Lee Dixon: How about a weekly panel of ex-players, refs and managers to review 'bad tackles'?

The Weekend Dossier

Saturday 13 November 2010 01:00

After more midweek controversies, the theme to tackle, if you will excuse the pun, is obvious. As a player who has been there, done that, got the cuts and bruises, and also dished out my share of robust but (mostly) fair challenges, I can assure you, categorically, that tackling in modern football is no worse than it's ever been.

It is almost certainly safer than ever because it's so limited by the rules, and it's certainly a lot more harshly punished. Anyone arguing that we are in some unprecedented age of dark arts violence doesn't know what they are talking about.

Why is tackling no more dangerous than ever, but perhaps perceived to be? Because the game has never been more scrutinised, so every challenge comes under the microscope, from multiple angles. Because the game has never been more sanitised, with tackling banned from behind or sideways, so the tackles that do still happen, even the bad ones, appear relatively worse than in the old days of free-for-all.

And because we now have a football culture where diving is commonplace – thanks to imported divers. This means a lot more players will go down at the merest brush of contact, so tacklers have to be more careful. I do wish that we could rewind to a more honest and robust age when hard, fair challenges were the norm and we were not plagued by histrionic divers who should know better.

Just to clarify the "importing" of divers. I realise there have always been English divers: as a Manchester City fan I know Franny Lee was the world No 1 who won so many penalties it was untrue, and there have been others. But in terms of widespread cultural acceptance of diving, it was never part and parcel of the English game before overseas players arrived en masse in the Nineties.

Back to this week's flashpoints, though, and what they illustrate about the current debate on tackling. Those of you who saw my exchange with my Match of the Day colleague Alan Hansen about whether Michael Essien should have been sent off for his two-footed challenge on Clint Dempsey will know I agreed with the referee's decision. It is very simple – two-footed challenges aren't allowed. The ref was right. End of story. Officials have an immensely hard job and they have my sympathy. It was the right decision according to the rules.

Ask me whether I think Essien was actually trying to jump on Dempsey's ankle and trying to break it, though, and I honestly don't think so. So I could make an argument, "morally", that Essien deserved only yellow for being rash but not wilfully dangerous. But that is not what the rules call for, so red was right, whether I think Essien was acting with intent or not.

Here's a suggestion, and I'm willing to help if anyone wants to act on it. How about each week a group of referees meet with a manager or two and some players and former players and they all review the "bad" tackles? I can be virtually certain in my own mind, as someone with long years of experience, when a tackler is intent on doing damage. And it's rare. But maybe most refs can't spot that. And maybe regular assessments of this kind – not for any punishment purposes, but just as education – would help everybody.

With another of the bad tackles in midweek, Cesc Fabregas deserved red, under the rules, for his challenge on Wolves' Stephen Ward. But not long ago, that was a legitimate yellow card, no more, and I say legitimate as a full-back who was tackled many hundreds of times by a fully committed forward closing down on me trying to clear the ball. Does Fabregas commit fully or not at all? It's a central point in the whole debate, and I would always go with "fully" – as I'm sure most players, managers and fans would agree. We don't want an anaemic, non-contact sport. That's not football.

The media does have some responsibility in this (hands up) because of the level of scrutiny. Of course I'm not suggesting anything is whitewashed, far from it. But we at MOTD should have shown and repeated and scrutinised Karl Henry's tackle on Andrei Arshavin in midweek, as we did Fabregas's. Technical issues with producing an eight-match show 35 minutes after the final whistle meant we didn't, but it highlights how whole stories often aren't told – meaning we have a selective debate.

I remember, and it wasn't long ago, when a tackle was only out of order when you didn't get the ball. All and any collateral damage was fair game on the way. But that was a time when cameras didn't catch every robust challenge, shirt-pull and other routine "cheat" in a man's game where we just got on with it, no moaning.

Five Asides

1. Write off United? Don't even think it

How many times have we heard that Manchester United are finished as a force? Yes, they need to replace the old guard. Yes, the derby was dull as ditch-water as both sides were scared of losing. But don't ever write off Sir Alex Ferguson. Or do it at your peril.

2. Blackpool's 'weak' side reveals their strength

Blackpool's supposedly weakened side against Aston Villa in midweek didn't look that weak to me. Ian Holloway has nothing to apologise for, and when his team played as well as that, it shows he's in a great position, with a whole squad capable of mixing it at this level. That's sensible management and if he gets fined it's a joke.

3. What an odd end for Ray the true Blue

I'm sure the real story of Ray Wilkins's departure will emerge in time. I don't know it, by the way, but nobody will convince me it was simple cost-cutting. I've never met anyone with a bad word to say about Ray, who's conscientious, hard-working, Chelsea through and through. It's plain odd.

4. Grant deserves at least until Christmas

So, West Ham are still bottom and the knives are apparently out for Avram Grant, manager of a group talented enough to get out of trouble. Any talk of the sack before Christmas has to be premature.

5. Gazza hasn't texted me in a year – I'm worried

Paul Gascoigne would text me during previous recovery periods from his many problems, his enthusiasm undimmed. But I haven't heard from him in nearly a year. I consider Gazza a mate as well as the finest English footballer of his generation. I only hope he works things out soon.

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Aston Villa vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: Aston Villa have not won in 15 visits by United and I can't see that changing here with their injury problems. United failed to impress at City but should return to winning ways this lunchtime.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Away win

Manchester City vs Birmingham City

Dixon's verdict: Mario Balotelli is still missing after his red card at West Brom but Aleksandar Kolarov and Adam Johnson could come in. City won this match 5-1 last year and will overcome a struggling Birmingham.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Home win

Newcastle United vs Fulham

Dixon's verdict: Joey Barton's absence won't help Newcastle's hot-and-cold home form. Big wins at St James' over Villa and Sunderland contrast with struggles against the likes of Wigan and Stoke – Fulham could take a point.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Draw

Tottenham Hotspur vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: Spurs continue to find it hard to balance their European and domestic campaigns and, with their injury concerns, could struggle against a Blackburn side on a high from wins over Wigan and at Newcastle.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Draw

West Ham United vs Blackpool

Dixon's verdict: Avram Grant's position at Upton Park has come under scrutiny of late and today's visit of Blackpool won't be an easy game. Ian Holloway's reserves impressed at Villa and I fancy them to get a share of the spoils.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Draw

Wigan Athletic vs West Bromwich Albion

Dixon's verdict: Wigan welcome West Brom in another battle of the Robertos. The Latics have won only once at home in the league and Di Matteo's side have enough about them to come away with a victory.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Away win

Wolverhamton Wanderers vs Bolton Wanderers

Dixon’s verdict: Bolton boast a good recent record at Molineux and have performed well of late. But Wolves also impressed against United and Arsenal this week, so I think both sides will cancel each other out.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Draw

Stoke City vs Liverpool

Dixon's verdict: The Liverpool revival came unstuck somewhat at Wigan and tonight's game will be another stern test for Roy Hodgson's side. Tony Pulis will have his men motivated and fired up and they can take the points.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC1, 11.05pm)

Prediction: Home win

Everton vs Arsenal

Dixon's verdict: Arsenal responded to last week's loss at Newcastle with a fine win at Wolves and they have the capability to pull off another away-day success tomorrow against an inconsistent Everton side.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 2pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Away win

Chelsea vs Sunderland

Dixon's verdict: Frank Lampard remains out and Michael Essien is suspended but Carlo Ancelotti's side should have more than enough firepower against a Sunderland side missing top scorer Darren Bent.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4.10pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

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