Tackling the Issue…

8 10 2010

Now that I have some free time on my hands again, I am hoping to resume blogging more frequently. Anyway, there is an ongoing issue which I wish to pass comment on.

The issue is tackling in football. The problem has been highlighted by two offenders in the past week, Nigel De Jong and Karl Henry. Everyone seems to be having their say on the issue, from Danny Murphy to FIFA. This, of course, isn’t the first time the problem has been raised, Arsene Wenger is constantly moaning about the tackles on his players (Eduardo and Ramsey for instance).

There are various issues to consider though, and the condemnation of certain individuals is, in some instances, completely deserved, but in others, completely wrong. Let me explain. Karl Henry, the Wolves captain, has, in his career, received two red cards. The second was last weekend following a bad lunge on Jordi Gomez. Of course, this has come quickly on the back of a rough match against Newcastle (of which more will be said shortly) and breaking Bobby Zamora’s leg in an innocuous tackle. It has become convenient in the media to portray Wolves as a ‘dirty’ team, with Henry chief amongst their offenders. However, lets look at the case for Henry. Ok, so there can be little argument about the red card last weekend. It was a bad, unnecessary tackle which fully deserved a red card. However, the ‘rough’ tactics dished out on Joey Barton and Newcastle? Please. The statistics will tell you that Newcastle actually committed more fouls than Wolves did in the match, and the media circus will tell you that the criticism was generated by an Alan Shearer (formerly of Newcastle) piece on Match of the Day. Is it any surprise to see that Mr Shearer picked up on tackles against his Newcastle team? I think not. Indeed, I remember Shearer as many things, but I cannot, however hard I try, remember him as a ‘squeaky-clean’ player. He liked to rough things up as much as anyone. He was just clever enough to get away with it.

With regard the Bobby Zamora incident, there is little to be said about it, and it should not reflect upon Karl Henry at all. It was a completely innocuous challenge, and indeed, a perfectly fair one, which unfortunately happened to break Zamora’s leg. Indeed, if we compare this tackle with Steve Sidwell’s on Adlene Guedioura, which broke the Wolves midfielder’s leg and received no media attention at all, then we see that Henry and Wolves have been victimised to some degree.

For me, Karl Henry, whilst deserving to get sent off last weekend, has had a tough rap in the opening months of this season. Nigel De Jong however, hasn’t. He wasn’t even booked for his lunge on Hatem Ben Arfa last weekend. He was only booked for his chest high assault on Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final. Both warranted red cards. Neither got them. Apparently, Nigel De Jong has never been sent off in his career. Which is, quite frankly, ridiculous. De Jong has a reputation within football, Bert Van Marwijk has spotted this and quickly dropped him from the Dutch national team. He is a much dirtier player than his rap sheet suggests.

Herein lies the crux of the problem. Referees have a tough time ascertaining ‘tackles’ from ‘bad tackles’ from ‘violent conduct’ from ‘simulation’. Sometimes in football, accidents genuinely do happen. Witness Ryan Shawcross’ response to the sight of Aaron Ramsey crumpled in a heap with his leg in tatters for proof that things can happen which are part and parcel of football. Similarly, the Zamora incident was a complete accident, in which two committed professionals were fighting for the ball.

I have read various things about this problem with tackling, and, for me, Danny Murphy’s assessment is the worst. His accusation that the players are extensions of their managers is non-sensical. He claims that “If you have a manager like Roy Hodgson in charge you don’t get discipline problems”, with the implication being that more sedate managers are the ones who have fewer discipline problems, conveniently forgetting that it was the same Roy Hodgson who saw Joe Cole sent off early into his competitive Liverpool debut. Wolves, along with Stoke and Blackburn, represent the no-nonsense approach of their respective managers. Murphy therefore has the misfortune of implying that Messrs McCarthy, Pulis and Alladyce actually have some sort of innate desire to see their players flying recklessly into tackles and injuring other professionals. Which is of course rubbish. Murphy also suggests that the players get too pumped up before the match, and let off this enthusiasm on the pitch. I’d like to meet a professional footballer who isn’t pumped up before playing a match, and then I’d like to ask him why he isn’t pumped up. As a fan, using the notion of ‘being pumped up’ as a criticism seems odd, indeed, I want my team to be pumped up and prepared for the match, because in any form of football, you know that if you aren’t pumped up then your opponent will be.

Another argument I have seen in the comments to this damning piece on Henry, suggests that the English game is full of players who are competitive and committed, rather than being skilful and technically able. There is, I feel, a degree of truth in this argument, but I see no reason why this should be the case. Steven Gerrard, as with so many things, is a case in point. He is as skilful and able as any other player in the world, but also knows how to tackle, and also should have been dismissed for an errant elbow last weekend. He is an all round player who can do the ‘dirty’ stuff too. Tackling, let us not forget, is part and parcel of football. Indeed, even the wonderful Spain team know how to tackle, with the likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta all capable of mixing it up. You cannot, after all, become world and European champions simply by playing pretty football.

We cannot outlaw tackling, and indeed, we should not outlaw tackling. Every professional knows that there is an element of risk involved in playing football. Injuries occur, whether via another player or otherwise. Everybody knows this. The trouble is that as long as there are bad tackles made there is always going to be a call for change. The hypocrisy is that those leading the calls for change are the ones who also insist that it is a physical game and that tackling is part and parcel of what the viewing public pay to see. There is not much which really needs to change. Yes, the referees could use more help, especially for the cases they miss, but this is a wider, technological issue. What really needs to change is the media’s response to the issue. This is the one thing that football authorities cannot change. This is the one thing which perhaps needs to the most.