The Real Killer of Skill

Last updated : 20 October 2008 By Richard Oldroyd
Chris Eagles
Chris Eagles - prevented from having a shot at goal
Without it, Eagles would probably have got away a shot on goal. Had the incident occurred five minutes earlier, it would presumably have yielded a free-kick to Burnley. As it was, the final play of the game came to an end without the Clarets gaining a final opportunity to deliver a dead-ball into the Birmingham penalty area.

This isn't intended to be a criticism of the match official, or of officials generally; that debate is pretty well pointless, since the bottom line is that those on duty across the Football League and Premier League are the best officials willing and able to do the job, and no amount of complaining, or gimmicky initiatives to 'punish' referees who err, will change that fundamental truth. No, this is a criticism of players who engage in the worst form of cheating and those managers who indulge it.

Nor do I especially mean to single out Birmingham, because they are not the only team to practice what might be described as football's 'dark arts'. These are prevalent throughout the game, practiced by more teams than you could care to count, perhaps including Burnley. But it just happens that I watched Birmingham on Saturday, and they provided a precise demonstration in these things.

Shirt-pulls, clamping, little pushes in the back: you wouldn't have thought that a team already blessed with an enormous financial advantage over every other side in the Championship would need to try and obtain further underhand advantages, but Birmingham did. And to their credit, they got away with it.

Even if they hadn't, Birmingham's approach was entirely logical because no-one appears to have the gumption to do anything about it. It is likely to result in a free-kick, which is a small price to pay for sucking the life out of any opposition. A yellow card is rarely issued for a shirt-pull until the practice has been repeated for at least an hour. A red card is highly unlikely unless the offence is committed within 20 yards of goal and leaves the victim requiring resuscitation.

The worst thing is that we appear to have become tolerant of it. Penalty areas across the country resemble mass Greco-roman wrestling bouts on every occasion a corner is awarded, yet any penalty awarded for pushing or blocking or molesting an opponent is likely to be considered 'soft' or 'controversial'. It isn't; it's the correct application of the rulebook.

John Terry even achieved the remarkable feat of eliciting sympathy recently when he was sent off at Manchester City for rugby tackling an opponent who, presumably, he thought was liable to score had he not intervened. It was a more cynical transgression of the rules than any 'simulation' you will see this season. Yet for no reason - except, I imagine, than that he happens to be English and an acclaimed and rugged defender - he escaped the outcry which would inevitably have ensued had he been, say, Didier Drogba and had fallen over 60 yards further forwards under debatable contact. To add insult to injury, he managed to get the dismissal overturned on a technicality in a spectacular example of the FA missing the point entirely.

You see, we now have an entirely warped morality in football. Not just because anyone who commits anything resembling a dive is immediately targeted for a lynching by the popular hate mob whereas a cynical shirt-pull or body check is sagely regarded as 'professional'. But the fact that all cheats are not born equal is indicative of the problem: whilst football has targeted certain causes celebre over the past few years, it has allowed others to fester, unchecked.

Along with diving - which although distasteful, doesn't actually detract per se from the game as a spectacle - the other chief cause over the recent years appears to have been to ban the sliding tackle outright by punishing zealously any error in making such a tackle.

Now, the game has made many great positive strides in removing the right of under-skilled thugs to maim any opponent who had the temerity to outwit them, and I do not suggest that the game isn't the better for it. But the right of players to compete for the ball and to go in hard to win it is the counterweight which tests skills; the equivalent of bunkers, water or deep rough on a golf course. Keep widening the fairways until they are unremittingly friendly, and eventually you devalue the challenge.

Yet without any great science, the emotive argument that such tackles are contrary to an honest, skilful game has gained credence, largely because otherwise cerebral coaches like Arsene Wenger have swallowed the bait whole. When Wenger reacted histrionically to Martin Taylor's fatefully mistimed but ultimately genuine sliding tackle on Eduardo last season, he got it fundamentally wrong. Tackles like that are grotesque, but they are rare, and even then they seriously injure even more infrequently.

It is not, then, offences like that against which Wenger should turn his ire: it is offences like the ones Taylor engaged in on Saturday which offend and threaten skilful play. Given that the critical quality in any skilful player is balance, it seems likely that the most effective method of stopping any such player is to send him off balance with either a push or a shove. Likewise, the best way to avoid being caught out by good movement is probably to concede a free kick and re-organise whilst the referee spends the next 25 seconds ensuring that the next ball is kicked from the precise blades of grass upon which the offence took place. Allardyce's Bolton weren't successful against Arsenal because they kicked them off the park. They were because they nudged them and disrupted the pattern of the game and killed Arsenal's joyous skills at source.

It isn't the risk of injury from over physical tackling which threatens the place of crafty players in football - it is this suffocating niggling. The most brutal challenges may have been eradicated from the game. But for as long as this cheats charter is allowed to exist, the purest artists will rarely get the opportunity to flourish.