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Tackling the ‘horror challenge’ debate

07 October 2010

The lack of matches this week has left ample time for the “De Jong Controversy” over unnecessary challenges to drag on. Today, Fulham’s own Danny Murphy chimed in, decrying the “ridiculous” and “brainless” tackles being seen all over top-flight football.

Murphy thinks this is a much more appropriate tackle.

Murphy, speaking at the Leaders in Football conference in London, pointed a finger at the leadership of some of the Premiership’s most physical sides.

“Your manager dictates what your players do and how you behave,” Murphy said. “You get managers who are sending their teams out to stop other teams playing, which is happening more and more – the Stokes, Blackburns, Wolves.

“They can say it’s effective and they have got to win games but the fact is the managers are sending out their players so pumped up there is inevitably going to be problems. Every ship has a captain and that’s the manager who is in charge.”

Murphy went on to note that, especially under Roy Hodgson, Fulham were annually one of the top sides in the Fair Play standings and that wasn’t how he and the Cottagers went about their business. He also called for tougher standards of punishment for violent challenges, especially for repeat offenders (cough, Karl Henry, cough).

“The pace in which some players go into tackles now is ridiculous. There’s no brains involved in the players who are doing that,” he said. “I don’t believe players are going out to break another player’s leg but there has to be some logic and intelligence involved.

“If you are going at someone at a certain pace and you don’t get it right you are going to hurt them. Players should be culpable for that, in terms of punishment I don’t know what – but they need to show a little bit more intelligence, especially the ones who are doing it repeatedly.”

Stoke midfielder Ryan Shawcross, who was involved in an accidental-but-controversial challenge last season on Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey that broke Ramsey’s leg, leaped to the defense of City’s de Jong and Wolves’ Karl Henry (and probably was late and drew a yellow card in the process).

Shawcross plays the traditionalist boys-will-be-boys, it’s-a-man’s-game card, saying the occasional broken limb will happen with the roles being played by today’s tougher central midfielders.

“As a player, the likes of Henry and De Jong I’m sure didn’t go out to injure another player on purpose,” he said. “It’s part and parcel of football – they are tough-tackling central midfielders whose games are based on making tackles, winning the ball and then giving it to the ball-players. Sometimes injuries are caused.

“You have just got to accept in these times, with the ball moving so fast and the player moving so fast, sometimes you are going to mis-time tackles and that is when injuries can happen.”

With players, managers and even FIFA’s medical director (who has compiled a video of horror tackles and wants it to be the impetus for tougher sanctions) taking sides, there’s ample grey area to navigate. In my mind, there is a large difference between Shawcross’ accidental challenge and what Henry did to Wigan’s Jordi Gomez over the weekend, or even between that challenge and Henry’s tackle on Fulham’s Bobby Zamora, which helped cause Zamora to break his leg.

(Somewhat laughably, it seems the FA has swept through YouTube in the past 24 hours and removed practically all the evidence of Henry’s challenges.)

It’s OK to be physical and challenge legally. It’s understandable that guys will occasionally be late on a challenge. That said, there are ways to “miss” or finish a challenge, and lifting a back leg to connect with a player (like Henry did to Gomez) or driving a knee through a guy’s shin (like de Jong ended up doing to Hatem Ben Arfa) is, in my opinion, reckless, needlessly dangerous and should be legislated out of the game.

I don’t blame the ref in the City-Newcastle match for missing the excessiveness of de Jong’s challenge, because live speed, it looked like a reasonable tackle. That said, the FA (and FIFA) should start using replay and retroactive suspensions to manage these situations (as well as simulation and other blatant acts of cheating). Refs aren’t perfect, but technology allows a second chance to right a wrong.

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