Football: Hard days but better than cheating and spite

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER FOOTBALL matches from the distant past are shown on television someone is sure to say that forms of aggression then considered permissible would be severely punished in the present climate.

For example, when looking back recently on the ferociously contested FA Cup final replay between Chelsea and Leeds United at Old Trafford in 1970, a prominent figure among referees pointed out five incidents that would today bring about instant dismissal.

Football was meant to be a hard game. This was once stated without fear of contradiction on the unimpeachable authority of the hard men themselves. They kept repeating it to remind themselves that nobody on the field of play could be trusted.

Nowadays football is not one thing or another. Not as rough as many old players remember but so at odds with Fifa's misguided attempt at reducing physical contact that cheating and spite have become commonplace.

Once rare, elbowing incidents are on the increase along with the shirt- pulling that was a blight on last summer's World Cup finals.

It is a matter of individual opinion whether attitudes in football have changed for the better, but a view held personally is that the old ways were somehow better.

Take the commotion caused this week by Arsenal's refusal to concede that Fabian Caballero was guilty of violent conduct when flattening Ryan Kidd with an upraised arm during a third-round FA Cup tie at Preston.

Coming so soon after Patrick Vieira's dismissal for flinging an elbow at Neil Redfearn of Charlton, it implied that little has been done to correct Arsenal's frightful disciplinary record - 18 players sent off - under Arsene Wenger's management.

Doubtless this, and similar controversies, will be on the agenda at a meeting to be held shortly between Premier League managers and referees. Both sides could put the point that advancements in speed and general fitness have made it impossible to arrive at an equitable conclusion.

As I remember it, most referees accepted that there is a line so fine as to be almost undistinguishable between the viciously callous and the coldly competent.

That today's crop get much more hotly exercised about tussles for the ball is largely due to Fifa's loose thinking, but gaps in the education of players must also be taken into consideration. Anyone who has been around football long enough to have seen some of the greatest defenders cannot fail to arrive at the conclusion that not many of today's heroes have been properly schooled in the art of dispossession.

Statistics might disprove it, but the impression here is that not many defenders in the Premier League are worth the money they are getting.

It is not their fault that they are indoctrinated in a different code to their predecessors, but spite is no way to compensate for technical shortcomings.

Myths can grow tall in three or four decades but, as many can testify, the game back then was unquestionably harder. This applied as much to some fabled attackers as it did to tough defenders.

A few days ago I was in conversation about this with Maurice Setters, who turned out for Manchester United in the 1963 FA Cup final and was assistant manger of the Republic of Ireland under Jack Charlton.

Setters, who is now employed by the Premier League's coaching department, said: "A big difference in my time was that a lot more players had grown up in a hard school and knew how to take care of themselves.

"I cringe when I see guys lunging in now, asking to be hurt, not having much of a clue about protecting themselves."

An extremely hard player himself, Setters recalled that caution was advisable when coming up against some of his day's famed attackers.

"They didn't go looking for trouble," he said, "but trying to intimidate them was just asking for trouble.

"Now it's all pathetic shirt- pulling, cheating for free-kicks and spiteful elbowing. Things have come into English football that were once totally foreign to our way of playing."

As for the sight of a genuine hard case, the species in English football is almost extinct.