James Lawton: Reckless tackles leave ugly stain that apologists can no longer wipe away

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The Independent Football

Eduardo da Silva once had exquisitely skilful and very quick feet. It is a statement of fact made no less forlorn by yesterday's optimistic news that we may be able to say that again in roughly nine months' time. Certainly, there is no reassurance in the clamour that says however long he is out of the game it will not be because of the malicious nature of Birmingham City's Martin Taylor.

OK, let's agree Taylor is not a footballing psychopath and that his reaction of horror at the consequences of his tackle on Eduardo was entirely genuine. But then let's agree on something else. It was the kind of X-rated tackle which has become commonplace in the Premier League.

Taylor's foot was in the air, his studs were showing, and, given the hair-trigger dexterity of Eduardo on the ball, the chances of injury ran very high. Some have praised the referee for reaching so promptly for a red card but if you are a traffic cop and someone comes steaming through a red light you don't wait to see how much mayhem has been caused. The truth is, Eduardo's sickening fate was the big accident waiting to happen. Now that it has, maybe, just maybe, a growing problem will be addressed.

The trouble is not, as so many within the game say, that football is a contact sport that would be hopelessly diminished if defenders were not allowed to tackle with some force. Good defence is as much an art as good attack; for confirmation you only have to look at Paolo Maldini or, for that matter, Rio Ferdinand and Gaël Clichy on one of their better days. What has to be attacked, with new legislation, is the trend which Arsène Wenger legitimately criticised while, by his own commendable admission, going completely over the top in his assertion that Taylor should be banned for life.

What should be wiped away is the belief that teams of inferior resources, and thus inferior skills, are somehow justified in reducing the odds against them by blurring the line between honest, and vigorous, defence and tackling that has no place in the game. We are not talking about the old devilry of over-the-top tackling that became a dark cult in the Sixties and Seventies. It was also a deadly skill in possession of some of the most talented players who declared that if they ran the risk of dying by the sword while in full view of unknowing officials they might as well wield one in their own defence.

No, the kind of tackle that Taylor inflicted on Eduardo would have been scoffed at in the old days. It carried the inherent subtlety of a cudgel. However, nowadays whenever one of those crude assaults occurs there is an instant chorus from the broadcasting booth and analysis couches that what we have seen is no more than an excess of zeal and shortage of timing.

Wenger's contention, and it is one that has been loudly voiced this season by the only manager in England who can compete at his level of football skill, Sir Alex Ferguson, is that teams struggling for survival in the top flight too often attempt to kick and intimidate their way out of trouble. This is especially so when they are faced by teams who have got to the top essentially by playing football. It was a matter, for example, of much civic pride in Bolton that the blood of the old Gunners ran cold whenever they entered the Reebok Stadium. It was there, incidentally, that Ferguson was most outraged this season when his team surrendered three points in a storm of ferocious and, some would insist, outrageous tackling by Bolton.

We all know about Ferguson's occasional objectivity bypass – as we do Wenger's – but anyone in Bolton that day had to understand his rage to some serious degree. However, Bolton's new manager, Gary Megson, declared, "I asked them to be aggressive, yes, but I think we only had one bad tackle [fortunately, no one had their ankle broken in two places]. We have to compete and I'm not going to criticise them for competing. There would be a lot more complaints from myself if we did not compete. I know we have a squad to get us out of trouble." Naturally, this barrage of euphemism was warmly saluted in the Match of the Day studio.

Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, also stressed his pleasure at the competitive levels achieved by his struggling team against Arsenal. Here, of course, we have the greatest of all the euphemisms. If you don't have a Fabregas or a Hleb or an Eduardo, or a Ronaldo or a Rooney, to be competitive is all. But at what cost to the quality of the game and the safety of those stars who are supposed to represent the finest development of football in these days of super fitness?

If Eduardo does beat the odds and makes a perfect recovery, how confident will he be in his sleight of foot, and lightning speed the first time a big, heedless but famously unmalicious defender comes thundering into the tackle? And if he ducks the challenge, that is such a central part of his play can he really be said to have recovered? Hardly.

Wenger admitted he was wrong to say Taylor's action warranted a life ban. However, he would have been right, utterly, if he had said a three-match automatic suspension was completely inadequate. In this case, and in all others that but for good luck might bring the same horrendous consequences, the punishment should be at least doubled.

A score of witnesses have sworn Taylor doesn't have a bad bone in his body but unfortunately, because of a crude and illegal tackle, his victim now has several. It is a cruel reality that football cannot afford to ignore. Not if it cares a penny for an image that will always be best protected by its most gifted players.

Ramos' strong will shows Chelsea error of their ways

It is hard to know who gained office in the more shabby circumstances, Tottenham's Juande Ramos or Chelsea's Avram Grant.

Perhaps it was Grant in that he, as the owner's pal, allowed himself to be the agent of convenience in the relentless undermining of Jose Mourinho. At least Martin Jol was a dead man scarcely walking when Ramos submitted to Tottenham's gold.

What isn't at issue any more is which man responded better to the challenge of his first final in English football. Ramos, having cracked the whip on underachieving Spurs from his first days in office, presided at Wembley over a team made in his own image throughout the Carling Cup final – a team of force and conviction, if not the talent of beaten Chelsea.

By comparison, it was hard to avoid the impression that Grant was somewhat less than his own man when he allowed a palpably unfit Frank Lampard back into the team on such a showpiece occasion.

Ramos has relaunched Spurs with the weight of a man not likely to stand behind a director of football when it comes to telling the board what he wants. If the directors didn't understand the value of a strong-willed manager making all his own decisions, they surely do now. Perhaps even for Roman Abramovich the rouble is beginning to drop. But when it comes to football the oligarch is a slow learner.

Rugby is latest casualty of the English sporting disease

Naturally, there was a fair amount of cheerleading in the BBC's elevated studio at the Stade de France, but the claim that England's extremely disciplined but perhaps less than soul-stirring victory had given them an "outstanding" chance of scoring a Six Nations title victory was more than a shade startling.

It is, sadly, more evidence of the English disease that is rampant in all the major sports. How quick is the move from despair to irrational euphoria. Whipped by the Kiwis in the one-day internationals, banished from the European football championship and being told how to show up for dinner dressed as a national team rather than refugees from a backyard barbecue, at least the rugby men are about to restore honour.

Or so we are told. The best advice is for England and their supporters, with or without headphones, to hold the chariot. Anything less is to insult a superbly poised tournament which has three teams on four points. England played well in Paris but this was overdue and it is certainly hard to believe the French will ever again perform so guilelessly. Ireland have rediscovered some of the best of themselves. Wales have the look of an exciting work in progress.

They also have six points. This makes them, literally outstanding – and probably, if they tuned in to the Beeb after their slaughter of Italy, rather disturbingly sore.

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