Not many seasons ago the tackle which Joe Cole got sent off for yesterday would not have been a red card, it would probably not even been a yellow card. This would have been because his intention was to block the ball rather than tackle the player. The fact he clattered into the player subsequently would have been seen an accidental by-product of an honest attempt to intercept the ball.
Under the letter of the law, Atkinson was right to send Cole off, seeing it as reckless play. While this more protective side of the law has been beefed-up to stop players getting injured, the downside is it punishes players for a crime they didn’t intend to commit. If Cole had gone into that tackle specifically to break the fellas legs, he would have had the same punishment. That does not seem fair.
It also means players are required to walk a very fine line. Cole wanted to put work-rate in, put effort in and so he closed the player down at speed – all things the boss and the fans want to see. His actual crime was merely taking his right foot slightly off the ground as he went in. It’s that which makes the tackle reckless. We know this because five minutes later Gerrard committed a similar foul not long after and wasn’t even booked.
While wanting to protect players from career threatening injuries, we don’t want to neuter the game completely. Tackling must still be allowed and it must be recognized that some tackles, while well-intentioned, go wrong. These are not red card offences in themselves.
It seems wrong that the game was diminished by a sending off for such an offence, not least because we will see many worse tackles this season which will go unpunished because they are less dramatic or done more sneakily.
Cole and Liverpool suffered unduly for something that football relies on, full-bloodied commitment.