By Shane Thomas
Here's a scenario for you. Imagine you were hit by a car and ended up with a bad injury, say... a broken leg. Imagine that the driver was driving over the speed limit and had also had a little too much to drink. Imagine that the case not only failed to go to trial, but the parents of the driver justified their child's behaviour with the statement, "There was no malice in the incident. Our kid's not that kind of driver".
So, how would that make you feel? Pretty miffed? Mildly annoyed? Downright furious? That kind of sums up my mood right now because the footballing equivalent of the aforementioned scenario is becoming increasingly prevalent in the game.
Now for the benefits of perspective, I would never try to compare a motor accident to any kind of injury on the football pitch. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a friend who almost died in a collision with an underground train and uses a crutch to walk a result. To try and find an equal comparison between sport and human mortality would be despicable and wrong. They are not comparable.
Now here is my bugbear. Since this year's World Cup final, there have been far too many examples of teams or particular players of teams being targeted for special treatment from opposition defences.
Now when I say special treatment, I don't mean getting a team to try to nullify a talented attacker with tight marking or good tackling. I mean stopping him, via fair means or foul. It's funny in these situations how often the means revert to foul.
On Tuesday night, Stoke City's Andy Wilkinson injured Fulham striker Moussa Dembele with what I refuse to call a tackle. It bordered on assault. The challenge was late, the lunge was reckless and initially it looked as if Dembele's ankle was broken. Thankfully he only sustained ligament damage - but how absurd is it that we're grateful that a player only sustained ligament damage because another one can't - or won't - tackle fairly.
So one of Stoke's players commit a savage assault on the opposition and their statement of contrition comes from assistant manager Dave Kemp, "All I can say is that I hope the player is not too badly hurt. There is no malice in his challenge - it is just over-enthusiasm"
Not really much of a mea culpa. But as far as Stoke go, Dembele's not exactly their first. While fortune favoured the Moroccan, Ryan Shawcross succeeded where Wilkinson failed by breaking the leg of Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey in February. Once again, Stoke explained the challenge away by saying that it was an accident and that there was no malicious intent on the part of Shawcross.
A toddler spilling their glass of juice all over your new rug is an accident - and even then you try to educate it to not repeat this mistake. Despite what the tabloids would have you believe, footballers are not children. They are grown adults. They not only have an obligation to try their utmost to win a game, but they are obligated to do so within the rules of the sport.
Allow me to go back to my initial point for a moment. Car accidents, like footballers getting injured, are an unavoidable facet of life. But on the road most people do what they can to lessen the chances of this happening. Speed limits, seatbelts, traffic lights and driving with due care and attention are put in place along with the threat of prosecution if these laws are not adhered to. In theory, football has its own regulations to keep thuggery off the pitch. But Wilkinson wasn't sent-off on Tuesday. And Holland's Nigel De Jong also escaped a red card after karate kicking Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final. What's the point of having these deterrents if the officials fail to use them?
The media are also culpable. Only a handful of newspapers (mainly the right-wing ones), along with Sky, gave the Dembele incident due coverage. The BBC on the other hand, deferred from confronting not only Wilkinson's tackle, but the larger debate on reckless force that pervades the British game. It seems that the malaise that has afflicted the corporation since the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs scandal has spread to its football coverage. These days the BBC give you completely anodyne analysis, assuming they give you any opinion at all. If they don't begin to phase Alan Shearer out of their programming after his clownish display on last Saturday's episode of Match Of The Day then they never will. But then that's a rant for another day.
And yet again, us fans must also be held accountable for this thuggish conduct from players. In Britain, we tend to prize the physical over the aesthetic, the robust over the elegant. Even at the Emirates Stadium, I can tell you from experience that the crowd are more likely to make noise in the presence of a thundering tackle rather than a glorious 20 pass move that leads to a goal. And this is from the club who are acknowledged to play the most attractive football in the country.
Our very football phrases lend to this penchant for physical contact. "Get stuck in!", "Put your foot in!", "Get in their faces!", "Put them under!". These are all euphemisms for tackle as often as you can and as hard as you can. And if you don't get the ball, no matter. At least you've sent the opposition a message.
And yet so many fans lap it up. Many a time you'll hear a crowd shout abuse at a player for going down when injured. "Get up you poof! He barely touched ya!" (Sadly, homophobic slurs are still commonplace in the game) And it's justified by the ludicrous statement, "Football's a man's game". As if this makes it ok for players to tackle without any consideration. I'd hope one wouldn't drive home at 70mph after having a few down the pub. And if they did, I doubt their thought process in the event of an accident would be, "S*** happens".
But this is how we view things in the UK. And this attitude needs to stop. I believe football should be played as a man's game (by which I don't mean solely by men). And as such players have a duty to act responsibly and with a degree of common sense (I'm talking professionally here. What they get up to off the pitch is a separate issue). Hurting a peer and then running to the safety of your coaches who say that "you're not that kind of player" is not the behaviour of a man. It's the behaviour of a boy. Take some damn responsibility for how you play the game. Because this is not how men behave.
And as well as Stoke and Holland there have been others who seem to think that injuring a player through carelessness is simply collateral damage. It's not. We are talking about people's careers which are being shortened or ended. And yet newspapers and fans would rather focus on diving and play-acting as the primary ill of the game. Well no player was ever stretchered from the pitch because of diving. And I don't think play-acting ever resulted in a footballer requiring surgery.
Football is becoming less of a game for men and more of a game for cowards. So here's a message to them:
To the Liverpool fans who cheered Alan Smith's horrific broken leg in a game against Manchester United in 2006. You are cowards.
To Martin Taylor, who snapped Eduardo Da Silva's leg in two in 2008 and robbed him of his peak years as a footballer. You are a coward.
To Karl Henry, who intentionally kicked Joey Barton all over Molineux and then broke Bobby Zamora's leg a week later. You are a coward.
To the entire Holland team who partook in the World Cup final this year. You are cowards who should have been thrown out of international football.
To Andy Wilkinson, Ryan Shawcross, Dave Kemp, Tony Pulis, Stoke City and its ravenous fanbase. You are all cowards.
And every fan who cheers when one of their players makes a late tackle on an opposition player, which could potentially have hurt him. You are cowards. Every last one of you.
Many would rather focus on how simulation is ruining the game. And I agree. But that doesn't mean we should ignore an even more heinous flouting of football's rules. The aforementioned cowards are despoiling 'the beautiful game'. And we are letting it happen. Until we stigmatise violent players the same way we stigmatise players with a propensity to dive, this is a problem that will only get worse over time.
The game's governing bodies need to take a firm stand on this because if the cowards are allowed to continue in this manner, eventually there'll be no game left that's worth watching.
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