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He’s Not That Sort Of Player…

By Jacob Steinberg

Not that sort of player

FOOTBALL is increasingly starting to resemble a popularity contest. We know who we like, we know who we tolerate, and we know who we hate. That’s just the society we live in these days. Some people are simply meant to play the good guy while others, like Craig Bellamy, are meant to be the villain of the piece. Life’s just easier for us to understand that way, which means Bellamy’s script-straying charity work in Sierra Leone blurs the lines. Are we still meant to jeer him for his unfathomably irritating body of work on the pitch, or cheer him for his altruistic and ultimately more important efforts away from the day job? Maybe just boo, because now the evil genius has got us more confused than the plot in Sherlock.

This ideal was fulfilled with more assurance during the World Cup. ITV’s indignant frothing at Uruguay following Luis Suarez’s selfless handball against Ghana might have inadvertently earned the South Americans the bastard’s vote, but at least we had been given a team to root against. Holland, too, were cast as thugs, which they admittedly were, even if you grudgingly came to admire the utter shamelessness of Mark van Bommel. Strangely though, every shuddering foul by Van Bommel was greeted with far more vitriol than any of Paul Scholes’s specials for Manchester United are afforded. Odd, that.

When the Dutch faced Spain in the final and Nigel de Jong produced that karate kick on Xabi Alonso, we knew who we were meant to support, even if the Spanish were more than capable of getting stuck in too. Carles Puyol, in particular, put in a few crunching tackles but Spain are not remembered for any sort of dirty tactics. Not that sort of team, you see.

The debate over whether or not someone is “that sort of player”, a cod excuse used to defend a player sent off for a bad tackle, resurfaced following the opening Premier League weekend, when Liverpool’s Joe Cole endured the worst debut since the infamous words, “Welcome to the first episode of James Corden’s World Cup Live!” Cole, of course, was shown a red card for scything down Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny 45 minutes into his first Premier League game for Liverpool and while the Sky pundits, Jamie Redknapp and Paul Merson, admitted that Cole deserved to go, they also insisted that, yes, he’s not that sort of player.

While the utterance feels instinctively hackneyed and clichéd, an almost meaningless defence mechanism, it somehow still manages to ring true. When it comes to certain footballers, it really is impossible to see them as that type of player and Cole – tricksy, loveable and forever young – doesn’t fit the role of the bad guy. Everyone likes Cole; even Arsene Wenger, usually so quick to hit out when his Arsenal players when his Arsenal players have been injured in the past, refused to criticise him, despite the fact that Koscielny, who did play on, was lucky to escape serious injury. The situation is further exacerbated when we consider that players such as Cole are usually more likely to be on the end of a reducer from time to time – indeed when he was a youngster at West Ham, he suffered two serious ankle injuries in the space of six months, after being fouled by Derby’s Rory Delap and Newcastle’s Lomana Lua Lua.

Cole doesn’t have a record of nasty tackles either, although in the era of YouTube it would not be difficult to find evidence of one in the past. Yet to peddle that view is arguably missing the point. Cole might not have been that sort of player in the past. But technically he is one now. Once you commit that sort of tackle, you are that player, regardless of a previously faultless copybook.

Even then it remains necessary to take into account the sort of foul Cole was guilty of. Brainless? Yes. Needless? Yes. Reckless? Yes. But malicious? Pre-emptive? Definitely not. It certainly gave credence to Carlo Ancelotti’s opinion that Yossi Benayoun is a more intelligent player than Cole, but rather than being responsible for setting out to hurt Koscielny, a more obvious scenario was that he had been frustrated by his own anonymous performance and, seeking to impress his new supporters with old-fashioned hard graft, ended up losing the run of himself. Commendable intentions, cock-eyed execution.

The subject of bad tackles and injured players is a sensitive one for Arsenal, who have seen two players, Eduardo Da Silva and Aaron Ramsey, suffer horrendous, potentially career-ending broken legs in the past two years. On both occasions we were told that the players who fouled them, Birmingham’s Martin Taylor and Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross, were not that sort of player, lovely guys off the pitch. Yet while we can only judge footballers by their actions on the football pitch, perhaps it is the furious reaction from Arsenal that prompts this defence.

It is understandable that dreadful injuries to his players would infuriate Wenger, but his risible condemnation of Taylor, insisting (admittedly these comments were made immediately after the game and were later retracted) that the defender should be banned for life were entirely unhelpful. Look at the tackle again, and it is clear that Taylor was simply beaten for speed by a better and quicker player, and is not deserving of his pariah status. Taylor’s contrition afterwards indicated that there was no intent, and Wenger should have been big enough to forgive him. In a contact sport, accidents happen.

Taylor on Eduardo:

There is nothing wrong with a manager defending his club, of course, but this sort of attitude means people are unable to take Wenger seriously, accusing his side of being too soft when they visit physical sides up north. It’s a vicious circle which dictates that these sort of incidents are destined to keep on occurring, and as long as Wenger refuses to criticise bad tackles from some of his own players when they step out of line (William Gallas, Abou Diaby and Robin van Persie are no angels) his incensed remarks can too easily be labelled myopic and hypocritical.

This is not intended as a polemic against Arsenal or Wenger, merely to explore why it is that people feel compelled to stand by, essentially, leg-breakers. Certainly there are some who merely appreciate the rougher side of the game and grow tired with the praise of Arsenal’s brilliant football, but there are others who recognise the difference between malice and clumsiness. In incidents where a leg is left black and blue, the issue is not always black and white, which is what leads to us being assured that Joe Cole is a really top guy.

Ultimately when a referee has a decision to make, it should be as irrelevant to him whether the player meant to hurt his opponent as it is if he’s a really top bloke off the pitch or whether a red card will ruin the game as a spectacle. When Ben Thatcher knocked out Portsmouth’s Pedro Mendes with a sickening elbow when he was playing for Manchester City in 2006, Harry Redknapp, then the Portsmouth manager said, “Off the field, you could not meet a nicer boy. Unfortunately, on the pitch he is capable of doing things like that.” The first part of that quote is immaterial. This is football, not a popularity contest.

Jacob Steinberg is a freelance sports journalist for The Guardian and occasional blogger for mirrorfootball.co.uk. He supports West Ham

More by Jacob:

Harry Redknapp is English football’s wrecking ball

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By Ollie Irish on August 20th, 2010 in Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
comments

25 Responses to “He’s Not That Sort Of Player…”

  1. PhilandoTorres says:

    Great read.

    It’s a bizarre feature of the BskyB dominated era of sports that the media condemns incidents without which they’d starve. The more muddied the waters become regarding bad tackles, poor refereeing etc. the more benificial it is for the money men at the broadcasters.

    Basically, the Murdochs of this world name the tune and the rest of us have to dance to it.

  2. The Tooting Trumpet says:

    Jacob – in your analysis, you contrast malice with clumsiness, intent with its absence. But the vast area between these poles includes recklessness – knowing that there is a risk in one’s actions, but carrying on regardless. (The differences between intention, recklesness, negligence – should have seen the risk, but didn’t – and fault are important in law; or were when I were a student).

    Most bad tackles are reckless – even de Jongh’s – with only a tiny minority intentional (if you don’t count Kevin Muscat). That’s why this descriptor grates so much – Cole, like Paul Scholes in almost every game, knows there is a risk of causing injury with a challenge like that, but did so anyway. It is for that recklessness that he gets the red card – the consequence is immaterial.

    Now this is more than mere sophistry – most people would say that Robbie Savage is “that sort of player” but I recall fewer reckless challenges from him in a season than Scholes would put in during 90 mins. His were niggly. Tim Cahill does both kinds of fouling, whereas a Fabregas (not that sort of player) will do few niggly fouls but the occasional reckless one.

    If you really want to see the point I’m making, watch goalkeepers in a one on one – some lead with studs, legs everything and some go with hands for the ball. The first lot are reckless and should get more reds than they do; the second lot invariably get a handshake from the forward in acknowledgement.

  3. harry says:

    spain dove alot and i mean alot, torres got a chilean player sent off and capdevila did the same against portugal, its the spanish way i guess

  4. Greg says:

    To shrug off Taylor’s tackle as merely clumsy or late is a gross understatement and quite frankly an insult to the perseverance of Eduardo. Players make clumsy tackles all the time and most dont result in 10 month injury layoffs. I mean come on, his foot, studs showing, were a clear foot above where the ball would have been IF he had won it.

    The truth is players like this exist and there is a mentality in English football that if you cant beat them, then literally BEAT them. People often complain about how tired Premier League players are at the end of the season. and they chalk it down to either the lack of a winter break and/or the early start to the season. overlooked is an issue that is often praised as the reason the Premier League is so strong. Its sheer physicality. I dont think people fully grasp just how ruthless the Premier League is compared to other leagues.

    This is by no means an accident. It is by total design. Premier League manager look for the biggest and strongest, hell even the fastest have to be physical; it is what English fans crave. People have been up in arms about the lack of imagination showcased by England at the World Cup. This was so not because the players lack imagination or skill, its just not the English way. Despite many English fans often hailing Arsenal as a “second team” because of their finesse, at the end of the day brute force will always be a winner in English hearts.

    So we’re going to keep seeing rough play and bad tackles because, despite all the lethargic complaints, its what English fans want to see and in their eyes its what separates them from the pack; what makes the special.

  5. marcus says:

    The flaw in your article is the same flaw in the entire media/fan debate. I’m sick to death of repeating this: INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    INTENT IS IRRELEVANT!

    How many f—–g times do so many of us have to say this? THAT is the problem with the selective, hypocritical reaction to these tackles. If he’s an English lad, pundits just dismiss and laugh at it (the way they do when Scholes makes his millionth dangerous tackle), then “he’s not that kind of player.” If it’s a foreigner, well then let’s all get outraged.

    Gallas isn’t “that kind of player” either but he was villified for a late tackle last season that was replayed over and over again on skysports.

    And btw, according to Eduardo in a Brazilian TV interview (I’m Brazilian), Taylor did NOT in fact apologize, not personally or otherwise. But the English media just parrotted this line because the player and his club claimed that he did.

  6. The 100% Greek says:

    100% accurate on the Spaniards….

  7. barkynerve says:

    I find it amusing that all the articles not written by the editors, “Ollie” and “Chris”, are the actually good ones.

  8. Joel says:

    So the rough play is the fault of the Arsenal manager? Not the other managers who wind up their squads with shouts of “Get in their faces”? Not the players who take that as license for thuggish play? Not the match officials who want the games to “play out” and turn a blind eye? Not the commentators who praise the “hard-hitting English style of play”?

    The bottom line is that once upon a time the Frenchman Wenger assembled a squad of mostly foreigners who were unbeaten for an entire season playing the type of football that every player wants to play, every manager wants to coach and every fan wants to see. And he will never be forgiven for that.

  9. [...] Photos: Liverpool 1-0 Trabzonspor – Selfish Joe Cole Misses Penalty [...]

  10. Bawly says:

    Good shout Marcus. Narrow minded English media, over hyped and over paid English players but when it comes to Foreigners…………… Different story

  11. Benny says:

    Ha ha. The responses are far better than the article.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Marcus – yes intent doesn’t matter when a referee makes a decision as to whether to send someone off, but of course it does matter when you’re a manager or pundit attempting to defend a player. I think you’ve also missed the point here Jacob – people were entitled to defend Joe Cole because (a) he doesn’t have a history of bad tackles and (b) his tackle, while stupid, wasn’t actually that dangerous. He left his foot high but he was trying to block the ball, not go for the man, and the high foot didn’t actually make any contact with the player.

    Compare that to tackles like Shawcross or Taylor who both fly in stupidly hard and are attempting to execute a tackle that both wins the ball and (at the very least) shakes the player up, or even hurt him, the intent is to do damage, and the difference is clear. By its very nature a tackle which breaks someone’s leg has no place in the game. Managers in the second situation who reach for the “he’s not that kind of player” line look ridiculous, but I think people in the media who made that defence of Joe Cole were entitled to do so – even Wenger made the same argument!

    And Marcus, who are these foreign types that have been vilified for bad tackles? In my view bad tackles are accepted here readily whether or not the offender is English or foreign.

    Tooting Trumpet – go and read the rules of the game. A “reckless” foul – where “the player has acted with complete disregard to the
    danger to, or consequences for, his opponent” – is punished with a yellow card, not a red one (which requires “excessive force”).

  13. Mr Benn says:

    Look, it’s football. it’s a quick physical game and people do get injured. If it’s a bad tackle, then the player should be punished by the referee and the football association. I know people do suffer career-threatening injuries, but that also happens in non-contact sports and in incidents where there is no other party that can be held responsible.

    Football managers have to keep up the line of ‘everyone is against us.’ It’s a way to try and gain favour with your team as well as hoping that, in future, referees give them preferential treatment. Bolton beat Arsenal so Wenger says it’s becasue they ‘bullied’ his team. He hopes that come the next game between the two sides, the referee will pay more attention to Bolton’s physical play, possibly pick up on more fouls, and hopefully award Arsenal a few more free-kicks. With Joe Cole and Liverpool, it’s probably not required as they don’t tend to play as much of a physical game as Birmingham or Stoke, therefore Wenger gains little by doing so.

    All-in-all, tackles can be clumsy, but that’s football and we should all just get on with it. And FYI, I do often watch European football and have seen reckless challengers there to, so don’t believe for one second that it’s just down to ‘the English style’

  14. Grey Man says:

    http://playfootballthearsenalway.wordpress.com

    Arsenal fans still fail to see it’s just what happens sometimes.

  15. Alastair says:

    Remember Cole’s late tackle on Ronaldo?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxG6OaQUCgI

    Deliberate, vicious, and lucky not too snap him like Eduardo. He does have a history of it, so why not just say it?

  16. Mohan says:

    The problem for Arsenal, to be fair, is this idea that if you can’t play ‘em, the next best thing is to kick ‘em – the whole ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’ nonsense that certain mangers, pundits, etc still peddle. Sadly, players then think that if they go in hard the manager will think they’re somehow doing their job! Eduardo is yet to recover the form that he lit up the League with and we can only hope Ramsey is young – and tough – enough to fully recover, for the sake of the game.

  17. MCG says:

    I give up on football. A game that I once so enjoyed has been ruined by people who makes excuses for hurting people. There is no excuse

  18. Anonymous says:

    A game that I once so enjoyed has been ruined by people who makes excuses for hurting people.

  19. The Big Red says:

    What I would like to know is why there is a blatant hypocrisy inherent within the article. Admittedly accidents happen but please tell me how the lovely flowing footy of Spain (in the world cup)so loved by the pundits the world over and the Spanish players revelled in is different to the philosophy of football played by Arsenal?

    Try substituting those evil dutch with those evil ogres at stoke/birmingham and you get the picture. pundits such as hansen say Arsenal don’t like it up ‘em which filters down to the teams who play let’s say more industrially to justify the “let them know you’re their son” tactics. Funny how the same protective praise of Spain is not metered out to Arsenal.

    Players are all honest don’t dive don’t go in to hurt people it’s those skillful players a bit quick aren’t they? It’s not a popularity contest – right but neither should excuses be made for facilitating over zealous tactics which are malicious and ultimately dangerous.

    Imagine this scenario you live in a terraced house in a street of terraced houses your house has been burgled twice in three years but no other house on the same street suffers the same fate – do you feel paranoid at all?

    Rest my case.

  20. Grey Man says:

    That isn’t a ‘case’, it’s just a lot of waffle. All teams get injuries. The difference is that not all teams go on about it day after day for ever. In your analogy, it’s a street in which all the houses get burgled now and then, but only one homeowner, who used to be the most convicted burglar in the street, walks up and down the road every single bloody day with a loudhailer droning on and on and on about it, trying to tell everybody else it’s only their house that gets burgled.

  21. notmuch1 says:

    I’ve been watching football for two seasons now and one fact that I find quite disturbing is how foreigners are always derided yet English players can get away with anything. Eduardo and Ngog were vilified last season for diving yet Rooney’s dive wasn’t even mentioned on match of the day. My question is this.. Is football journalism designed to appeal to racists?

  22. Jacob says:

    The Big Red – Apparently you just chose to overlook the paragraph, “When the Dutch faced Spain in the final and Nigel de Jong produced that karate kick on Xabi Alonso, we knew who we were meant to support, even if the Spanish were more than capable of getting stuck in too. Carles Puyol, in particular, put in a few crunching tackles but Spain are not remembered for any sort of dirty tactics. Not that sort of team, you see.”

  23. Micheal says:

    Arsene Wenger is angry at these type of tackles because Arsenal will always be at the worst of the two side, its either a broken leg or a red card… It seems that Arsenal will always pay for their actions at a very heavy price but other teams gets away… Whenever Arsenal gives back the treatment they received to the opponents, they are branded thugs and cheats… If at a receiving ends, they are called softies and moaners… WE, supporters will tolerate this anymore…

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