Aidan Smith: Graeme Souness was not slagging off women's football - the furore is unjustified

A million years ago, or so it seems now, men stood side by side on terraces in long coats and flat caps, usually in collar and tie, and just about their only link to the men who gather in this way today was the poor state of the teeth. The men from ancient history could blame this on rudimentary, even sadistic dentistry. The current lot simply can’t find dentists anymore, rudimentary or sadistic.

Graeme Souness with some other men at a men's game, just before getting down to analysing the finer points of men's football.
Graeme Souness with some other men at a men's game, just before getting down to analysing the finer points of men's football.

Way back when, these were men watching football, a man’s game played by men. Men engrossed in a solidly male activity, discussing the niceties with other men at half-time and afterwards in the bars – determinedly male places – then heading home for tea, cooked by their wives.

Crivvens, I’ve just read that last paragraph back … too bloke-orientated? Tell me what you think because I’ve been informed there’s a new rule about the number of times you can mention men without there having to be levelling-up references to the fairer sex, although this may be a wind-up. But is describing women as the fairer sex even allowed anymore? Will some take offence or is the suggestion that a woman could be offended by a phrase which dates from the 1600s the greater offence? These culture wars are a minefield, one requiring David Ginola’s brave and ceaseless scrutiny (and just to level up again, Prince Diana was another impassioned landmines campaigner).

Graeme Souness may not have had to tread carefully – literally – as a player, but then in his era when you had to get your retaliation in first, no one did. As a TV pundit, though, he’s just discovered that he can’t describe a match involving 22 men as a “man’s game” without causing uproar.

Which is completely ridiculous.

Last Sunday on Sky there was Chelsea vs Tottenham. Now, I reckon the “best league in the world” throws up 742 London derbies per season, all of them afforded the big build-up by the broadcaster. Normally I give these games 20 minutes before wandering away bored and asking myself if the monthly subscription can be justified – but here was one which lived up to the hype, a full-blooded encounter of crashing tackles and clashing managers, and Souness agreed.

But “man’s game” was, in the new order of things, wrong. Trying to make sense of the Twitter pile-on, the outraged seemed to be accusing Souness of dissing women’s football and of grabbing back the sport for the male of the species. Okay, ladies, you’ve had your fun with your little summer tournament and the Lionesses’ victory but normal service has just been restored.

That he was sat next to a woman – former England internationalist Karen Carney – was the clincher in the eyes of the woke brigade. How insulted must she be? Surely she’s going to storm out or at the very least come back at the dinosaur! (Er, neither, actually). If it had been an all-male line-up at Stamford Bridge I doubt there would have been any complaints. Hang on, what am I saying? Those who like to feel mortally offended all the time would probably still have found a way.

Talking football, Souness is hired for his views which, his employers hope, will be as biting as his tackles used to be. They usually are. He speaks his mind, tells it like it is. Other anodyne pundits are available.

But Souness is not the equivalent of a shock-jock who blurts for effect. He does not seek to deliberately whip up controversy. He’s a bit veteran-class to be interested in assembling a scandalous reputation for himself.

So when he called the Chelsea-Spurs match a man’s game this wasn’t him coming over all Iron John. He wasn’t imagining that blob of a studio table to be a campfire at some weekend woodland retreat where guys rub sticks in an attempt to reclaim their masculinity.

He wasn’t trying to reclaim football or be possessive or territorial about it – and he certainly wasn’t labelling the women’s version as inferior. If those who got upset by his remark had bothered to listen to the whole of what he said they would know that he was simply comparing last Sunday’s match – the careering rumbustiousness of it, refereed pretty much according to the 1970s handbook – with others full of cheating which had simply made him groan.

The comparison was between men’s football played in an – all right – manly way and men’s football where there’s lots of play-acting, rolling over and over many times and going down like you’ve been shot. Souness has had enough of the latter and haven’t we all?

He was not comparing men’s football with women’s football. Women’s football, even with a woman present, wasn’t on the agenda this time. Carney made no reference to women’s football during the match, nor should it have been expected of her to do so. Souness made no inference about women’s football and only nutters believed that he did.

Why is it not possible for men’s football to be debated in isolation, same as for women’s football? During the women’s Euros I never once heard a compromising or patronising remark about a game, goal or incident, far less anyone make an unfavourable comparison with men’s football. Women or men, different judgements can be applied and this is all Souness was doing.

In his newspaper column yesterday he made no mention of the (non-)controversy but reiterated his main point about how the EPL had been in danger of becoming a “sterile, non-tackling league”, only now thankfully the officials seemed prepared to let the football flow again. “Human beings like physical encounters,” he wrote. Unfortunately some of them also like social media encounters and don’t know when to stop.

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