Difficulties are imposed by a ludicrous interpretation of the laws that discourages players from trying to win the ball properly

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The Independent Online
It is all very well for the football authorities to legislate for skill over brawn but they had better pay some attention to the growing list of serious injuries.

Following so swiftly on other grave incidents - David Busst of Coventry, the Liverpool defender Steve Harkness, and Gary Charles of Nottingham Forest will be disabled for some time - the compound fracture that 20- year old Graeme Tomlinson suffered in Luton's colours at Port Vale on Tuesday when on loan from Manchester United may strike you as an unfortunate coincidence.

This does not allow for worrying innocence and difficulties imposed by a quite ludicrous interpretation of the laws that discourages players from attempting to win the ball properly.

Concern over being shown a yellow card merely for an error in timing leads to dangerous improvisations that increase the possibility of ending up in hospital.

Watching the game today there are times when you cannot help wincing. It is not so much rough play that catches the eye but naive lunges.

I mean, how many players know how to execute a tackle, how many of them would have fallen victim to the hard men of past eras?

The problem did not come upon football suddenly but a policy ordered by Fifa, the governing body of world football, for the World Cup in the United States two years ago and since applied more vigorously here than in any other country, has brought it into the open. As action replays on television show the cleanest strike for a ball is now likely to be punished, causing the tackler to risk injury with a contorted, ill-balanced challenge.

Nobody should regard this as simply a personal observation. Fearful of seeing important players struck down, managers and coaches are always going on about it.

"You preach common sense but because of the attitude adopted by so many of our referees, who of course are under orders, it doesn't always work," one said. "What do you say to a lad who gets sent off for a perfectly legitimate challenge, especially when television shows that the referee was at fault? So in attempting to compensate players twist themselves out of shape and end up injured."

Because it is difficult to create realistic situations, education in tackling comes largely from experience. In any case, the most important thing is attitude. "It's the player who wants the ball most who usually gets it," the old-timers used to emphasise.

"When are we going to start getting into them," a tough and much revered manager of Wales, the late Jimmy Murphy, complained at half-time during a game against England in Cardiff.

"Come on Jim," protested one of the players in a Welsh team which included such notables of the day as John and Mel Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones and Jack Kelsey, "we're giving them some stick."

"Giving them some stick are we," Murphy chided. "Well you tell me why they keep getting up."

A drawback for young footballers generally now is the that advantage of playing alongside and against experienced men in reserve-team matches is no longer available to them.

"How long have you been in the game?" I was asked coldly at 17 by a rugged Northern Ireland international. "Just a few weeks," I replied jauntily. "Well, make the most of it because this could be your last," he growled.

Good advice was never to trust anyone on the field. "Let that be a lesson to you all," I remember a well known hard case saying on a stretcher after a normally meek opponent had inflicted a nasty injury.

This not being an entirely original theme - the proliferation of yellow and red cards this season is irritating personally - I have been rebuked by a reader from Newcastle who supposed that a case was being made for violent play.

The point put forward was that no player, however skilful, is entitled to expect special protection. It is a hard game they are playing out there.

"Referees won't always look after you," Pele was told when introduced as a 17-year old to the national team of Brazil, "so learn to look after yourself." Pele did not go looking for a fight but it was not wise to provoke him.

There is more to football than meets the eye. What meets these eyes is evidence to suggest that if the game is becoming more dangerous then the authorities are partly responsible.