By Shane Thomas
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on this blog lambasting players who through reckless tackling are endangering the physical well being of their peers. I branded these type of players 'spineless cowards'. It's fair to say that the reaction I received was not exactly positive.
So did I have it wrong? Was I making a fuss over nothing? Were recent injuries suffered by the likes of Bobby Zamora, Moussa Dembele & Aaron Ramsey bucking the general trend?
Well let's see, shall we? Anyone happen to catch any of the Premier League last weekend? Anyone catch Karl Henry being sent-off after 11 minutes of Wolves game against Wigan? Henry caught Wigan's Jordi Gomez with a tackle that had the carelessness and punctuality of a London bus with a drunk driver at the wheel. It took 11 minutes for Henry to be sent-off and a similar amount of time for him to become a trending topic on Twitter with links to a YouTube video of the foul. And if you think the comments I received for the aforementioned blog post were bad, you should see the vitriol that was dished out to Henry in the comments below the video.
Now vile personal abuse aside, there is definitely something of Henry's chickens coming home to roost. I called him out for being a spineless coward before, and his actions last week hardly did much to prove me wrong. While he initially had the temerity to complain about his red card during the match, he has since shown contrition. For this he deserves some credit. I can only hope that it's a severe wake up call and that he realises that his on-pitch conduct has been unacceptable. As many have pointed out, Gomez was exceptionally lucky that he avoided serious injury.
A day later, Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa was not so lucky. After being tackled by Manchester City's Nigel De Jong (another person who I branded as a spinleess coward a fortnight ago), he failed to get back up. The reason for this was because his leg was broken in two places. While Henry's tackle was clearly a shocker, De Jong's initially looked quite innocuous as he won the ball. It was only the replay that revealed that the Dutchman had caused the damage with his trailing leg. After winning the ball with his left foot, he then cynically swung his right leg through Ben Arfa, causing his tibia & fibula to break.
Astonishingly, ESPN pundit Chris Waddle said he saw little wrong with De Jong's actions. And it was only when Sky Sports News seemed to highlight the incident as a major issue that the media storm began. Condemnation for De Jong has been rife and he has been dropped from the Holland squad for their next international match.
It now seems that the issue is being taken with more seriousness. Only earlier today, Fulham captain Danny Murphy spoke out against the spate of rash tackles that have blighted the early stages of the new season. This may help puncture the offensive & xenophobic theory that the problem is to do with soft foreigners.
So what can be done? The FA have come in for some criticism for not taking retrospective action against dangerous play. But in their defence, their hands are tied by FIFA legislation that precludes sanctions if the referee has already adjudged the incident. So for example, of the referee did not see De Jong breaking Ben Arfa's leg, then they could impose a ban on De Jong - particularly on the referee's recommendation. But because Martin Atkinson had a perfect view of the incident and didn't even adjudge it to be a foul, there's very little the FA can do, even if common sense dictates that strong deterrents are likely to make players think twice before they lunge wildly into tackles. It's FIFA's laws that are the sticking point. To paraprhase Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist, "the law is an ass".
The primary criticism levelled at people like myself that abhor vicious tackling is that "we want to see tackling removed from football". Personally I'm yet to hear any player, manager, pundit, journalist or blogger ever come out with such a statement. Tackling is fine. Broken legs are not.
And here is the crux of the issue in Britain. While no civilised football fan revels in a player suffering injury, far too many of them think that's it is an acceptable facet of the sport.
And it's not. It's not acceptable. It's not ok.
It's not ok for players to fly off the ground in an attempt to win the ball.
It's not ok for players to tackle with their studs raised.
It's not ok to go into a tackle with both feet.
It's not ok to tackle without using sound judgement and anticipation.
Tackling is not only an essential part of football but also a skill that has to be honed as much as any other facet of a player's skill set. I do wonder, how many teams practice tackling? I mean really practice it. Watch any professional football club during training and you'll see plenty of drills to hone a team's passing, shooting & tactics. But how much work is done on the art of defending? If this skill is left neglected then maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the amount of wince-inducing challenges in the game.
And don't even try to justify dangerous tackling by telling me how rough things used to be back in the 1970's. Not only is it irrelevant but it's also completely dunderheaded. Racism in football is not as bad as it was in the 1970's, so shall we excuse the Madrid crowd that barracked the likes of Emile Heskey & Shaun Wright-Phillips with monkey chants back in 2004? After all, it's not as bad as it was in the 70's. And you only have to watch the Chelsea/Arsenal encounter from last weekend to show that tackles can be firm but fair, without the likelihood of a stretcher being required at any stage.
Like most things, a combination of education for the next generation of footballers combined with harsh punishments for the current generation is what I think would help reduce the kind of long term injuries that blight the British leagues. And as it seems that the FA are unable to extricate themselves from FIFA's dogmatic legislation, it falls down to FIFA themselves to ensure that if players will persist in on-pitch thuggery then they need to be punished to the extent that will ward off fellow players from taking a similar approach to stopping the opposition. And while I think the theory that states that De Jong should be banned for as long as Ben Arfa is injured is excessive, suspending him for the next month would be apposite.
Otherwise, there's nothing to stop players to continue to tackle with reckless abandon. And while we are yet to see a marquee name being out on the shelf, that's not to say that it won't happen. Last week it was Hatem Ben Arfa, next week it could be Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Wesley Sneijder.
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