Saturday 7 December 2019

You're only a mis-timed challenge away from the end

During one particularly physical FA Cup game, I grew increasingly frustrated with being kicked by a defender off the ball and thought I'd give a little back.

I made the decision to concede a foul the next time the ball came near us, just to let him know it would be a two-way battle from then on. As we tried to out-jump each other to win the ball in the air, I deliberately elbowed him. He was immediately substituted due to a broken nose. The referee didn't even award him a free-kick.

I met him after the game in our medical room and apologised profusely and wished him well in his recovery. When our coach asked whether it was deliberate, I gave him the honest answer. He accompanied a hearty handshake with "well done son, you're learning at last." Up to that point in my career, I had been regularly told I was far too nice to make it.

On Thursday, dog-walking up the Dublin hills was less enjoyable and considerably lengthened due to the onset of pain arising from my decision to pursue a career in professional football. I never realised I would one day be affected in this way long after playing my last game professionally, but given the nature of the sport, I knew there was every possibility. That final game was at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium, the scene of Aaron Ramsey's horror leg break last weekend.

I've been in dressing rooms where managers have encouraged players to attack defenders solely to win free-kicks. In a sport where getting your opponent booked early in a game increases the chances of coming out on top over 90 minutes, footballers know that picking the optimum time to breach the laws of the game is very much a part of what they are paid to do. Despite public comments to the contrary, seeing an opponent receive a yellow or red card is viewed everywhere by players as a positive development in any game.

Of course, some do it more subtly than others, and with less lasting damage, but despite watching his challenge on Ramsey several times, I still do not believe that Ryan Shawcross intended to cause injury in the way Arsene Wenger has suggested. I'm sure he was aware it was a possibility given the ferocity of the challenge, but at a time when bookings are, in my view, handed out all too easily, removing such tackles from the Premier League would lessen its appeal significantly. Irrespective of playing styles or levels of ability, the inherent risk of serious injury is ever-present. Wenger can talk all he likes about conspiracies and inequalities, but this he must surely accept.

Whether at the training ground or on the pitch, a player risks it all every time he puts on his boots. Most footballers never think of it that way. While Wenger's team receives great credit for the style and brilliance of the football they often play, they will ultimately be judged on the number of points they accumulate at the end of the season relative to those around them. In this they are no different than any other Premier League team and so can expect no special treatment as a result.

Few, if any, can match their tempo and skill, but many sides have avoided defeat by selecting the best means available to them to stop Arsenal playing the way everyone knows they can. An aggressive and physical style can be effective, but setting out to injure them is a tactic which is impossible to implement and even less likely to succeed.

As tempting as it is to focus on the behaviour of the likes of Denis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira in the past to lessen Wenger's credibility on this issue, his call for extra protection from referees is in itself a non-starter, for no match official has the right to do so. It adds very little to the debate

to refer to three serious injuries from ill-timed tackles over a five-year period as "no coincidence". In my view, it merely serves to remind us of his constant claims to having never seen such incidents when his players were on the offending side.

Tomas Rosicky supported the views of his manager last week by saying it takes less for Arsenal players to be booked, and leniency is shown to others for their relative lack of skill and agility. Of course, in drawing so much attention to the issue, the decisions of officials may be affected in their favour should similar circumstances arise any time soon. Given how tight things are between the three teams at the top of the table, such things could make all the difference. If that is their aim, it could well be successful. If it is not, and they genuinely feel victimised, then their over-reaction to physical challenges may only motivate others to act accordingly.

While using the good character of Ryan Shawcross to rubbish accusations of deliberate wrong-doing is nonsense, every player is a mis-timed challenge away from ending an opponent's season, or even their career. Of course, they can be on the receiving end too, and they know it. That is the nature of football. Nobody said it would never hurt.

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Sunday Independent

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport