Roberto Mancini might just have accidentally rescued Premier League football as we know it.
He will have been oblivious to it, but had the Manchester City boss failed to stand firm on his unrepentant view that Vincent Kompany did not deserve a red card against Arsenal (and bottled out of lodging what was deemed a risky appeal) it frightens me to think how it may have been perceived by the men in black, green, yellow, and occasionally red.
What shall we do about 50/50 tackles, then? Let’s stamp them out. They’re far too dangerous.
A deliberate clampdown on tackling per se isn’t something our match officials would admit to of course, and nor should they as it’s not the truth. Yet it’s impossible to deny English football has ever shown as much intolerance to physical contact as it does today. The rules haven’t changed, merely the interpretation of them by our health and safety conscious referees.
The City captain’s collision with Jack Wilshere was a crossroads moment.
Mike Dean and those of a modernist persuasion were immediately convinced it was a straight red. The Belgian had been excessively aggressive, reckless, and to a point dangerous, when lunging in on the Gunners star. Winning the ball was irrelevant. In the current climate, he had to go.
Equal in numbers, old school traditionalists (of which I am one) protested that this was actually just the type of ballsy, brave and legitimate 50/50 tackle which has long since helped to make English football the barnstorming spectacle it’s famous for being. OK, Kompany showed aggression, but what’s the problem? He took the ball. No one got hurt.
I’ve watched the incident dozens of times and despite my north London allegiances I’m convinced the City defender was wronged by Dean’s dismissal.
He didn’t jump into the Arsenal man, he didn’t challenge with two feet, he wasn’t out of control, he didn’t show his studs, he didn’t take his eyes off of the ball and he didn’t recklessly endanger the health of Jack Wilshere.
That said there are millions of people who saw it in a completely different way. As a tackle, as a decision, it divided English football down the middle. We needed to know where we stood.
Well, thanks to Mancini’s self-interested, yet vitally important stance, English football’s invisible decision-makers faced a pretty straightforward choice.
Is football still a man’s game, or isn’t it? What a relief they chose the former.
No one wants to return to the dark ages when footballing thugs such as Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and Norman ‘Bite Yer Legs’ Hunter made their names nobbling the game’s great and good. Yet I don’t know anyone who wants to see football turned meekly into a non-contact sport either.
As an occasionally cheeky-drop-of-the-shoulder type wide man I was often kicked from pillar to post when I played. I honestly didn’t mind one bit and I don’t know too many footballers who do. Collecting the odd bruise here and there is part of the game.
What match officials need to get their heads around is that there’s a distinct difference between making an aggressive challenge for the ball, and deliberately trying to maim an opponent.
If truth be told, I don’t think I was ever intentionally injured by a rival player. Granted, if I’d had my leg snapped in two by a 15-stone nutcase I’m sure I’d see things a little differently, but with my own eyes and experiences I’d say that assault on a football pitch is remarkably rare.
Professional footballers enjoy and relish a physical contest. People don’t want to see players scraping their studs down the back of a striker’s calf, jumping with two feet into tackles, or recklessly diving in at knee height, but find me a footballer who backs out of a 50/50 challenge, and they’ll soon become an ex-footballer before they know it. For Vincent Kompany there really was no choice but to stand his ground when Jack Wilshere came hurtling towards him.
Hard-line officiating has its place, but let’s not let football go completely soft. It’s is a passionate, full-blooded contact sport. Remove the aggression, and the fans will leave with it. Tackling is not a crime; it’s a skill that adds to spectacle.
Roberto Mancini may not have meant it, but his successful protest to the FA wasn’t just good news for Manchester City, it was also good news for the game.
Click here to read more from former Arsenal midfielder Adrian Clarke.