The Partisan Truth of Coaches: Laudable or Laughable?

Deplorable as it is, the traditional coaching habit of coming up with silly post-game comments must be respected. We are, after all, under no obligation to listen to the hogwash, and need pay attention only to those occasional moments when something worthwhile is said. The hogwash is plentiful, and can at least provide a laugh or a snicker or two.

How else to react to comments like those of Roberto Mancini, after his Inter Milan had seen defender Nicolas Burdisso ejected and had gone down 1-0 at home to Liverpool: "It's difficult playing with 10 men, especially when you're losing 1-0."

Occasionally we get an outburst of raw feeling, genuine stuff -- like Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger's blast at Birmingham defender Martin Taylor after he had broken Eduardo's leg. Taylor, said Wenger, should be banned for life. Given the horrendous nature of Eduardo's injury, Wenger's rage was understandable. But not for long - within 24-hours Wenger had apologized, explaining that he had spoken in the heat of the moment.

So much for spontaneous comment.

As a third type of coaching reaction, there's the sort of thing that New England's coach Steve Nicol uttered after seeing his midfielder Jeff Larentowicz ejected only seven minutes into the game against the Chicago Fire.

Of course Nicol was upset - his team had gone on to get clobbered 4-0 - so he was speaking "in the heat of the moment" when he commented: "If they start sending people off for things like that, there will be nobody left at the end of the season. It was a nonsense decision. But if they're going to do that, do it for everyone."

To take the last part first - yes, agreed, there has to be consistency. So I agree that all similar tackles should be red-carded.

Nicol, evidently, would prefer a consistency that ignores such tackles - or "things like that," that is his description of Larentowicz's wild jumping-in studs-up lunge at Brandon Prideaux. I forgot: the lunge was also mistimed. It would be easy to dismiss Nicol's remark as post-game petulance, but I strongly suspect that Nicol means what he says, that he really doesn't see anything wrong with that sort of challenge.

Referee Baldomero Toledo did - and flashed the red card immediately. Rightly so, I believe. And if Toledo's action heralds the attitude of all MLS referees this year (and the subsequent ejections of Toronto's Kevin Harmse and Colorado's Ciaran O'Brien suggest it may be), then, says Nicol,, "there'll be nobody left at the end of the season." Hyperbole, of course - let's say he means that "that sort of thing" is so common that the flurry of red cards will get a large number of players into suspension difficulties.

Well, he could be right, though I don't think the number would be that great. My feeling is this: if we have to go through a period featuring a flood of red cards, so be it -- if that is the only way to put an end to the wild and dangerous tackling that is a far too frequent feature of the current game.

But will MLS, can MLS, achieve that end? We're dealing with an international sport here -- and the thuggery issue is not merely an MLS matter, it is a global problem. If MLS cleans its own game up, will that help its players who go to play on the international scene, where they will find a game that has not been cleaned up?

Nicol, in short, has a case, quite a strong one, for maintaining that we should allow the rough stuff -- which he will not define in that way, of course, but will no doubt prefer to describe as honest physical play.

But he picked a poor example in defending Larentowicz, whose tackle was downright dangerous. Was it malicious? The question does not have to be answered, it is irrelevant as far as the game's rules are concerned. The referee does not have to assess whether there was intent or not. He decides simply whether the tackle is careless or reckless or involves the use of excessive force, and whether it "endangers the safety of an opponent."

But, as I say -- I see Nicol's point. A compromise is needed between the hard stuff and the fair stuff. For my taste, I think Nicol would place that compromise point far closer to the hard end of the scale than I think it should be.

If that were all, then we have merely a difference of opinion. But it is not all. Because of something that does, I'm afraid, undermine the credibility of virtually all coaches when they start talking about foul play.

I mentioned Wenger's rage when the Arsenal player Eduardo had his leg mangled by Taylor's appalling tackle. But a couple of weeks later another Arsenal player, Abou Diaby, was involved in a violent play incident. This time Wenger's view was quite different -- because Diaby was the culprit, not the victim. Far from condemning Diaby, Wenger went out of his way to defend him: the tackle was "a fraction high ... I don't think it was malicious, it was more protective."

Coaches are highly partisan creatures -- their job requires them to be that way. But it is an attitude that makes their views on a matter like fair play highly questionable. Laughable, even.

1 comment about "The Partisan Truth of Coaches: Laudable or Laughable?".
  1. Kent James, April 7, 2008 at 8:27 a.m.

    As usual, Paul Gardner is unafraid to weigh in on the serious issues faced by the world's beautiful game. And his comments are "spot on." Laurentowicz's tackle was a classic red-card; studs up on the opposing player's leg. The ref had to send him off. It did not appear that Laurentowicz's action was malicious, but at the professional level players are expected to be able to time their tackles to avoid such dangerous situations, even if unintentional.
    The problem with stepping up the number of send-offs is that playing a man down dramatically changes the nature of the game, and often not for the better. I think the solution is to allow a team to substitute for the player sent off, so that only the player is punished, not the team. I think this would make referees less hesitant to send players off, which would punish the appropriate parties without ruining the game for the fans. It might be worth retaining the no substitute player for a red card if the card is given for denying a goal scoring opportunity (to avoid situations where players calculate that being sent off is worth the foul). Leagues could punish players for multiple red cards with longer bans (1 game for 1, 3 games for a 2nd, perhaps a season ban for a 3rd). Additionally, as long as there are limited subs, players being sent off might not be able to be replaced, but that would rarely happen in the beginning of the game, so the situation where a team with 10 men just tries to pack it in for the tie for 80 minutes would also be avoided (and playing a man down for the last 10 or 15 minutes can add to the excitement).

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