Jonjo Shelvey: 'Football's a joke,it's now a non-contact sport'

On the eve of the Merseyside derby, the Liverpool and England midfielder gives Tim Rich his views on the lost art of tackling – and his spat with Sir Alex Ferguson

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The Independent Football

You are 20 years old and you have just given Sir Alex Ferguson a mouthful. Later, with the game long over, you find yourself walking down the players' tunnel when a familiar figure comes towards you. Under the circumstances, Jonjo Shelvey might just as well have been approaching Darth Vader.

Shelvey had started the biggest game of his life, for Liverpool against Manchester United, and been sent off for a tackle on Jonny Evans that, more than a month later, he still thinks was legal.

"If I had pulled out of a tackle against Manchester United, I would probably have hurt myself and the fans would have gone mental," he said. "That walk felt like a mile but I had seen Alex Ferguson in the fourth official's ear so I said to him: 'It's your fault I got sent off'.

"After the game I had just picked up my friend and his girlfriend from the players' lounge and I was walking back down the tunnel towards the car park and saw him coming towards me. It was a bit like..." Shelvey doesn't finish the sentence but we can all imagine what it was a bit like.

"In the end, I pulled him and apologised for what I had done. I said it was wrong and I was frustrated. I'm a young boy and emotions got the better of me but I said I still wouldn't have pulled out of that tackle.

"He said it took a man to apologise. He said it is an emotional game and not to worry about it.

"My dad has always brought me up to respect people but, if you have opinions and if you are in the right, don't be afraid to say so."

Tomorrow, Shelvey is likely to take his place in the Liverpool midfield in another game in which pulling out of tackles will not be an option: the Merseyside derby, a fixture that has seen more red cards than any other in the Premier League.

Peter Reid, who held Everton's midfield together when Merseyside derbies settled championships rather than local pride, laments that the art of the tackle has gone. It is a theory with which Shelvey agrees.

"You have got to be very careful what you do and what you say nowadays," he said. "Football is becoming less and less of a contact sport. Some players are making what you would consider good, old-fashioned tackles but are being punished for them.

"You can't get away with anything. It's a joke, to be honest. How can you pull out of a tackle if the ball is there to be won? That's what fans want to see but times have changed and we have to adapt. You don't go on the training pitch and learn how to tackle. You learn how to shoot, how to pass but not how to tackle."

Shelvey is the kind of young footballer England should be producing: intelligent, articulate and talented. However, his journey to Liverpool's first team demonstrates the path is never straightforward.

He grew up in Romford, where London blurs into Essex. He first joined Arsenal but fell out with the manager of the under-10 side. The young Shelvey did not appreciate the rule that missed goals meant 10 press-ups. "I don't even do 10 press-ups now," he smiled.

"Then I went to West Ham, where my brother was. When you were in the younger age group you would play four 20-minute games on a Sunday afternoon and the favoured players would play all four 20s and the less favoured ones would play two 20s. My brother was two years above me and he was playing just two games and I was often in all four. My dad was a coach at West Ham at the time and he thought that was wrong.

"We brought my brother out and my dad left but he said if I wanted to stay at West Ham he would support me. It was hard because West Ham was our club. Di Canio, Cole and Carrick were all there and Glenn Roeder was the manager.

"He pulled me into his office and tried to make me stay but I said no. I wanted to stick with my brother because he was so upset by it. I spent a year playing local football and then joined Charlton."

At The Valley, Shelvey became, at 16 years and 59 days, the youngest player ever to appear for Charlton, beating the record set by Paul Konchesky, who would also end up at Anfield, albeit rather less successfully.

It says something for the state of Liverpool that Brendan Rodgers is the fourth manager Shelvey has dealt with in two years. The Ulsterman, however, surely has more small talk than his first, Rafa Benitez.

"Rafa was here when I came but I believe Kenny Dalglish had a big part in my signing," he said. "I can recall looking at the directors' box at Charlton and seeing him in the stands. I remember coming up here with my mum, sister and dad and we met Rafa at the training ground. He took us into his office and began talking to my mum about how Stoke played the long ball. My mum was thinking: 'I really don't care about Stoke'."

Curiously, although Dalglish was the one who scouted him, Shelvey felt let down when he turned from being Liverpool's ambassador to their manager for a second time.

"I didn't think I was given a fair chance under Kenny," he said. "The night before we played in the League Cup at Brighton I thought: 'Well, if I'm not even going to play in the cup games, then I'm not going to play in any of them. I went in and just asked him if I could go on loan. He said yes but added that he wouldn't let me go to a club 'that doesn't suit you'."

The club Dalglish chose was Blackpool, where Ian Holloway's brand of fast, attacking football was not so dissimilar to that favoured by Rodgers, albeit with more of a forward threat. It worked out magnificently.

"Even if you had a bad game, you knew you would probably be playing next week and as a young footballer that is what you want," said Shelvey. "The players also had to wash their own kit. I didn't," he smiled. "My girlfriend did."

England internationals, however, don't have to shop for Persil Non-Bio and, after his appearance as a substitute in the World Cup qualifier against San Marino on 12 October, that is what Shelvey is.

He recognises that the opposition was not impressive: "They just kept booting the ball back to us". However small the opposition, though, there were the same nerves that come with walking into a room full of the biggest names in English football, the kind the young Steven Gerrard experienced to an excruciating degree when arriving at the team hotel at Burnham Beeches in his dad's Honda. Only the names change.

"I thought nobody would talk to me," said Shelvey. "I'd gone very quickly from playing in a park with my mates to sitting next to Wayne Rooney at dinner."

The ice was broken by Manchester United's Danny Welbeck. "He pulled me when I arrived and shouted: 'Leave my manager alone!'"

Mersey mayhem: Derby red cards

* The Merseyside derby is the fixture with the most red cards (20) in Premier League history.

Robbie Fowler/David Unsworth April 97 (1-1 draw)

Steven Gerrard/Sander Westervled/Francis Jeffers Sep 99 (Eve won 1-0)

Thomas Gravesen Oct 00 (Liv won 3-1)

Igor Biscan Apr 01 (Liv won 3-2)

David Weir/Gary Naysmith Apr 03 (Liv won 2-1)

Milan Baros Mar 05 (Liv won 2-1)

Mikel Arteta/Phil Neville Dec 05 (Liv won 3-1)

Gerrard/Anthony van der Mayde Mar 06 (Liv won 3-1)

Tony Hibbert/Neville Oct 07 (Liv won 2-1)

Tim Cahill Sep 08 (Liv won 2-0)

Sotirios Kyrgiakos/Steven Pienaar Feb 10 (Liv won 1-0)

Jack Rodwell Oct 11 (Liv won 2-0)