Nowadays it seems that any tackle with a slight lashing of malice is scrutinized and condemned. With the increase of baby-faced and wrapped-in-cotton-wool footballers who refuse to be fouled as to protect their luscious and gelled infrastructure they call their hair, the ancient art form of the tackle is being clamped down to the point when you can barely touch your opponent anymore.
Last year’s Premier league season (2012-13) saw the lowest red card return since 1996. This highlights the modern day confusion surrounding a good tackle. Referees up and down the country ‘umming and ahhing,’ many of them convinced and conformed by the crowd. Let’s be honest. You don’t give a penalty against Manchester United at Old Trafford. A ref just doesn’t have the balls, and usually it’s hard to tell whether the United players are diving or not anyway.
That’s another thing, diving. Avoiding the classic comparison with Tom Daley when taking a tumble, the Red Devils are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to diving. In the table of simulation bookings since 2008, Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez are in the top 5 and Adnan Januzaj is in third despite playing in his first Premier league season. Yes the United players are quite happy to gaily skip around the field until they see a 6ft 4’ bald-headed steam train charging at them to which they must jump out of the way. It’s not a bullet they’re dodging nor should they feel aggrieved to take the tackle, it’s a part of soccer after all.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the modern day flow and the skill it takes to be a footballer, the guile and creativity needed and the dedication to the cause. It entertains me each week but I can’t help thinking some of that passion, expressed through tackling, squaring up to each other and such, is diminishing and it’s largely due to the crippling claw of the modern day rulebook.
The Merseyside derby needs a harsh tackle or two to spruce it up and to send the fans into uproar, which in turn sparks gloating and a fast paced game. Then it becomes about heart. You start to feel the desire to win the game on both sides and the fans begin out-singing each other and watching the camera shake uncontrollably when either team scores, then to see the marauding fans leaving their seats and tumbling down the stairs in order to get a man hug from the goal-scorer. This is passion. This is heart in football. And it begins with loosening up the shackles a little bit.
You might be questioning me at this point; ‘why would you stand in the way of a 6ft 4’ steam train?’ It’s a cliché nowadays to say ‘that tackle would have been fine ten years ago.’ Ahh the bliss of ten years ago. The promise land of the past. The days when Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t exist to most of the world and a good-old-fashioned tackle was accepted no matter how strong as long as they won the ball. There was none of this tomfoolery about catching players on the follow-through. If you were in the way, that was your fault. These were the days of bludgeoning centre midfielders such as Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and the budding but brutal Lee Cattermole.
But I think you have to look further than ten years back, further than Alan Shearer and further than the Premier League’s birth, and further still back through Liverpool’s domination of England and Europe to the days of Bobby Charlton and co. These men were proper footballers. They didn’t so much glide as your modern day Oscar or Messi, but rather plodded around the pitch like elephants or an overweight toddler.
The reason I’ve taken you through the years is to sample the story of Bert Trautmann. The German goalkeeper was playing in the FA Cup of 1956 and broke his neck. Your modern day footballer would go kicking and screaming off the pitch, perhaps compared to the aforementioned toddlers when they aren’t allowed anymore cake, but not this guy. Despite having a broken neck, he carried on and fittingly saw his team win the game 3-1 albeit from a crooked angle.
I also cite the story of Terry Butcher, the England centre back who famously played on after smashing his head open and looked like someone out of a low-budget seventies horror film. In the modern game when a player gets the tiniest sprinkle of blood on the shirt, the type of stain that could be mistaken for splashing a bit of ketchup from the pre-match hot dog, he is made to change it. But not Butcher, he looked like he’d been shop bought as a prime cut of English beef and still with all that blood squirming around the packaging. Maybe today’s footballers should keep their bloodied shirts on. It might inspire some fight seen in our Celtic ancestors.
My point is: players these days are wimps and thespians. Nobody can take a tackle anymore nor take one then not make a meal of it or avoid having a good moan if they get substituted. A lot of this stems from footballers playing for the money and not for the love of the game. A lot of footballers have turned into divas who, of course, must be given the most special treatment available to any human being. And why shouldn’t they be like that. Some footballers have the luxury of sitting on the bench each week and watching a game but getting paid £50,000 for it.
It takes a true lover of football to want to play every game and maybe even take a pay cut to do so. Although this version of the passionate, loyal footballer remains, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of it. More and more players are moving clubs to have another few million in their bank each year and this is slowly sucking the heart out of football.