Storm in a teacup

Nonsense. Absolute, utter nonsense. That is my opinion of the furore that has engulfed England manager Roy Hodgson, following the revelation of his “feed the monkey” remark during half-time in the England-Poland match at Wembley. Oh, for the days when the phrase “political correctness” had not been coined and when good, old fashioned common sense prevailed. It is perfectly clear that Hodgson, an eminently decent, well read, intelligent man, is not a racist. It is equally clear that the Football Association, having made extensive enquiries, have not come up with a solitary complainant in the England dressing-room. Even more to the point, winger Andros Townsend, to whom Hodgson was referring when using the old NASA mission control joke about the monkey it sent into space, has assured everyone he was not offended. By now, Hodgson must be regretting using the phrase when instructing his players to give the ball as often as possible to England’s “discovery” player. The point is, though, that he shouldn’t need to be concerned. He does not have anything to answer for. He made an innocent remark, one that has been transformed into an alleged racist slur – and it is symptomatic of the hysteria engulfing the whole issue of political correctness in relation to race relations in football and society in general.

I was at the annual Leaders in Football Conference at Stamford Bridge exactly 12 months ago when former England goalkeeper David James, one of the many black players to represent the country over the past 30 or so years, addressed the gathering on the subject of racism in the game. His message was quite simple: There isn’t any. James said that, from a player’s perspective, he did not see racism as an issue and he went on to claim that anti-racism bodies more often than not inflamed rather than dampened issues. James criticised the FA for dragging their heels and turning the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand race-slur case – Terry was subsequently found guilty and banned by the FA after being cleared in a court of law – into a circus. “There are people looking for problems, when there are no problems,” he said. I must say I have always felt that Terry was unfortunate to be condemned for a heat-of-the-battle remark, just as I felt sympathy for Ron Atkinson, who lost his broadcasting career after making a quip about former Chelsea star Marcel Desailly, when he thought he was not miked up. Surely, the point is that Terry’s black team-mates Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba went on record insisting their skipper was not racist; that Big Ron Atkinson was the first manager, when at West Bromwich Albion more than 30 years ago, to have three black players, Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis, in his team. Believe me, Ron is no racist.

Throughout my managerial career, at Oldham, Everton, Manchester City and Ipswich, I had multi-racial dressing rooms – and I can honestly say I did not see any racist tendencies in any of them. Blatant acts of a racist nature, such as the disgusting monkey chants some fans direct at black players, must be stamped out and the perpetrators brought to book. But, come on, let’s get sensible about the occasional off-the-cuff remark being blown out of all proportion. The media have gone into over-drive this week commenting on Hodgson’s words which, though “politically incorrect,” were hardly racist and inflammatory. Yet the press did not give huge prominence to what David James had to say. I am calling for a better balance in our attitude to this issue. I am calling for more common sense because, certainly in the case of Roy Hodgson, we are talking about political correctness gone mad.

CONGRATULATIONS to Southampton on their latest “up yours” pop at the big boys, which keeps the south coast club right in the mix at the top of the Premier League. Southampton, who inflicted Liverpool’s only defeat – and at Anfield – the other week, came back to draw 1-1 at Manchester United this weekend, a result that is testimony to the excellent job being done by Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino. I did feel Nigel Adkins was hard done by when he was replaced by the 41-year-old “unknown” last January, but there is no denying that Pochettino, who still is far from fluent in English, has transformed the Saints into serious top-flight participants. I am reminded of a conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson last season, at a dinner the day after Manchester United had beaten Southampton at Old Trafford. I congratulated Alex on a good win and he told me: “We were lucky!” The Saints apparently gave United a battering that day, without reward, and they are still tweaking the noses of the elite. They have arguably the most successful Academy in the Premier League, they have conceded the fewest goals and they are in fifth place on merit, playing some exciting football. The one question mark against their continuing success is a lack of goals, just eight in eight matches.

Another good day, too, for my first football love, Everton, who are playing a style under Roberto Martinez that is thrilling the Goodison faithful. I was there to watch their 2-1 defeat of Hull City, the Premier League newcomers who, it must be said, gave Everton a run for their money and who look, to me, to have more than a good chance of cementing their top-flight status. Yet further evidence in the match that Everton’s Leighton Baines, such an influential figure for England in the two recent World Cup qualifiers, has superceded Chelsea’s Ashley Cole as the best left-back in the country. Baines, whose delightful delivery produced England’s opening goal, headed in by Wayne Rooney, against Poland hit a cross against Hull that, for me, was the pass of the match, even if there was no blue-shirted player there to cash in on it. It is all most encouraging for the Everton fans, though I still worry that the defence is not tight enough, witness 10 goals conceded in the league.

Certainly, it is fascinatingly tight at the top, the first seven clubs being cosily bunched, which can only be good for the competition. Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are followed so closely by Manchester City, Southampton, Everton and Tottenham with champions Manchester United floundering in eighth place. I watched City’s 3-1 win at West Ham on TV, a display that, at times, had the label “title winners” stamped all over it. Though City have faltered a couple of times on their travels, I still believe they can hit a level that no other team can match. Against West Ham, David Silva was their Will o’ the Wisp, a magical midfielder, and in Aguero, Negredo, Dzeco and Jovetic they have an awesome array of firepower. Good, also, to see keeper Joe Hart continuing his impressive rehabilitation after a dodgy spell. All of the above-mentioned teams look good, but I see no reason to change my prediction that City will emerge as champions. Not yet, anyway.