Monday, 1 March 2010

A Shocking Tackle - but not a Malicious One

Aside from Manchester United's victory in the Carling Cup and "Handshake-gate" at Stamford Bridge, the weekend's sporting headlines were dominated by the shocking injury suffered by Arsenal's 19-year-old midfielder Aaron Ramsey in his side's match against Stoke on Saturday evening.

I have no intention of amplifying the morbid fascination of many in the media, by publishing or providing links to footage of the incident. For those who haven't seen it, a description will suffice. In the 65th minute Stoke's Ryan Shawcross won the ball in the middle of the field. Shawcross took a heavy touch a couple of yards in front of him, and in attempting to retrieve the ball dived at pace into a challenge. Ramsey, arriving a split second ahead of Shawcross, flicked the ball away from the Stoke man's path, and was on the receiving end of Shawcross's outstretched foot.

The result - Ramsey suffered a fractured tibia and fractured fibula. He underwent a successful operation on Saturday night, though Arsenal are thus far refusing to provide a timescale for the player's return to action.

Given the seriousness of the injury, unsurprisingly public discussion of the incident has been dominated by immense sympathy for Ramsey, something to which I feel moved to add. Ramsey was one of the players The Cynical Challenge picked out as one to watch in 2010, and it is cruel that we are to be deprived of such a talented individual for what may be a long time. More than that, though, the idea that a young man should suffer so terribly in the line of sport, or entertainment, is a sobering prospect for any football supporter. One only hopes he can make a full recovery and will return to top-level football as quickly as possible.

But questions have also been posed about whether Ramsey has been unlucky, or whether Shawcross's challenge was unnecessarily violent and reckless.

Given the club's recent history of such injuries - Abou Diaby and Eduardo have suffered similar leg fractures in the last five years - Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was forthright in his opinion that this was no mere unfortunate accident:

This is a young player who has been kicked out of the game. I'm shocked, that wasn't football. If I have to live with that, I don't want to be involved in the game...This is the third player - Eduardo, Diaby and now Ramsey – we've lost to tackles that are unacceptable, and spare me the articles tomorrow about how nice Shawcross is because we had all that with Eduardo.

Wenger is entitled to vent his fury, especially in the immediate aftermath of a game. But in the cold light of day many football fans are adopting similarly emotive rhetoric - often at the expense of a fair reading of the incident. Arseblog, for example, offers this thought:

I believe that these three injuries are a direct consequence of the 'Arsenal don't like it up 'em' ethos which has become conventional wisdom in recent years. 'They don't like being kicked', the implication that the wimpy foreigners can't take it. And it has been peddled across the football world by reporters, TV pundits, radio commentators, Sky Sports presenters and anyone else you can think of. 'Arsenal don't like it up 'em', as if Arsenal were somehow unique in this. Let me tell you, nobody likes it 'up em'.
I'm not sure that's an accurate depiction of the Ramsey incident, nor in fact the notorious tackle by Birmingham's Martin Taylor on Eduardo two years ago. Speed and momentum are what turned these challenges from bone-shaking to bone-breaking, and given that the Premier League is played at such a high tempo - something it is lauded for - it is clearly a factor in the relative prevalence of such injuries on these shores.

Besides, bad tackles - indeed, tackles seemingly worse than Shawcross's, and with obviously greater intent - occur all the time in the Premier League, in league and non-league football, and in football leagues across Europe and the world. Only rarely do they result in injuries as bad as Ramsey's. One can only deduce that Arsenal have been really unlucky.

If there is any single odious act of violence on a football field it is not this kind of high impact, mis-timed tackle. More, it is the calculated use of the elbow to the head of an opponent. There were a spate of incidents of this kind in the English leagues in the mid-1990s, the worst of which saw Wimbledon's John Fashanu fracture the cheekbone and eye-socket of Tottenham Hotspur's Gary Mabbutt. As recently as 2008 Sheffield United's Chris Morgan dealt a similarly malicious blow to Ian Hume of Barnsley, resulting in the latter receiving a fractured skull. If anything deserves mass vilification, it is this kind of incident.

Having said that, it is easy to understand why fans react so vociferously to incidents such as the Shawcross tackle on Ramsey. As noted concerning the waves of sympathy for Ramsey, it is the shocking nature of the injury which provokes such emotive criticism of Shawcross, Stoke and the euphemistically-termed "no-nonsense" approach of certain teams and individuals. Quite simply, witnessing such incidents shocks (in the medical, as well as the more general, sense) football fans. It jolts us from our comfortable armchair view that athletes are playing their part in theatre, and reminds us that they are putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.

This reaction is fanned - unintentionally, perhaps - by the wall-to-wall coverage of the incident. Footage, stills and photographs of the tackle have been pervasive since Saturday evening. They are shocking and sickening, and it is no surprise that this provokes an emotional response.

But emotion and reason do not make for easy bedfellows. And for a reasonable assessment of the Ramsey-Shawcross tackle, we need to dissociate the shock of what we witnessed on Saturday from the realities of sport. As hard as it may be to accept, the physical rough-and-tumble of a sporting contest can lead, on occasion, to such outcomes as Ramsey's injury. Mercifully, though, such incidents remain rare.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James