James Lawton: Why must Mancini defend De Jong? His excuses are an affront to skill and flair

Football must not dismiss the threat of cynically dangerous tacklers
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The Independent Football

One of the bigger red herrings in the raw debate over the destruction of Hatem Ben Arfa's season, if not his career, is that football today is much less violent than it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago.

This is of course absolutely no consolation to Ben Arfa, Aaron Ramsey or Bobby Zamora, who were cut down by recidivist tacklers Nigel de Jong, Ryan Shawcross and Karl Henry – or little comfort to Jordi Gomez, the Wigan midfielder who survived only miraculously another stone-age lunge from Henry last weekend.

Nor will Eduardo da Silva, who is picking up the pieces of his career with Shakhtar Donetsk after suffering the grotesque mistiming of Birmingham's Martin Taylor, reflect that football was a whole lot worse when legendary hard men like Norman "Bites yer legs" Hunter and Tommy Smith and Dave Mackay were drawing a bead on some of the game's fancier players.

Before returning, inescapably, to the fact that it is wretchedly complacent of the Football Association not to act on Newcastle's demand for a reappraisal of De Jong's breaking of Ben Arfa's leg in two places, maybe we should get a little historical perspective.

This is provided by the fact that back in the '60s and '70s the failure of the authorities to take proper action against the worst of the violence, and the sheer inefficiency of the leading referees, created a culture of self-help among the most creative of players.

Consequently, George Best broke the leg of Manchester City full-back Glyn Pardoe in a tackle as sickening as any inflicted by the "enforcers", two or three of whom were included in almost every First Division team.

Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee were glorious attackers, but heaven had to help the defender who relaxed his guard when a ball had to be fought for on roughly equal terms. Once at Maine Road an official of a Portuguese team dragged several reporters, including this one, into the dressing room to inspect the damage inflicted on one of their players. The victim's shin was ripped through to the bone and we were told, "Thank Mr Lee from us". Lee could fall back on a standard response and say, "it was him or me".

It was routine cut and thrust back then. John Giles, the field general of Leeds United, was a player of magnificent skill but he recalled vividly the moment he elected himself – as did talented wingers like Everton's Johnny Morrissey and Southampton's Terry Paine – to the company of English football's most feared players. Giles, the father of a young family, fretted over his future earning power after suffering a career-threatening ligament injury in a tackle that came so late it arrived when he was admiring the centre he had put to the feet of a colleague.

But that was then. Now, football's good name cannot be sustained by the feeble assertion that a referee is the sole arbiter of something as appalling as the De Jong tackle once he claims to have seen it. It might also be relevant to point out that in the anarchy of the old days some of the most cynical perpetrators of the "over the ball" tackles were, necessarily, the most skilful players – a charge that scarcely can be levelled at such functional figures as De Jong, Henry and Shawcross.

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini claims that De Jong is a "great player", which is as risible as the defence launched by De Jong's Dutch team-mate, Mark van Bommel. Given that Van Bommel's contribution to the last World Cup was a statistical nightmare of skulduggery, his character reference had as much weight as one from the Son of Sam might at a murder trial. A better witness, surely, was Johan Cruyff, who in the wake of the decision to remove De Jong from the national squad, declared, "He has crossed the line two or three times."

In the current situation the problem is nothing like as hard to isolate and act upon as it was in that time of amateur referees and battle-hardened pros who had decided to take the law into their own hands, a decision that was easily facilitated by a dual ability to lay waste opponents and hoodwink referees.

The offending tackles of De Jong, Henry, Shawcross, and the one by Taylor which, though sworn to be out of character, made such a mess of Eduardo's leg, were not difficult to identify – and examine closely in retrospect. This, surely, is the key to the issue. Fifa's edict on the infallibility of referees is as absurd as the refusal to make technology – as cricket, rugby of both codes, and tennis have done with generally superb results – a living contributor to the well-ordered and just running of a major sport.

Such assistance would make the rooting out of violent play almost a walk on to the park compared to those days when players like Giles, Summerbee and Lee, whose essential role was to create superior attacking football, would have effortlessly dealt with today's thuggish tendency. Name any of the old practitioners of football street law and you will see players of infinitely more rounded skill than those of today who have invited the harshest spotlight. Pitting Hunter or Mackay against De Jong or Henry, in any department of football you care to name, would represent for the last two a time capsule heading for hell.

Everything else being equal, Mackay and Hunter were master footballers, the tragedy of Hunter's career being the fact that he was born around the time of Bobby Moore. Can anything vaguely the same be said of a De Jong or a Henry? It cannot, though it is true De Jong, when he isn't breaking the leg of an opponent or leaving his studs in the chest of a World Cup final opponent, can obviously be a player of great force, if not creativity.

It leaves us with one point beyond argument. However football changes, in speed and strength and something that passes for decency, it will always have a duty to protect the players best able to retain its appeal and beauty. Hard, fair tackling is part of that appeal – and a challenge of the game that every player has to accept. Cynically dangerous play isn't. It means, surely, that De Jong and his like should not be allowed to slip from the dock quite so easily.

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