By Paul Gardner
Future historians -- say some 200 years hence -- researching the regression of soccer back into the brainless, bloody melees from which it sprang, will do well to study the 2012 statements of two Premier League coaches, Tony Pulis of Stoke City, and West Ham United’s Sam Allardyce.
Both men were defenders in their playing days, 19 years for Allardyce, 17 for Pulis, beginning in the mid-1970s. Both retired in 1992, having spent most of their time shuffling between smaller clubs, and never having won a major title.
The vision of the game, for both coaches, is understandably from the defender’s viewpoint. It is a stern outlook. These two hardy champions of a more bruising, more manly version of soccer have recently provided us -- and those future researchers -- with neat encapsulations of their thinking about the sport.
Here we have the sort of soccer action that excites Pulis. From a recent Liverpool-Stoke game, Pulis singles out this incident as particularly memorable: “There was a challenge in the first half when [Liverpool defender] Glen Johnson and Jonathan Walters both went up for a header, it was a real full-blooded challenge and I thought Glen did absolutely fantastic to bounce back up and get on with it. I went over to him and said ‘well done.’”
Allardyce talked at greater length in a recent column in the London Evening Standard about the joys of defensive soccer and “being thrilled by a top tackle.”
What these guys are after hardly needs spelling out -- a vigorous, thud-and-blunder type game where players thump into one another and the referees don’t blow their whistles. After all, as Allardyce says, once soccer “becomes non-contact you don’t have a sport any more.”
So we then ask the obvious question: what sort of sport do we get if soccer is played according to the rugged Pulis/Allardyce formula? Conveniently, we don’t need to theorize here. We just had, on Monday, a game between West Ham and Stoke, between Allardyce and Pulis, a game that allowed us to judge just what these two coaches have to offer.
The verdict -- OK, my verdict -- is that both Pulis and Allardyce should be charged immediately with aggravated soccer abuse and banned from the game for a couple of decades. First of all, whatever the clock may have said, I’m quite sure this 90-minute game lasted at least twice as long. The first half was tedium defined. We got a goal -- a nicely worked corner kick by Stoke. A set play, be it noticed. The chances of either team actually constructing a goal through anything that looked like soccer were non-existent. High balls, long balls, mis-controlled balls, loose balls, ugly, scrappy tussles for possession ... and, really, what was the point of trying to possess a ball that was almost certain to be immediately given away?
West Ham was dreadful. It got better in the second half, while Stoke got worse. It finished 1-1, one point apiece -- but this was dire stuff, the sort of soccer for which points ought to be deducted. There probably were moments of skill and artistry buried in this anarchic, frenzied mess of hustle and bustle, but they were difficult to spot.
Thank you, guys, for making your message so unmistakably clear. This is what you want -- “full-blooded challenges” for Pulis, and, for Allardyce, “the art of good defending.”
Allardyce has spelled things out, explaining about “defending being the key element of success in football.” There are, he says, “some fundamental football values which cannot, must not, be lost.” Yes, indeed there are, and I’d put dribbling -- surely the fundamental soccer value -- at the top of that list as the sport’s most exciting and most endangered skill. But not for Allardyce. He doesn’t even mention it -- the skills he sees as under threat are “heading, tackling and defending.”
Defending, he says is “a declining footballing skill.” How, then, does he account for the worldwide decrease in goalscoring? Maybe he hasn’t even noticed it. But he has noticed that “good tacklers are almost an extinct species” -- where is where he gets himself involved in one of those contradictions that always beset the champions of physical soccer. His remark can only mean that the modern game is full of bad tacklers and bad tackles. Which must in turn mean plenty of foul tackles.
Allardyce does not admit that. Pulis has another way of dealing with it. He simply accuses opponents -- opponents of Stoke, that is -- of diving (if the diver should happen to be a Stoke player, Pulis declares it to be a rotten call by the referee; he did that recently when his player Charlie Adams was yellow-carded for a dive -- and as it happens he was right, it was a rotten call).
That business about the lost art of tackling, though, is interesting. Allardyce backs up his assertion by claiming that, “You don’t see tackling in coaching manuals any more, it’s now all about staying on your feet and intercepting.” But that is not something new. In fact, Allardyce is wildly off the mark. I have here a coaching manual from 1973 -- the very year that Allardyce started his playing career as a 19-year-old -- which states “When challenging for the ball it is vital for a player to stay on his feet ...” That was from “Football Tactics and Teamwork” -- a book that bore the official imprimatur of the English Football Association.
Anyway, the idea that tackling is a skill that can be practiced and refined through reading a manual, seems unlikely. And how does one organize practice sessions for tackling? Does any club ever have such sessions? You would need some guinea-pig dribblers -- who would they be? Youth team members exposed to the possibility of serious injuries? How likely is that?
Until they invent a machine to simulate a dribbler -- with all the sudden stops and starts and swerves and moves and feints the skill entails -- tackling will be what it has always been, something that is picked up as you go along, that is absorbed from more experienced players, that is learned on the job.
And the level of that learning will be governed by the prevailing atmosphere within the sport. If that atmosphere is indulgent to hard tackling, then the learning process is likely to stop well short of perfection. Why bother to seek perfection if you can get away with something less, if the referee is not going to call the foul, or maybe will give a yellow card for diving?
But Allardyce’s tangled thoughts ignore the possibility -- I would rate it the reality -- of poor tackling completely. He believes the opposite -- that “smart tackles now are constantly being punished by yellow cards ...” He offers no definition for “smart tackles” but he commends them because “they very rarely injure players.”
That may well be true. But what is at stake here is injury to the game itself. The approach advocated by Pulis and Allardyce is one that is bound to reduce soccer to a game dominated by physical strength -- and hence, big players. Pulis, on his current Stoke team, has 16 players over 6-foot tall.
That ought to worry those who see soccer as a much more intelligent and sprightly game. But coaches stick together. Brendan Rogers, trying, it is said, to teach the intricacies of a possession and passing game to Liverpool, will not criticize Pulis’s team: “I don’t think Stoke were over physical. They’re a bunch of big men who make it very difficult for you. There’s no right or wrong way to play this game.”
A highly questionable opinion. No right or wrong in the legal sense, or the moral sense, or even in the sense of the game’s own rules. But we are talking about right or wrong in the sense of the very soul of soccer, the spirit of the game. The future that Pulis and Allardyce advocate flies in the face of that spirit.
The future soccer that they envision must result in the death of dribbling, will have no place at all for ball artistry, no time for subtlety. It promises a bleak activity dominated by “the art of good defending” with plenty of “full-blooded challenges”. And not many goals.
The preview of this future -- the West Ham-Stoke game earlier this week -- wasn’t as bad as that. But it was bad enough. The inevitable blighting of a lively sport by unimaginative minds.