Everything has been so calm for two years that surely summat's brewing...Nick Miller predicts that we might see conflict when somebody asks about Petr Cech...
...on our collective palette after a punishing season of constant football and negativity, says Nick Miller. You really do have to be a prat to get annoyed about it...
In life, sometimes you know exactly what you're going to get, even before you've checked. Dropped your toast? You've a buttery floor. A cabinet minister has apologised? Enjoy the carefully constructed expression of vague regret that steps delicately around the messy business of actually accepting responsibility or admitting wrongdoing. Warned of incoming banter? Time to leave, or reach for your revolver. Whichever you prefer.
So when you hear that Lee Cattermole's been sent off, as he was last week against MK Dons in the Rolling Parade Of Sponsors With Eminently Forgettable Names, Apart From Milk, Rendering The Whole Exercise Rather Pointless Cup, let's just say that it wasn't any great surprise when the replay showed him flying in with his signature blend of tardy force.
The BBC's match reports for his seven (to date) dismissals are remarkable in their consistency. He's walked for, among sundry un-adjectivised fouls, a 'reckless challenge', a 'reckless lunge', a 'lunging challenge', a 'clumsy challenge', a pair of 'nasty-looking fouls', and 'clattering straight through [Lee Bowyer] without ceremony'; that last might recapture him a little sympathy. Auntie also records an 'unnecessary statement of intent [with his] right elbow' that didn't receive a card. Perhaps the only real exception is his dismissal against Newcastle, for foul and abusive language after the final whistle, though fortunately for his reputation he'd already been booked for an early, 'ugly tackle'.
Notable by their absence are the words 'unfortunate to receive', 'harsh decision', or 'perhaps unfairly', a trend that presumably holds for the majority of the other 64 bookings he's managed to accumulate so far. Sympathy, naturally, is scarce. Where one careless tackle can be let go as an accident, and two perhaps as a lack of maturity, a collection as wide-ranging and homogenous as this tends to encourage people to think that, however good a footballer he can be in amongst all the crunching, he's something of a hopeless case.
Part of Cattermole's problem is that, as a footballer, he cleaves to an archetype that's no longer tolerated. Being a midfield enforcer used to mean being part of a glorious and proud lineage of dark-eyed, moustachioed psychopaths, sharp of cleat and flared of nostril; now, it's a shameful business. It's a bit like one of those films where a mediaeval knight falls through a wormhole into 1980s New York, except our hero, instead of stumbling through a cavalcade of amusing misunderstandings - jousting with a wheelie bin, claiming Dunkin Donuts for the King - and winning the heart of an extremely attractive, patient young lady, is stood in Times Square, the severed head of a Frenchman at his feet, wondering why everybody's screaming and what all the blue lights mean.
But while the heydays of the reducer are gone - thankfully, if you're a shinbone, or a fan of shinbones - the memories still linger, edges filed off, nostalgia filter applied. Memories of a simpler time, when humiliation by skill could be answered with humiliation by strength, before FIFA and UEFA and the EU and the PC brigade ruined everything. This explains why pundits scrutinise replays for the faintest whisper of a touch of the ball, then announce "see, he's won the tackle" (or, if he hasn't, praise the 'honesty' of the attempt). This fuels the weird-yet-persistent rubric that kicking your opponent shows that you care, that you're committed. What kind of a world is this, cries the halcyon past, where an Englishman can't respond to excessive cleverness with excessive force?
It's these memories that do for players like Cattermole. Into the tackle they charge, head filled with the ghosts of midfields past, Norman Hunter growling in one ear, Graeme Souness chuckling in the other and then comes the leap, and the lunge, and then thump, it's done, the ball's over there somewhere and the other lad - the enemy - is down on the ground where he belongs. But then suddenly, shockingly, the drums fade away and the blood subsides and they're left blinking in the cold and embarrassing light of the present, a strange-looking bloke in a turquoise shirt is waving a red card in their face, everybody's shouting at one another, the crowd are howling, the commentators wringing their hands, and there's nothing to be done but go and sit in the shower, alone, and wait for all their friends and their boss to come and do some unrefined shouting.
What can one man do, against a hundred years of bruising, insistent tradition? Just as the poor sods writhing on the ground are Cattermole's victims, so Cattermole himself is a victim of progress, trapped between a sport that rejects him and a sporting culture that regrets that rejection and romanticises his predecessors. Perhaps. That, or he's a careless berk with a nasty streak. Whichever you prefer.