Back in the early 1990s the Scala cinema in King's Cross used to run its own programme of films from beyond the mainstream. These were designed to showcase certain prized virtues: complex symbolism, nudity, high-end cinematography, nudity, art-house production values, nudity, and of course extreme violence (and nudity). Even to the furtive adolescent visitor there was from the start a sense of the right tone being set, of certain rituals that made it quite clear This Was All OK And Definitely Art. Glazed and hipster-ish patrons would mooch about looking both bored. The lights were grimly dimmed. And finally, in reproachful silence, Frightening Redneck Sex Massacre would be cued up and everyone could just get on with enjoying the complex, nay challenging range of visual motifs.
The reason for mentioning this is a similar sense that this is perhaps the right moment to take a deep breath, conjure an atmosphere of undiluted earnestness, and announce slightly sadly that the following discussion of football swearing, while entirely serious and necessary, will contain some profanity. There will be swearing. So please, if you are likely to be offended by these things, this may be a good moment to fuck off and do something else.
So. Paul Ince then. There was a mixed reaction to the news this week that Blackpool's manager has been banned for five matches for his interaction with officials at Bournemouth in September. According to the FA report, Ince not only pushed the fourth official, he used the "c" word 15 times in what must have been less than a minute. There are some oddities here. For a start Blackpool had just won the match, cue not for rueful handshakes with the opposition bench, but instead for a 50-megaton C-bomb Ince-apocalpyse. Ince has denied using the c-word: not just on this occasion but in his entire life ever, in itself an amazing feat of Calvinist restraint.
It is hard to know what to make of all this. The shove is of course ban-worthy in its own right but Ince is guilty of a more nuanced crime, too; a crime, if you like, against swearing itself. It is an issue with deceptively subtle boundaries. There is bad football swearing, as in the spectacle of sweary grown-ups on the touchline at junior football who should not just be banned but helicoptered en masse into the middle of the Channel and dumped into the freezing swell from the end of a knotted rope.
Then, as here, there is the problem of inappropriate swearing, of the manager's licensed swear-blunderbuss being directed at any individual beyond the range of his permitted swear‑perimeter. It must be said swearing has always been an accepted part of the manager-player interface, from the clanking, barking old-school trainer with his bucket and his bared knuckles, through the great Stan Cullis, who would stamp through the Molineux corridors shouting "I. Will. Not. Have. Cowards In. My. Team," and who ended up inventing a personalised swear word – "flopping" – to get round the inconvenience of his devout Christianity. More recently, who could forget Carlos Tevez referring to his summit meeting with Roberto Mancini in 2011 as "two guys sitting down chatting honestly and openly", a chat later described in detail in the Sun: "Tevez swung his arms at the Manchester City boss who poured out a stream of insults at his skipper. Mancini was heard screaming: 'Go fuck your mother.'" So honest. So … open.
There is still the matter of timing and execution. In this regard Sir Alf Ramsey remains a giant of managerial swearing. Ramsey's swearing would arrive unexpectedly, like a rabbit punch from the vicar, spring-loaded by his almost comically old world sense of propriety. Leo McKinstry's excellent biography records a moment on tour with England in Canada in 1967 when Ramsey was assailed by a local TV crew "Sir Ramsey," the presenter smarmed. "I'm from one of our biggest national stations going out coast to coast live and you're not going to believe this but I'm going to give you seven whole minutes to yourself on the show. So if you're ready, Sir Ramsey, I'm going to start the interview now." "Oh no you fuckin' ain't," came the reply as Alf boarded the bus. As Gordon Milne recalled, mistily, of his time with England: "It used to give us a such a lift when he'd say fuck."
Fuck in particular is probably the single most commonly used word in football. It has just always been there. Fuck fits the rhythm of the game, almost easier to say than not to say, slipping in perfectly between two gasping breaths, a profanity of expiration. I played with one Sunday footballer who would simply grit his teeth and mutter: "Fuckin fuck fuckin fuck fuckin fuck," under his breath for the whole 90 minutes. Understandably so, too. Football hurts. Fuck is your wooden spoon between the teeth. Plus it has its own peculiar poetry. For example, "What the fucking hell was that?" is a good song. "What was that?" isn't. And to give Ince a bit of credit, "Where's your busy fucker of a fourth?" is like Shakespeare after six pints of Stella. At the same time I never feel more fond and protective of overseas players in the domestic leagues when I see them swearing fluently at each other in English, or better still shouting "fuck" at each other six years later in the middle of a La Liga match. Our boys. Our brave swearing boys.
Of course, any appreciation of football's great swearers will tend to be a nostalgic affair. The fact is television has pretty much ruined swearing, bringing with it the recurrent widescreen close-up shot of the swearing player, mouth clenched in serrated fury, eyes pinholes of hate. Football swearing always seemed to speak to some fetid part of the game's dark heart, the sense of football as a kind of shared affliction, a place of cobwebs and cracks and burps and bile but this world has now been flushed out into the open. There simply is not the room, the space, the secrecy. It will linger in patches. The managerial swearing privilege, in particular, remains a gift to be used judiciously, and one that Ince has here abused, like Bad Superman using his powers to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa, get superdrunk, pick up girls in bars. The FA is absolutely right. It is surely best for everyone if he just flops off for a bit.