Defenders will take chances with positioning rather than risk a referee's wrath. As a result, tackling is almost a lost art

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The Independent Online
Chances are that a few more examples of the rough play shown in a bombardment of televised football nostalgia and viewers will be wearing shin pads.

Yet however startling it must have been last week for the majority who saw Chelsea and Leeds United kick lumps off each other in the 1970 FA Cup final replay, few at the time thought such behaviour scandalous. Offences that would result today in instant dismissal went unpunished.

Misplaced tolerance perhaps, but when carried to the extreme evident in English football, rigorous interpretation of the law against foul play is not a happy alternative.

This week for example, that most gentlemanly of footballers, Bobby Charlton, concluded on television that he would now find it extremely difficult to avoid the embarrassment of a caution. David Sadler who turned out alongside Charlton for Manchester United and England thought this to be optimistic. ''The way things are, you might even get ordered off,'' he said.

Sadler's hypothesis helps to explain why any number of coaches in English football are made miserable by the goals against column. ''If you want a reason for the defensive errors we see week after week, don't look further than the instructions given to our referees,'' one manager in the Premiership said recently. ''Referees are under such pressure to observe the letter of the law that some of the decisions they give are ridiculous.''

If familiar, the complaint has some substance. It can be seen in the dismal outcome of attempts to compensate for the peril inherent in a mistimed tackle. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that defenders will take chances with positioning rather than risk a referee's wrath. As a result, tackling is almost a lost art.

Last year's World Cup finals in the United States saw the clampdown on foul play, especially challenges from behind, carried to farcical proportions, with bookings and dismissals at a record level.

Bearing in mind that the principal objective was technical improvement, the effect of maintaining Fifa's controversial policy more rigorously in England than practically every other country has been minimal. If anything, it has been detrimental.

It is a harmless sentimental custom to imagine things as better than they were, but whatever falsehoods emerge from the televising of football history, nobody can avoid the fact that players in the past were naturally harder.

Of course there was considerable pragmatism on the part of management. Passing by the home dressing-room at Highbury, the famed Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, was invited to observe the damage Tommy Smith had inflicted on Arsenal's captain, Terry Neill. Peering down at a shin wound that required stitching, Shankly muttered, ''Aye, Tommy's a hard boy.''

Slamming the dressing-room door behind him at half-time in a match at Cardiff, the Welsh manager, Jimmy Murphy, growled his dissatisfaction with the tackling. ''What I want to know is why these bastards keep getting up,'' he said.

Asked by Swedish journalists how much Nobby Stiles weighed, Alf Ramsey said: ''About 10 stones, but 10 tons when he tackles.''

Much of the tackling you see today falls into the pathetic category. Defenders in the highest wage-bracket are embarrassingly unfamiliar with techniques that were once fundamental requirements. They would have suffered agonising episodes, very difficult to conceive today, had they played in another era.

Adding to the reputation he had on the field, a famed half-back argued that tackles should be made from the top downwards. Pupils who failed to observe this as an irrefutable principle quickly felt a boot up their backsides.

The troublesome thing about all this is that many referees now appear to go around with the idea that anyone who wins the ball vigorously is to be regarded with deep suspicion.

This is a blight on the game and something to which the authorities should give serious attention.

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