It was slightly ironic, I felt, to see Newcastle writing to the FA to encourage them to appropriately punish Nigel De Jong for his tackle that broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg, sidelining the midfielder for at least six months. I have every sympathy for Ben Arfa, he was a player with massive promise, as he showed by scoring a thunderbolt against Everton a few weeks ago (curse him…), but my sympathy for Newcastle is tempered by the memory of a tackle from Kevin Nolan on Victor Anichebe in February 2009.
Nolan went right over the top of the ball with both feet, studs raised, and – here I struggle for a suitably voracious adjective – smashed into Anichebe’s ankle, leg and knee all at once. Anichebe returned to action a full 11 months later, but only managed eight appearances in the second half of last season, as he was constantly afflicted by niggly injuries that are the result of having his leg all but destroyed by Nolan. Nolan received a red card for his offence, and thus missed a game or two through suspension, but a year and a half later, Anichebe is still struggling to get onto the pitch.
Of course, my lack of sympathy for Newcastle in losing Ben Arfa for perhaps six months does not mean that I disagree with their appeal to the FA. That De Jong wasn’t at least booked for his tackle would be astonishing if one assumed that Premier League referees were competent, but even if he had been sent off, I don’t think that punishment would have been great enough. A red card is a bit of an inconvenience, and the player may regret missing a game or two, but it’s not going to make them think about the sort of tackles they’re willing to commit to.
And therein lies the problem. So far this season we’ve seen a great many players who have displayed a complete lack of intelligence in their tackling. Lee Cattermole hasn’t injured anyone, but he has been stupidly dismissed twice already this season. Karl Henry broke Bobby Zamora’s leg with what was, in fairness, a legitimate tackle, but despite having experienced up close what can happen in a tackle, he still went flying in on Jordi Gomez at about a million miles an hour when Wolves played Wigan, for which he was rightly dismissed.
And this needs to stop. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to see tackling forced out of English football. I love a good tackle. I play football myself and there is nothing more satisfying than winning a big crunching tackle. And tackling is an essential part of football, in this country especially. But there is a difference between tackling hard and fair and tackling stupidly and recklessly. This season in the Premier League, we’ve already seen far too much of the latter.
It just takes a little bit of thinking through, the composure to stop and think ‘is the ball really there to be won’. I know that the game is played at a frantic tempo at times, and I know that players need to show commitment and passion to win the ball, that’s part of the game. But if they can’t also have the cool under pressure to recognise a lost cause when they see one then they’re a danger to themselves and to others, and they need to be taught a lesson.
Some blame has been attributed to managers like Mick McCarthy and Sam Allardyce, with people suggesting that they encourage their players to go out and hit the opposition hard. I’m sure they do, but no blame can rest with these managers. I do not like Sam Allardyce one little bit, but I am certain that he has never told any of his players to go out and hurt an opponent. They will tell their players to make their first tackle count. To let their opponent know they’re in for a game. That in no way means they’re telling them to go out and tackle recklessly.
If the players are interpreting that as a license to go out and throw themselves stupidly into dangerous tackles, then footballers are even less intelligent than they’re usually given credit for. The ‘reducer’ is an age-old concept in football, but does not mean trying to injure your opponent. It simply means that when your man gets the ball early in the game, you hold nothing back. You win the ball, but you win it hard, to let them know that they’re going to get nothing out of you all afternoon. Some players will then shirk away from the ball, making your job easier. That is what constitutes a reducer. You reduce their confidence, not their ankle bones to dust.
At the end of the day, the only people responsible for these terrible tackles are those making them, and so they need to be punished appropriately to make them think their tackles through in future. But how can the FA go about doing this?
Well, I think that longer bans need to be introduced for really reckless tackles. That does not necessarily constitute a tackle that left an opponent seriously injured. For instance, Karl Henry should not be banned for his tackle on Zamora, which left the Fulham striker with a broken leg. It was legitimate. But he should certainly be banned for the tackle on Jordi Gomez, who miraculously escaped unharmed. And it should be a significant ban.
In the past, some pundits have suggested that the player be banned for as long as their opponent is injured for, but that simply wouldn’t work, although it does have a certain sense of poetic justice to it. Imagine if Kevin Nolan had been banned for the last year and a half for his tackle on Anichebe. It wouldn’t help Anichebe very much, but I think he and Everton fans everywhere would feel that there was a little more justice in the world.
But it would never work, because as mentioned above with the Karl Henry tackles, an injury does not dictate how bad a tackle is. Instead, the FA needs to be able to ban players retrospectively – no matter what punishment was dealt out by the referee on the pitch. If a tackle is adjudged, post-match with the aid of video replay – to be needlessly reckless, then significant bans should be imposed. And by significant, I mean 10 matches. That would make players consider the risks of their tackles more thoroughly.
On top of that, I think that in situations where a player is badly injured by a reckless tackle – again, this wouldn’t apply to Henry’s tackle on Zamora, but would to Nolan’s on Anichebe – the culprit should be hit with financial punishment too. I’m not talking about the usual fines that a player gets for being sent off or what have you though. Instead, the player should be required to pay the medical bills of the player whom they’ve injured. Footballers make a lot of money, and the odd fine here and there won’t bother them, but hefty medical bills might.
And I’m aware that clubs insure their players against injury and so medical expenses are covered. However, I think that if the player who caused the injury was paying towards the treatment too, then the club would feel less aggrieved at having to pay the wages of the crocked player for the duration of a lengthy rehabilitation. It would act almost as a small compensation for the club in that sense.
If these rulings were introduced, I’m confident that we would see far fewer instances of players tackling recklessly. I accept that every now and then a tackle can be misjudged – we all make mistakes. But so far this season we’ve seen players pushing the limits of acceptable tackling conduct far beyond the extreme. I accept that the pressures of Premier League football are great, but there is no need to risk seriously injuring your opponents.
Players need to retain the ability to think clearly and to judge situations realistically. If the ball is there to be won, by all means go in hard and go in fair. If you have to stretch though, or have to throw yourself in at speeds you can’t control, or find yourself going in high, or with studs raised, then you should be sensible enough to pull out. Footballers aren’t naturally sensible, and so these – or other similar – measures are, I believe, necessary to maintain the safety of the beautiful game.
They Think It’s All Over… extends best wishes to Victor Anichebe, Bobby Zamora, Hatem Ben Arfa, and all other players at any level who have been needlessly injured by reckless tackling.