A little over five years ago now, Arsenal rolled up to a cold and blustery St Andrews for a routine game of football against Birmingham City that became memorable for three reasons: Theo Walcott's first Premier League goal, William Gallas taking an almighty strop in the centre circle and Martin Taylor inadvertently changing the game of football forever.
In the first few minutes, Croatian striker Eduardo let the ball get fractionally too far away from himself and opened up an invitation for a 50/50. Taylor duly obliged. The ensuing crunch left one of them with a three game ban and the other with a 12-month absence from the game and one of the most sickening injuries we've seen in modern football.
After the inevitable furore and clamouring for swift retribution (Arsene Wenger even went so far as to suggest the offender never be allowed to play again), team-mates and pundits rallied around Taylor, defending him for not being "that sort of player". They pointed to his gentle character and his almost-immaculate disciplinary record, and no shortage of voices lined up to tell you what a nice lad he was. Meanwhile, the stomach-churning image of Eduardo stricken on the turf were beamed around the world.
FIFA, who'd been gently trying to push football in a more anaesthetised direction anyway, petitioned the FA to increase Taylor's ban, but were told that the player's lack of intent to cause harm made this impossible. The solution was simple though; if it's too hard to punish players for doing these things, make sure they don't do them in the first place.
Thus, the rules are slowly tightening. Every season now the interpretation on what is a dangerous tackle gets that little bit more stern. First it was two-footed, then it was studs showing, now it's almost any uncontrolled limb that catches an opponent. Somewhere between the cries of “the game's gone soft” and “they'll outlaw tackling altogether next”, it's not widely considered to be a good thing.
The defining moment in the debate seeming to come when Roy Keane put on his special argument hat, burned a hole straight through Gareth Southgate's head, and pointed out that despite how outraged everyone felt about the decision, Nani planting his studs in the ribs of Álvaro Arbeloa was, in 2013, a red card offence. That's Roy Keane, a player who'd have sliced his own mother in two if she looked like getting a shot away at Old Trafford, telling you that a high foot is a red card. That's the age we're living in now.
I'm not sure if anyone's noticed this, but there's been another emerging trend in football. All these diminutive types with incredible footballing gifts have suddenly gone from bit-part luxury players to the icons of the modern game. Instead of getting booted ten feet in the air or bullied off the pitch on that wet Tuesday night in Stoke I keep hearing about, they now play in an environment that favours players with technical mastery, and makes lumbering 'reducer'-types a bit of a liability.
It's easy to accuse the game's governing bodies of being a nanny-state, but it's led to what might very well be a golden age of footballing wizardry. Ask yourself, no matter who you support, whether you would rather sign a six-foot tall centre-half with tattoos on his teeth or some scrawny kid who could assemble model planes with his good foot.
Ten years ago, this Barcelona side we're all going to be telling our grandkids about would have probably been subjected to some horrific injuries in these so-called 50/50 challenges. Possessing the pace to always get there fractionally ahead, but lacking the requisite brute force to give as good as they're going to get, every stray ball would have been potential injury for them. Thankfully this “softening” of game means that there's a reluctance to dive unless they're totally in control of the situation.
At Wigan's DW Stadium this weekend, Callum McManaman saw the ball bounce invitingly in front of Massadio Haïdara and threw himself in to try and win it. He did, but only partially. After being caught forcefully on the knee, the young Frenchman was fortunate not to suffer the same fate as Eduardo some five years previous. McManaman's not that type of player (in the strongest quotation marks) of course, but the hefty ban he might receive won't be because he thought about injuring an opponent, but because he gave it no thought whatsoever.
Football, as a whole, has made huge strides in creating a mindset of "think first, challenge second", and McManaman faces the unfortunate prospect of being made a high-profile example in this fight. It's a shame that his burgeoning career might be delayed as a consequence, but if it makes a few other “over eager” debutants "without a nasty bone in their body” err on the side of caution in these situations, it's too be embraced.