8 October 2010

Get stuck in

"It's a contact sport. Man up, chaps."

That was an email that an anonymous person sent to Sky Sports News this morning after a debate on who is responsible for the current spate of bad tackles in the game became news.

Danny Murphy, one of the more thoughtful players of the last 15 years (for non-footballists - he's the one whose missus supposedly whinged about not going to enough film premieres when they moved from Liverpool to London), has said that managers have to take responsibility for the actions of the players.

It has become prevalent of late because, mainly but not exclusively, of the activities of one Karl Henry. He is a Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder of undoubted footballing ability who, shall we say, "likes a tackle".

So far, he has led a planned victimisation of Joey Barton, then helped to break Bobby Zamora's leg and, finally, received a deserved red card at the weekend for spannering into Jordi Gomez so late that the Wigan player turned somersaults in the air and landed in an adjacent postal district.

No doubt off the pitch Henry is "honest as the day is long", changes most of the nappies at home (I don't know if he has kids, to be truthful) and frequently volunteers for the Urban Badgers Trapped In Rosebushes Rescue Service in Cannock. But on it, he becomes - on current evidence - something of a demon.

And Murphy is right. Managers pick players for their strengths and decide exactly how they should play. In the case of the lesser skilled clubs, the most likely way of taking a point or three is to prevent the other team from playing, rather than doing the playing yourself.

This is a laudable tactic and not exactly new. But it has to be channelled in the right way. It's no good telling players to get stuck in and take no prisoners if they don't understand where the line has been drawn and get sent off after 20 minutes. Before long, a player annoyed at the vilification he is receiving is going to tell the press he removed an adversary's kneecap because his manager told him to.

I'm expecting that email at the top of this entry to have been sent in by a T.Smith of Liverpool or an R."C".Harris of west London. Inevitably, older observers will tell you that tackles like those of Karl Henry were commonplace in the days of pitches that resembled quagmires and gluepots. As good as these players were, they are remembered for the football they prevented, not played. Tommy Smith once scored in a European Cup final at the age of 32 but nobody brings that up when recalling his career. They think of the thousands of tackles that left good opponents writhing in agony.

Tackling is part of the game, but clean and fair tackling will always earn much more admiration than the alternative. Part of the problem is that we now assume that injuries caused within tackles must have been caused by the tackle itself. Henry already had a reputation thanks to his mental vendetta against Barton by the time he cleanly and clearly took the ball off Zamora. He wasn't punished for the tackle, and rightly so. Zamora suffered a broken leg within the tackle, but not because of it. But it's being brought up now because of the tackler, not the tackle. That can't be good.

Bad tackles will always happen, and sometimes they'll cause injury and sometimes not. There's a difference between bad and malicious. But if managers are actively telling players to prevent the other side playing, and then protesting their innocence afterwards as someone undergoes surgery for a broken tibia, then there will always be a tactical contribution to the problem. It's up to managers to inform their players responsibly, and take the rap for it if it goes wrong.

Here's a compilation of the treatment of Barton - four of the challenges are by Henry. I'm not sure which is more outrageous - the succession of appalling challenges or Alan Shearer's laughter.

1 comment:

Valentine Suicide said...

I thought I'd give myself some time, a few games and some perspective before I said bollocks to this post, Matt. :)

Less Strictly, more McCarthy.