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Game is losing its physical appeal

WHEN Jack Rodwell trudged disconsolately off the pitch after receiving a red card for doing his job in the Merseyside derby, it struck me that I was looking at the death of football as we know and love it.

Dramatic? Maybe, but I know one thing: if FIFA or UEFA or whoever it is that is making the rules by which the game is governed have their way, tackling will cease to exist and, with it, football.

I don't understand the dynamics of this at all. Ask football fans around the world whether they want to see good, honest tackling as a feature in the game and I'm certain the vast majority would give a positive answer.

Take Barcelona. There's no better team to tackle and harass the opposition high up the pitch and yet they are acclaimed all over the world as possibly the best club side we've ever seen.

What about Manchester United, the home of lads like Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Roy Keane to name but a few; fearsome warriors who tackled with aggression and impact.

I even fancied a tackle or two myself in my day but there were better men than me about the place, such as Steve McMahon or Graeme Souness.

The list goes on and I don't think the basics of the game have changed that much. All the great teams of have a backbone of steel; players who know how to get stuck in and relish the challenge.

The problem now is that the rule-makers seem obsessed with removing physical contact from the game and I'm not even sure they know why they are doing it.

I have a vague memory of a debate around the time of USA '94 when FIFA officials wanted the game sanitised so that it could finally 'break' America, a stupid enough idea in itself, and there has been a steady but inexorable march towards removing meaningful tackling from football ever since.

With the exception of an interception or a 50/50 challenge in the air, there is no other way of recovering possession that I can think of apart from the tackle.

Do UEFA and FIFA want a game where one team has a go and the opposition lets them at it until they either shoot wide or trip over themselves? Because that is where we are headed, believe me.

Believe it or not, I had sympathy for referee Martin Atkinson. Every season, the referees get a new set of instructions and turn up for seminars where they are told how they are to interpret any new rules which crop up.

They have a thousand cameras and millions of eyes watching every move they make and a slew of players, managers and pundits giving them dog's abuse.

On top of that, they have their own governing body and the English FA watching very carefully to make sure they do as they are told.

Over the years, they change the emphasis and the wording and the latest instruction on the tackle revolves around the word 'excessive'.

If the player is overly aggressive or uses excessive force, he faces a straight red, but how does a referee, who has never played the game to any level, have the experience to judge?

All players know when another player is out to 'do' someone and I think the fans also will immediately recognise a bad tackle when they see one.

But referees do not enjoy the same latitude. If they see what they have been told is excessive force being used, they must fish in their pockets for red, even if the player gets the ball cleanly and shows no intention to harm the man he is tackling.

That perfectly describes Rodwell's tackle on Luis Suarez and I do think the referee is now conditioned to react.


I also think there is something in the notion that with more and more foreign stars in the Premier League, habits have changed massively and I'm not sure the officials have kept up.

Foreign players are more likely to scream in agony and the tradition in England has always been to endure the pain rather than show it so when someone lets out a roar, I think referees react to sounds of a player in distress by instinct.

Nine times out of 10 these days, the pain is illusory and vanishes soon after the incident but the impact on Rodwell won't disappear any time soon.

Because of the international break, it could be another five weeks before Rodwell gets to play a competitive game.

Where's the justice in that? An honest and talented young footballer is severely punished for trying to do what footballers do when they don't have the ball; in fact, to do what he has been taught to do from the first moment he played the game.