Sport Soccer

Monday 20 November 2017

Chopper's primitive views out of touch with reality

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

WITH their choice of footwear, rolling around the ground after a foul or celebrating a goal as though auditioning for a dodgy all-male film, footballers sometimes don't help themselves when it comes to being perceived as manly.

Among other sports there's a peculiar desire to be seen as "a man's game", a description regularly applied to the GAA in the height of Championship fare or, more recently, to rugby, particularly so after much of the nation suddenly realised the sport existed.

It's part of "a man's game", apparently, to smack into a player who has just made a hand-pass and is practically defenceless or trample all over them when they are lying on the ground. If that makes some players feel tough, shooting fish in a barrel should make them feel like Superman.

Nobody would argue that these sports, as most do, require a level of dedication and physical bravery that is alien to those who shout at the television while claiming they could have been a contender yet even Cesc Fabregas playing on with a broken leg or Wayne Rooney putting his World Cup ambitions on the line to help his team won't dissuade those who feel modern players are soft.

"Looking at them boots they wear today and them gloves and all that, I think, 'Blimey, football: it used to be a man's game, didn't it'?"

That was the verdict last week of Ron Harris, who you might know from playing a record 795 games for Chelsea in the 1960s and 1970s.


"And don't get me started on tackling. I mean, this law about sending off someone if they show their studs in the tackle. Excuse me, if you slide in how are you not going to show your studs? It's not physically possible."

That's the rest of the critique on the modern game from Ron 'Chopper' Harris who you would definitely know as the man for whom the phrase "that kind of player" could have been invented.

In an era when, as John Giles put it last week, it took "grievous bodily harm to get a yellow card and to get sent off was near to murder", Harris excelled. To play almost 800 games for Chelsea, Harris must have had some talent other than whacking people but embracing a nickname like Chopper doesn't leave much room for the defence to present its case.

"The manager had a word with me before the game and said, 'if you get half a chance to rough (Eddie) Gray up a little, take it'. I took it after all of eight minutes. Thought that was nice of me to give him eight minutes." Hilarious stuff from Chopper on the 1970 FA Cup final replay between Leeds and Chelsea.

Among his many complaints after their defeat to Bayern Munich last week, Alex Ferguson's primary gripe was that Rafael was sent off because of the pressure put on the referee by the German players rather than the cynical foul which he had committed.

The showing of an imaginary card is one of the game's more unedifying sights yet, as somebody who has managed some superbly skilful players, even Ferguson would admit that players lining up to get an opponent sent off is preferable to lining up to have one carried off.

In Cristiano Ronaldo's time at Old Trafford, Ferguson regularly complained that the Portuguese player was not given enough protection by referees, who often turned a blind eye to wanton acts of violence simply because Ronaldo had developed a reputation for diving.

In the Manchester derby of 2007, Michael Ball stamped on Ronaldo's stomach and went unpunished at the time but, like all great players, Ronaldo responded by constantly gaining possession and running at Ball. The City player then conceded a penalty for another foul on Ronaldo, who converted it, United won 1-0 and went on to win the league. Yet, even after the match, there were some who preferred to focus on the vanity of Ronaldo who walked off the pitch shirtless in order to show the stud marks which had desecrated his six-pack.

George Best would never have been so self-important, lamented the "in my day" brigade for whom comparisons with modern players can never be valid because of the thuggery which skilful players of the past had to endure.

In one of Best's most famous goals against Chelsea, Harris comes charging across to launch a tackle around the knees of Best whose legs buckle before he regains his composure, rounds the goalkeeper and scores.

Those who seek to denigrate modern players will point to Best's honour in staying on his feet but of greater relevance is, had Harris connected properly and potentially broken Best's leg, United would only have got a free-kick and Harris, if he was unlucky, a yellow card.

Some level of physical intimidation has always tested supremely gifted players but, although the game sometimes goes to the other extreme, it's a better scenario than having them kicked out of the game because opponents know they can get away with it.

It was more by luck than judgement that Best's career wasn't ended by that Harris challenge, or that Pele was able to play again after the 1966 World Cup, or Maradona's ankle recovered after Andoni Goikoetxea's "tackle" in 1983. After years of having his ankles used as bullseyes by the manly men of Serie A, Marco van Basten wasn't so lucky and retired at 28.

Players will always get injured but the absence of systematic maiming allows for the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney or Messi to play in the relative safety that their bones won't be smashed by somebody who will, as Goikoetxea did, put their offending boot in a trophy case.

They don't make them like they used to alright, and the game is all the better for it.

Irish Independent

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