Defenders must learn to adapt

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The Independent Online
IT DOES not seem nearly 25 years since managers could be heard complaining about an attempt to improve the quality of life for forwards in English football. 'This could kill the game,' one of them said on being introduced to the fact that players who took man and ball when challenging from behind would be severely dealt with.

An isolated experiment with the law governing foul play, ironically it did not meet fully with Fifa's approval. They agreed to it reluctantly. 'This could be the salvation of our football,' I remember the West Ham manager, Ron Greenwood, saying.

Looking back, Greenwood would, I think, agree that, sadly, the move got lost in interpretation. Because of feeble application it was soon forgotten. Now, as a result of the belief that punitive action had an improving effect on the World Cup, a stern directive on tackling from behind has become a cornerstone of Fifa policy.

It remains a great question whether this will encourage managers to seek a creative compromise. What I have in mind is one of the tenets Bill Shankly held sacroscant when laying the foundations of Liverpool's success. 'Don't let attackers turn, and if they do track them down quickly,' he said. This required defenders to remain upright and not make unecessary commitments. 'On your arse you're no use to anyone,' Shankly used to growl.

Shankly's heartfelt interest in the defensive aspect of football showed in Liverpool's record long after he left them.

What, I wonder, would he have made of statements attributed this week to the Liverpool defender Neil Ruddock who, in common with many of our heroes, is sorely put out by an extension of Fifa's World Cup guidelines. 'Defenders like me had better get used to being suspended,' he said. 'The English game is loved all over the world because of the aggression but these changes could end all that.'

By remarking on the issue Ruddock leaves himself wide open, which recently seems to have been the state of Liverpool's defence. On the assumption that he is not in possession of every fact from World Cup '94 it is worth pointing that no better defender took part than Paolo Maldini of Italy, who completed the tournament without once incurring a referee's wrath.

The aim of every manager is to produce defenders whose reliability, of intelligence, reaction, and temperament, can be trusted most of the time, especially in emergency. An irrefutable truth about English football is that not many defenders come into that category. Another is that they have not received the proper tuition.

This is not secret information. It is available to anyone who takes the trouble to follow football closely. When the majority of defenders in English football are given a scholarly problem where are they? The answer to that can be found in any cow pasture.

The inherent danger in the Football Association's enthusiastic embrace of Fifa's policy is that it will widen the rift between players and referees and bring about a great disturbance. 'I'd welcome the changes if I had more confidence in the ability of referees and linesmen to carry them out intelligently,' one coach said to me this week.

It is odd, though, that we have been down this road before, and to look back to the prophetic sporting literature of 20 and more years ago and see what the seers of the time were threatening us with and how managers and players reacted.

On the understanding that Fifa intends to make its policy stick, what was said then can be more confidently repeated. It is that defenders in English football will have to put their minds to improvement.