By Paul Gardner
Another horrendous injury to an Arsenal player. At Stoke on Saturday 19-year-old Aaron Ramsey was taken off the field on a stretcher, breathing through an oxygen mask, his right leg broken. The soccer future of one of the most promising -- I would say the most promising -- of British youngsters is now at risk.
And once again, like an exact replay of the events that followed Eduardo’s ugly leg-break back in February 2008, we are getting the same senseless comments from people who should know better. Sympathy for Ramsey? Oh yes, but spare a thought for poor Ryan Shawcross, the guy who launched himself into this violent tackle, think what it’s going to do to him, didn’t you see that he was crying, he wouldn’t harm a fly ... and so on and on and nauseatingly on. Almost word for word the excuses with the violin-playing background echo those offered on behalf of Birmingham’s Martin Taylor after he had shattered Eduardo’s leg.
Since the Ramsey incident, the news reports have told me a hell of a lot more about Shawcross than they have about Ramsey. Quite possibly both Taylor and Shawcross are the sweet guys they’re made out to be. But as soccer players they don’t register that highly. Big rustic defenders are ten-a-penny, especially in England.
Skillful players like Eduardo and Ramsey are rare. That they should be brutalized by the likes of Taylor and Shawcross is -- or should be -- totally unacceptable. But the British desire for a physical game in which breast-thumping machismo demands full-blooded tackles is bound to result in these horrendous injuries, just as it is then bound to pour out sympathy for the perpetrator.
An example of this comes in Steven Saunders’ “Comment” posted by goal.com. An accident, he says, “that is all it was, an accident, and to label Shawcross a thug because of an accident is “unfair.”
Presumably it was an accident on the assumption that the angelic Shawcross (who has one of the worst disciplinary records in the Premier League with 7 yellow cards and now one red) didn’t mean to do it, and repents that he did.
A word about such “accidents.” If you drive your car at 50-mph in a built up area because you’re late for an important meeting, if you then run over a dog, or kill someone ... that is not an accident, even though you had no intention of causing any harm and are shattered by what you’ve done. Maybe we need another word -- lax-ident would do -- to be used when thoughtless or reckless behavior has serious consequences.
There is a word in the soccer rules -- “reckless.” Soccer players are not supposed to tackle recklessly, indeed they are not supposed to play recklessly. If they do, whatever harm they cause cannot come under the heading of an accident.
Stoke City is -- and delights to be known as -- a physical team -- what Saunders euphemistically calls a “forceful” team. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger has complained before about their rough-house approach to the game. He complained specifically about Shawcross in November 2008, when one of Shawcross’ “forceful” tackles sidelined Emanuel Adebayor for three weeks.
He was right to complain, but nobody wanted to hear it. He was accused of being a sore loser. Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen commented that Arsenal “lack that bit of spine that you need.” More recently, Hull City’s Stephen Hunt announced that “Arsenal have a reputation of, if you get at them, they crumble.”
What lies behind this defamation, all too obviously, is that Arsenal is more interested in playing skillful soccer than they are in charging about trying to prove their manliness. So the word goes around that Arsenal are wimps, and teams like Stoke, the “forceful” teams, like to “get at” them.
Three Arsenal players -- Abou Diaby in 2006, Eduardo in 2008, and now Ramsey - have been put out of the game for lengthy periods by dreadful tackles. Are we supposed to assume that is an “accident” then? “I don’t believe in coincidences,” says Wenger. He should not. The likelihood of this being a coincidence is zero.
Shawcross’ foul was the logical result of a “get stuck in” approach that far too many people see as the strength, indeed the very essence, of English soccer. Yes, to blame Shawcross alone for this state of affairs would certainly be unfair. Coach Tony Pulis is as responsible as anyone. Listen to this drivel from Pulis: “I know Ryan [Shawcross] and he hasn't got a bad bone in him. ... I know my players better than he [Wenger] knows my players. His opinion with respects to Ryan, I wouldn't pay tuppence for because he doesn't know the lad.”
And why should we pay any more attention to Pulis’ opinions? What coach ever sees anything wrong with his own players (and I certainly include Wenger in that criticism)? Pulis and the rest of the tough-guy machismo merchants, including goal.com’s Saunders, would have us believe that beating up on opposing players is all part of the game. And, because their case is pathetically weak, they need to raise a straw man that they can then knock down. This straw man brings us back to the matter of “accidents.”
We are told that these awful tackles are OK because the players intended no harm. Shawcross, says Pulis, “has no malice in him, there’s no way in a million years he’d set out to do that to any player.” And two years ago, after Martin Taylor’s crunching tackle on Eduardo, Birmingham coach Alex McLeish protested “It's certainly not in Martin Taylor's make-up at all to commit a malicious tackle.”
But who is alleging either intent or maliciousness? Not me. The accusation against Taylor and Shawcross and coaches like Pulis is that they practice and encourage reckless play. When this inevitably gets out of hand they methodically belittle the damage that has been done -- even while its victims suffer the pain and the agony of wondering if they’ll ever play again. Of course Taylor was “distraught,” of course Shawcross left the field in tears, of course Pulis is “devastated” -- but the focus of attention should not be on the pathetic souls who have done everything to ensure that these tragic situations will arise.
The focus should be on Aaron Ramsey, the victim. But we are not even allowed to appreciate the full horror of Ramsey’s injury. Once again, as it did with Eduardo’s injury, Sky Television suppressed any replays -- because they would be “too distressing” for viewers. Call it a cover up, call it censorship, it means that we are -- for whatever reason, and you may care to ponder that -- being “protected” from the ugliness of what is going on.
For the moment, the leading figure in that ugliness is Ryan Shawcross. A player, it must be pointed out, who has a record. In October 2007 his tackle sent Sheffield Wednesday’s Francis Jeffers off the field on a stretcher with severe ankle ligament damage; in 2008 came the tackle on Adebayor, and now Shawcross has reached some sort of climax by breaking Ramsey’s leg.
But it is unfair to call Shawcross a thug, says goal.com. Very well, maybe so -- but he is certainly “accident” prone.
An almost obscene reminder of just how deeply ingrained this myth about “full-blooded tackling” is in the English game arrived within a few hours of Ramsey ending up in a hospital bad. It was announced that Shawcross had been picked to play for England. The selection, obviously, was made by coach Fabio Capello -- an Italian who, one would have thought, might be capable of seeing through this tawdry myth. Apparently not.