The day football became a non-contact sport

Vincent Kompany given his marching orders for being a defender.

Imagine you’re chewing on your favourite food, and you’re really enjoying it, and then you inexplicably bite the inside of your mouth… Think about it for a moment. Think of the annoyance. Think of the pain. Think of the sudden rage that bubbles to the surface from deep within your body; rage that, perhaps, you didn’t think you had in you. This is the rage I felt whilst watching the televised FA Cup third round match between Manchester City and Manchester United.

As someone who never scored goals in dinner time games of football at school – games that would often finish with scorelines like 27-18 or 35-29 – I found my worth as a defender. It was me at the back, stood just in front of my mate Pete in goal, while everyone else chased the ball in packs and pushed their own teammates out of the way in order to score goals. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I was never good enough to embark on Messi-esque runs before nonchalantly poking the ball past the notoriously nerdy lad in goal (who really wanted to play outfield but couldn’t because it was Psycho Steven’s ball and Psycho Steven didn’t like nerds). I used to enjoy taking the ball off lads who thought they were special. I took great pride in denying them glory – and if I knocked them to the ground as a result of my challenge, then all the better. And if it started raining, well, let’s say I wasn’t about to worry if my school uniform was going to get dirty. Mum would take care of that.

On a greasy, wet school field I would fling myself into tackles. You’d dive into challenges with your eyes only for the ball. Back then, football was more innocent. We hadn’t yet learnt the skill of winding the opposition players up by ‘leaving a foot in’ or ‘banter’. Football was honest. Dinner time football was football at its purest. When I think back to the many hundreds of games I participated in and the thousands of sliding tackles I performed to deny the big-headed pubescent tossers from scoring (and the pleasure I took from it), I feel a measure of pride and accomplishment.

In my mind, despite being a 5’9” 28-year old of sleight build, I have an inherent appreciation of a good sliding tackle. I’m not the most competitive man when it comes to sport, but when referee Chris Foy showed Vincent Kompany a red card for doing something every self respecting semi-competitive adult would have been immensely proud of, I spluttered on my traditional Sunday sausage sandwich.

I’m not sure what annoyed me the most – Foy thinking that was a ‘dangerous’ challenge, or Wayne Rooney for running up to the referee like the teacher’s pet to tell tales on Kompany (that both feet, at one very short moment, came off the ground). Of course, it goes without saying that I have seen far worse challenges from any number of professional footballers in my time of watching the sport that have gone totally unpunished. In my book, it was a fantastic challenge. It was committed, honest and fair. At no point did I think Antonio Valencia was in danger of getting injured as a result of Kopmpany’s challenge. And, crucially, neither did Valencia, as he chased back to retrieve the ball.

And so when the red card was shown, I felt that rage – the same rage you get when you bite the inside of your mouth. For a few seconds you become intolerate of everything. Disbelief. How the hell do you bite yourself accidentally? How can you call that a red card??

I’m not naive enough to believe that all football fans will agree with me on this. Most will, but there will be the minority (probably of the Manchester United persuasion) that will disagree. I’m not about to have that debate. Alex Ferguson said in his post match comments that it was indeed a red card and the referee called it correctly. All I will say is that if, in their fourth round match at Liverpool, Wayne Rooney puts in an excellent sliding tackle to win the ball for his team on the half way line and is sent off for it, will Alex Ferguson still have the same stance on the issue? I somehow doubt it.

I’ll probably write some more words on how ghastly ITV’s football coverage is another time. I can’t stand the clichĂ© ridden commentary of Clive Tyldesley, Adrian Chiles fumbling and mumbling his way through sentences he had no idea how to finish when he started them, or the awful choice in ‘expert’ punditry. ITV, like the referee and the football ‘law’ in general, have got it so wrong.

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