More often than not, it is a generational thing. Almost every time someone gets caught out, whether it is Alan Hansen referring to black players as "coloured" on Match of the Day or the choice of words that has made Roy Hodgson's life such a wild graph of emotions over the past week, it is someone falling between the gaps.
Sir Matt Busby got away with one during the 1963-64 season, as Eamon Dunphy recalls in A Strange Kind of Glory, when a spate of dressing-room thefts prompted Manchester United's manager to call a meeting of his players and complain there was "a nigger in the woodpile". Dunphy, one of United's young pros, remembers Denis Walker, one of the first black footballers to emerge in the professional game, being in the room and that the players took it as a sign Busby had "lost his touch". They were wrong, as it turned out. But even now, 50 years later, the words jar on the page.
More recently, the same phrase left a roomful of journalists stone-cold when used by another manager, Mind Your Language-style, a couple of years back – about something as bog-standard as another team winning a couple of matches to creep up the table – apparently oblivious to the startled expressions and shuffling of feet in front of him.
A colleague reports the same kind of awkwardness when another manager, again of the older generation, talked about a black friend with gingery hair whom he simply called "Jaffa Cake". But then anyone who has been in this business a few years will have their own stories. Mine goes back to a supporters' function at one club when the manager was asked to nominate the best XI he had ever played with and selected Viv Anderson at right-back. Or "the big, black bastard", as he put it. Which, 15 years on, is not an easy thing to pass off as an affectionate term. But that was how it was meant and, for all the sideways looks and nervous laughter, nobody heckled. Nobody finished their drinks and walked out. Nobody made a mental note to stick 10p in a call-box to ring whoever was the equivalent back then of Gordon Smart, showbiz editor of the Sun.
That was certainly an unusual byline on the Hodgson story and knowing this business, the politics and the relationships, who speaks to whom (and why), it is certainly unusual in the extreme to think a player has duffed up Hodgson in a paper that has previous with the England manager – Harry Redknapp's paper, no less – but not had the courage to mention it face-to-face, or even in confidence once the Football Association started its ring-round.
What has really stood out over the past few days is the depth of support for Hodgson. It makes me wonder whether it would have been quite so voluble if Robert Lewandowski had taken those chances at Wembley. But it is easy to understand the common view when anyone of reasonable intelligence should be able to deduce there was no racial intent in what he said, however much of a plum he was to say it. The nation was in the mood for some good news and I suspect that initial burst of outrage – summed up very eloquently by Stan Collymore – has some of its origins in the fact so many people are heartily sick of the media being a pebble in the shoe of every England manager.
It is not actually true, this perception that the newspaper industry wants England to fail (in terms of selling papers, nothing would do it quite like getting to a World Cup final). It is just difficult to get that across sometimes and when there is a front-page splash of "Roy in Andros Monkey Gaffe" no one really notices that the same newspaper also had 20 pages of celebratory World Cup stuff, or that it awarded every player 10 out of 10 against Poland. An item in Viz, from 1993, probably captures how most people think. "England have not won a game for three months," it says. "The fact that we have not played one is irrelevant. Graham Taylor should hang, and so should his successor." Touché.
A personal view will always be that Hodgson's real gaffe goes back to excluding Rio Ferdinand for all that time, when the strong suspicion was to link it directly to that charming exchange between the player's brother, Anton, and John Terry, then a fixture in the England setup.
But it is not straightforward. A lot of people seem to be under the belief that Hodgson went through the whole Nasa space-monkey joke. Actually, it was more or less just the "feed the monkey" line at first, mistakenly thinking Chris Smalling, Andros Townsend and the other players would know the full version. As they didn't, it should not really be a surprise if it did actually cause offence. Kick It Out, with a direct line into the relevant players, certainly has information that is the case and, as such, deserves better than to be cast as meddlers.
All that can really be said with great certainty is it has reminded us there are football people of a certain generation who are still unaware about the depth of sensitivity around language. Just look at Gordon Taylor's initial reaction when he was asked whether it was a mistake to book Reginald D Hunter for that infamous performance at the Professional Footballers' Association dinner. "'No, no, don't be silly. Are you serious?" he said. It was later the apologies started to flow.
In football these days you do not even have to be particularly old to feel a bit fuddy-duddy. At St George's Park a few weeks ago, Cyrille Regis and Garth Crooks gave a talk on racism to the England Under-21s. Crooks mentioned an incident at Filbert Street and the players stared back. None of them had ever heard of such a place. "Bloody hell," Sir Trevor Brooking interrupted. "You make me feel incredibly old."
Hodgson is 66 and, by his own admission, often feels the same. A couple of weeks ago, he was taken by the fact one of the journalists in his company was using an iPad. "I've got one of those," he said. "No idea how to use it, mind." So he can tell a joke.
At Euro 2012, Hodgson tried to tell his players the fable of the frog and the scorpion, how the frog agreed to carry a scorpion over a river, as long as the scorpion did not sting him and how, three-quarters of the way across, the scorpion stung the frog anyway ("It's my nature," the scorpion explained as they slipped beneath the water). The moral of the story was meant to be that footballers will always revert to type. Yet the players were laughing so much by the time Hodgson reached the end nobody really took it in.
Now Hodgson – or Roy, as the nation has started calling him again – is finding out the hard way that English football is increasingly a politically correct workplace. Maybe too much so, you might think, when we hear more about Peter Herbert these days than Peter Crouch – and it is still not easy working out how he became the go-to guy for any media organisation wanting someone whose outrage-reflex is permanently switched on.
Herbert, unfortunately, is becoming the worst kind of football voice-piece, aka the rent-a-quote, now operating under an organisation he calls Race for Sport and sending an error-strewn letter to "Sir Greg Dyke" about Hodgson's "contribution to Black History Month", bringing Stephen Lawrence into it and stating: "The use of monkey chants, the throwing of bananas and the racist antics of football supporters … is the context of this so-called joke."
Herbert's letter implies that, for not speaking out, Townsend is "mentally enslaved". Or at least it did until Kick It Out, whose small workforce includes Troy Townsend, Andros's father, demanded a retraction. Kick It Out, I'm reliably informed, has now come round fully to the popular view about Herbert and severed ties. So maybe the past week has had its good side, after all.
Paul Ince behaviour should not be masked by Blackpool
The Blackpool Gazette printed 10,000 Paul Ince masks for Blackpool's game against Wigan Athletic so fans could "show their support" as he began his five‑match ban from setting foot in the stadium on match days.
Ince has done a fine job, but the idea should have been scrapped as soon as the Football Association released its full written findings into his disciplinary hearing and a picture emerged that would fit snugly into one of those police documentaries about what happens when testosterone mixes with stupidity at chucking-out time on the Golden Mile.
It is an enlightening read, starting off with Ince being sent from the dugout in a match at Bournemouth, having accidentally struck a spectator when he threw a water bottle in frustration. After waiting for the referee in the tunnel and demanding to see the fourth official, Mark Pottage – "Where's your busy fucker of a fourth?" – various witnesses recount him "violently" shoving Pottage in the chest, two‑handed, into a wall. As stewards bundled him away, his "eyes were bulging" and he could be repeatedly heard shouting: "I'll knock you fucking out, you cunt." All this, by the way, after Blackpool had actually won 2-1 and were top of the Championship.
Apologies for the swearing, by the way. It is this newspaper's policy not to use asterisks and hopefully that doesn't offend the man himself. Ince, you see, told the hearing "everyone who knows me will vouch the c-word is a word I do not use nor accept being used by any of my players, staff or friends". Even better, Ince said he "felt intimidated" when he saw Pottage approaching. Alex Rae, his assistant, pointed out that Pottage was "6ft 2in or 3in tall". Ince, he said, was "shocked and intimidated".
Unfortunately for Ince, there is not a referee, linesman or fourth official out there with previous when it comes to bashing up managers. Ince, on the other hand, has now had six disciplinary cases in four years and, if this was Sunday league, he would probably be banned sine die.
No public apology from Blackpool though, just a tribute from the local newspaper and a statement from the club that they "acknowledge" the ban and will try to make sure it "does not affect our short- or long-term objectives". That's the spirit.
FA messed up with Gary Mabbutt
One more thing about the Paul Ince case. Is it not strange that Gary Mabbutt, captain on the night Ince made his debut for England's B team in 1992, was on the three-man commission? Nobody is saying it influenced the punishment, but surely the FA, playing judge and jury, should avoid awkward questions by making sure the relevant people are not old colleagues?
Leonardo received a nine-month ban for barging into a referee after a Paris St-Germain match in May, later extended further. Paolo Di Canio's suspension for pushing over Paul Alcock in 1998 was 11 matches and David Prutton's was 10 games for shoving referee Alan Wiley in 2005. Mabbutt and his colleagues let Ince off lightly.