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Is tackling a dying art?

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Matthew LanghamHas football gone soft in its old age or do today’s fitter, faster, stronger players need protection to prevent the game getting into an NFL-style muddle? Matthew Langham (left) thinks tackling might just be a dying art…

The face of Stuart Pearce scoring that all-important goal in Euro ‘96 is immortalised in the memory of any England supporter old enough to remember. An image that became iconic. In one small moment “Psycho” banished the personal agony of his shoot-out miss against West Germany in 1990 that defined this “ludicrously physical” player.

Sadly this style of play is diminishing.

His tough-tackling and no-nonsense approach were revered by many, and it was recently announced that Pearce it set to take the helm at Nottingham Forest to employ some of the attitude that gave him great success at the club.

The former full-back admits himself that the game has drastically changed from his playing days. Pearce stated that the modern game is now more dangerous due to the pace and movement but a duty of care to fellow professionals is essential.

The recent case of Dexter Blackstock is one that has drawn particular attention to tackling and aggression. Blackstock is currently seeking compensation against ex-Cardiff City defender Seyi Olofinjana over a “negligent” tackle. The case is yet to be brought before a court but it provides a debating point as to the ways in which a tackle is interpreted by players and referees.

The pressure is on referees now, more than ever, to make the right decision in a game. The protection of footballers is enormous and rightly so. Not only are they talented but they are worth staggering amounts of money, it can be financially crippling if an injury occurs to an expensive player.

Whilst no football fan wants to see a player injured, there is almost something quite gladiatorial about watching two teams fighting it out for the ball (much in the similar way as spectating at a boxing event). Rule 12 of the Laws of The Game divides illegal tackles into three categories.

  • Careless – The player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acted without precaution. No further disciplinary sanction is needed if a foul is judged to be careless.
  • Reckless – The player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent. This is a yellow card.
  • Excessive force – The player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent. It’s a red.

The interpretation and inconsistency of these rules by refs is what infuriates supporters the most. However, match officials have a split second to deem which of the three categories a bad tackle falls into. The pace of the modern game makes this obviously problematic.

The globalisation of football has led to that old-fashioned combative nature being exchanged for a more “tiki-taka” style of play which is appealing on the eye but focused on the technicalities rather than “no-holds barred” challenges.

Footballers are now trained from a young age to stay on their feet as much as possible. But is an emphasis on interception rather than tackling corroding the English game? Even professional footballers have commented on the confusion surrounding the interpretation of a tackle. In 2012 Nigel Reo-Coker discussed the ways in which the “beautiful game” is changing and how the uncertainty of a tackle can be a worry.

“I’m a big fan of the old school, when you can tackle players, roll your sleeves up to get dirty and come off with a few scrapes, so it doesn’t bother me. When you see players going down so easy from any contact, it kills the game. That’s not what the English game is about,” said Reo-Coker.

From this supporter’s perspective it’s incredibly sad that the “art of tackling” is diminishing and players may not be able to make good, honest challenges. If done correctly, it can be one of the most entertaining aspects of football. The aggression shown by the likes of Stuart Pearce might be long gone but many supporters would say the game was more beautiful with that passion.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.

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