Is this what you mean by 'soft' players, Roy?
Published 24/10/2011 | 05:00
FOR somebody who regularly railed against those sitting in front of a camera telling other people how things should be done, Roy Keane's increasing presence on television screens is bringing him down a few steps from the pedestal upon which he spent most of his career.
In the same way that it was easy for many people to pick and choose work in the boom years, Keane's time as one of the best players of his generation and superb early managerial success at Sunderland gave him the freedom to take shots at those who preferred sitting in a studio to a dugout.
But 10 months of unemployment seems to have changed things and, having popped up with Martin O'Neill on ITV last week for their coverage of Marseille against Arsenal (doing a fine job), Keane went a bit more corporate prior to yesterday's Manchester derby.
In the midst of describing how difficult it is to win the "Barclays Premier League" while sitting beside the trophy with just the six 'Barclays' ribbons draped over it -- the suspicion here is that was no accident -- Keane lamented the softness of a modern player and the lost art of "nailing people".
"There's a skill in tackling and nailing people," said Keane. "Yellow cards are fine, you need to worry about the red ones. You can still leave your mark on a player but when I see United games now, even against Arsenal, everyone's being nice to one another. Everyone's gone a bit soft." After he checked that all of the bones in his legs still run in straight lines, it would be interesting to get Shane Long's take on those comments.
On Saturday against Aston Villa, Long was clattered by Alan Hutton with the sort of 'skilful' tackle that Keane seems to be referring to. If you like that sort of despicable challenge, it was skilful, because Hutton always had a very good chance of getting away with it. He waited for Long to commit himself enough so that, after Hutton got his foot on the ball, he could drive through the legs of Long safe in the knowledge that the 'I got the ball defence' was there to back him up. In other words, he could nail him.
In defending his player, Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish reckoned that the ball "was there to be won", which it was but, by following though in such a manner, Long's leg was there to be broken. If they were honest, most players facing a difficult opponent would happily take a yellow card in the early stages of a match if it meant that the danger man in the opposition was gone for the rest of the game.
There are very few who genuinely want to hurt their opponent or put them out of action for a considerable period of time, but if they happen not to be able to walk for the next 90 minutes or so and it gives the perpetrator an easier afternoon, that'll do just fine.
Such opportunities rarely present themselves but there's a split second where the aggressor has the chance to simply win the ball, or win it while, in the words of every manager in a pre-match team-talk, "letting the opponent know you're there". On the basis that if the raised boot were on the other foot, most will take the option of the free hit.
The many Irish supporters who anxiously await news of Long's prognosis this morning and were justifiably angry at Hutton's tackle now might want to revise their opinion of a similar moment which has been celebrated, and blown out of all proportion, for over a decade in Irish football history.
It came in the opening minute of Ireland's game against the Netherlands when Keane "nailed" Marc Overmars in a tackle, leaving the Dutch winger in a heap and, according to legend, inspiring Ireland towards a World Cup play-off.
Like most legends, it ignores a significant truth in that Holland played Ireland off the pitch for most of the next hour and it owed more to Shay Given and woeful Dutch finishing than Keane's tackle that Ireland won the match. Like Hutton, Keane deserved a red card but he also knew that such a moment rarely presents itself and when it does, it must be taken with both feet.
Alan Hansen reckoned that "30 years ago Hutton's tackle would have got you a new contract" but, as it has even from Keane's time, the game has thankfully moved on to a stage where tackles that don't break legs because of good luck rather than good judgment are no longer acceptable. Many of the Villa fans who taunted Long as he left the pitch probably agree that modern players are soft but, as Keane himself should know, it hardly takes a hard man to perform a tackle like Hutton's.