English football is quietly fighting on two fronts at the moment. Stuart Rayner sings the praises of its attempts to beat the cheats.
MOST football seasons see a clampdown on on-field behaviour. Right now, there appears to be two on the quiet.
This season English referees are much keener to flash yellow cards at players who go to ground too easily looking for a free-kick or more.
Apologists for the thespians argue football is missing the point crusading against clever professionals. They will tell you – quite rightly – the odd tumble to the turf is nothing compared to the leg-breaking tackles which were shrugged off in the good old days as the rough end of a man’s game. But the authorities are being just as strict with them.
Newcastle United have found it to their cost. In the last two away games players were sent off for such tackles. Straight red cards for Cheick Tioté and Fabricio Coloccini cost the Magpies four points and their two best defensive players for six Premier League matches.
According to Michael Owen, not unknown to lose his balance if a defender sneezes heavily in his general vicinity, Coloccini’s was “never” a red card, while his manager Alan Pardew argued there was no intent to harm Luis Suarez.
Maybe Pardew was right, even if replays suggested otherwise, but Owen was not. It looked a spiteful act from a classy defender whose brilliance generally comes from not having to tackle very often – hence Pardew’s comparison with Bobby Moore.
Whether you share television pundit Chris Coleman’s view that it was a “coward’s” challenge, or Pardew’s that it was totally out of character, tackles like that can break legs. That is why a red card was Anthony Taylor’s only option.
At first viewing on television it looked an innocuous challenge and another over-reaction from a striker who has turned it into an art form, albeit a comical one. On closer inspection it was a great example of something you do not see often enough – a referee being assisted by one of the people we are supposed to refer to as his “assistants”.
That these incidents are that much harder to judge is thanks to divers – those who go to ground without contact, those who topple under slight grazes, and those who actively look to collide with a defender desperately trying to avoid him. They are different shades of cheating.
When players sprint at the speed of Owen in his pomp or Gareth Bale today, it does not take too heavy a touch to bring them down. But the best forwards are blessed with great balance and a determination to score goals which can go missing in those circumstances. And there is no excuse for going down under a clip to the shin holding your head in agony.
But when opponents will happily do it to them, others will look for a wrong to make the right – even if the “wrong” has not yet been inflicted.