The game is dizzyingly fast, referees are incapable of keeping up, the disciplinary process is downright feeble and footballers cannot trust one another. Combine all those factors and you have the perfect conditions for a career-ending tackle.
Which is why the sneaky studs-up stamp and the wild, uncontrolled lunges have continued to feature again this season despite the empty promises about a crackdown.
Only luck and the occasional miracle of modern medical science have prevented a string of early testimonials. And Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is absolutely right to call for harsher punishment. The solutions are straightforward and simple to introduce but, before we come to that, let us clear something up. The game is still nothing like it was in the 1970s. It might sound vaguely controversial to argue we have slipped back into the brutality of that age, but equating today’s high-speed ballet to the vicious conflicts of 40 years ago is like comparing ballroom dancing to cage fighting.
Ex-referee Graham Poll argued on these pages yesterday that West Ham’s ugly win at Wigan was ‘a throwback to the ’70s — all it needed was Ron “Chopper” Harris and Norman “Bites Yer Legs”Hunter and the tear-up would have been complete’.Harris and Hunter could actually tackle, however. When they wanted to collect the ball, they did so. It is a skill that has all but disappeared from today’s Premier League, as Wenger rightly pointed out.
I could hear Harris and Hunter choking on their cornflakes from here. First, both were essentially ‘enforcers’, players whose sole purpose in life was to eradicate the threat of a more skilful rival. As a football species, they are practically extinct today.
They were undoubtedly masters of their dark art, but both would have been sent off following their first touch — which was usually to dispatch a nippy winger over the advertising hoardings. Anyone with any experience of football before satellite dishes and PlayStation 3 should know that.
This is because football is practically a non-contact sport today. It’s part pinball, part basketball, part five-a-side, with many of the finest players spending more time honing their acting skills than learning how to tackle.
It is in this climate of artful deceit and constant cheating, where every trick in the book is employed to con a referee, that an official finds himself disbelieving the blur of evidence before his eyes.
When two individuals collide, the referee has maybe half a second to decide if it was a dive, a trip, or a disgusting assault. The only thing he can be certain of is that gesticulating players will surround him and an angry crowd will bay for his blood. Some over-react and some crumble and lose control, as Stuart ‘Babyref’ Attwell did at Wigan.
But it’s the players’ fault. They did this to themselves. They complain they are not protected and yet constantly employ the morals of a thief to cheat their way to any advantage.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a perfect case in point. I watch him being kicked by opponents in every match and I see referees wave away perfectly deserved free-kicks time and time again. But he expends so much energy falling over and overdramatising contact on other occasions it’s no surprise officials cannot unravel real from fake.
Looking back at the grotesque lunges of Kevin Nolan and Lee Cattermole, Wenger said: ‘If you tackled anybody in the street like that, you go to jail.’ The trouble is, footballers genuinely believe they are above the law.
The cure? For starters, managers could begin by dealing with the violence in their teams. How many bosses do you hear complaining about a perceived injustice, while shrugging off the bad behaviour of their own dressing room? If managers want a cleaner game, they can begin by dealing with their own dirt.
Secondly, it’s time to bring players to account before a proper jury. The Football Association should adopt the perfectly sensible system employed in rugby union where players can be cited for offences missed or incorrectly dealt with on the pitch.
Managers lodge an official protest, an independent panel reviews all the evidence — regardless of whether the referee has shown a card or not — and they then dole out punishment accordingly. Players don’t receive a statutory rulebook ban of three games for a violent offence, they can be looking at weeks and months on the sidelines if it is appropriate. A second offence might equate to a season’s ban and a third can result in someone being told to clear their locker.
It works in other sports, it can work in football.
I’d say that might clean things up rather quickly, wouldn’t you?
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