, patiently waiting for the game to get going again.

There are two policemen in a reserved space next to the pitch, completely unmoved by the assault that had just occurred under their noses. A few seconds after the possible coin throwing, there is some kind of mini-surge among the supporters that brings them reluctantly to their feet. But, again, nothing seems to come of it.

What can all of this mean? Players throwing actual, full-bodied punches to the head and just getting a booking? Other players treating the punch mainly as the chance for a bit of a breather. No histrionics, no pile-on, no vein-popping hounding of the referee. As for the fans, there is little leaping around making rude gestures and screaming swearwords. How can everything have changed so much since 1969?

Let’s advance from 1969 to 1974. Leeds are involved again. They’re back in London for the Charity Shield match against Liverpool at Wembley. Tommy Smith’s tackles are a form of cruel and unusual punishment for anyone not wearing red. 

Early in the first half, Kevin Keegan is harassing John Giles for possession on the edge of the Leeds box. Giles throws an absolute haymaker and Keegan hits the deck in a heap, clutching his face.

First on the scene is John Cormack of Liverpool. Astonishingly, with his teammate stricken on the floor at his feet, Cormack places a conciliatory arm around the shoulder of Giles. He then raises his palm in a placatory gesture towards the approaching referee, Bob Matthewson.

Billy Bremner arrives next. The Scotsman rolls down his white socks to reveal his even whiter shins, wanting to display the gouge Keegan had made in him in a truly jarring tackle seconds earlier. More Liverpool players turn up, but their demeanour is closer to that of curious bystanders than aggrieved pals of Keegan.

The referee takes Giles off to one side. Keegan, quickly back on his feet, joins them. He puts his arm around his assailant and give him a joshing little push on the nape of the neck. The Liverpool number seven even appears to join in the appeals to the ref for clemency for Giles, before walking away still feeling his chin, still spitting stuff from his mouth. Giles later said that he told Matthewson, whom he liked and got on with, that he was sorry. He stays on the pitch.

Perhaps the finest example of football’s forgotten art of punching, being punched, and getting on with it, comes from the following year and from a different code: the 1975 Munster Gaelic Football Final between the counties of Kerry and Cork: near neighbours, fierce rivals.

The Cork forward Denis Allen gains possession just inside the Kerry half. His marker Páidí Ó Sé gets tight and gives him a couple of digs in the ribs, ostensibly attempting to dislodge the ball from Allen’s hands. Allen swivels, giving Ó Sé a pretty fierce elbow in the face. For a split second, the two eyeball each other…

Then Ó Sé swings a mighty left hook. On the film of the incident, you can hear the crunch as the blow lands. Allen sinks to his knees. Ó Sé immediately raises his hand to his mouth, horrified, seemingly, by what he’s done. The referee runs to the scene, but then falls over, as if knocked down by reverberations from the punch still travelling through the air. The nearest Cork player, who has been watching the fists flying much as a man waiting to cross a road watches the traffic light changing, ambles over and picks up not his team-mate, but the ball.

How does it end? With a mild talking-to from the referee for both players. ‘And there’s the hand shake,’ the commentator observes, in the gentlest tones, as if describing two old adversaries meeting at a funeral.

I am glad footballers no longer routinely punch each other in the head. But the behaviour on show in these incidents is remarkable. Once the punches have been given and taken, where is the venom, the rancour?

Aficionados of sixties and seventies football punch ups will rightly point to occasions when things did not conclude with the players in imitation of Stoic philosophers. Who can forget the epic 1975 scrap between Norman Hunter of Leeds (why is it always Leeds?) and Francis Lee of Derby County in the murk and mud of the Baseball Ground? And Kevin Keegan did manage to get himself sent off later in that bad-tempered Charity Shield game for brawling with Bremner, who also walked. There were limits to Mr Matthewson’s toleration.

But it is also as if, in these incidents, some kind of masculine code of honour kicked in, that players and referees seemed to understand and were happy to observe, at least occasionally. In essence, this code said: ‘A duel has broken out. There are two combatants and we assume there is good cause. The rules are: take one, give one, then pack it in. Rub your jaw. Let the ref have his say. Once it’s all over with, we’ll carry on with the match.’ It’s like a kind of toxic masculinity that instantly detoxifies itself before metamorphosing into something almost ennobling. It couldn’t happen now.

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