I remember reading an article about Alonso’s introduction to British “get-about-em football.” He’d just arrived at Liverpool and was reading the Match Day programme of the first game and saw a piece about one of the up-and-coming youth players. In that article, the youth player listed one of his skills as tackling. Alonso was taken aback. He’d been brought up in Spain where a defender’s role was to anticipate problems, close down space, block runs, impede the opposition’s ability to build attacks. In short, a defender’s skill set was to do anything but tackle. Tackling was a sign of failure. You only tackled when you had failed in all of the above, yet here he was reading of a youngster who was extolling the virtues of tackling as a positive.
Regularly our teams (Celtic included) go into European football and pick up bookings and red cards at a higher rate than we do domestically. I recall the old Rangers finishing a Champions League season as the top foulers and card-takers in the competition despite only participating in the Champions League group stage, but is it any wonder? Regularly I sit at Celtic Park and see teams commit fouls against Celtic players that would generate a yellow or red card in most other European leagues yet the ref will often wave play on, but even when he does give a free kick very rarely does a card appear. On many occasions it seems sympathy reffing is at play – ‘The poor team’s getting humped anyway. I’m not gonna add to their woes by having them booked and sent off,’ but this attitude to refereeing has consequences.
I saw a clip on Twitter yesterday of the young Motherwell player (Kipre) foul on Jack of Rangers. The referee amazingly waved play on when the challenge was a red card. I then noted that it was the same player who committed a similar challenge on Dembele in the 13th minute of the League Cup final, a challenge that also went unpunished. After the game his manager made the usual platitudes about him being not that type of player and everybody moved on with much great debate about whether a soft penalty is still a penalty. But the moving on of the press pack and the ignoring of the foul by the referee and the comments of the manager, not that he would need to take his young player aside and have a word with him about the type of challenges he puts in but that the type of challenge he put in was okay, is one of the reasons why the same player committed a similar foul just a few weeks later. He had not been taught the consequences of his actions. He had not been told that his actions were wrong. He had not been shown that that style of tackling is no longer acceptable in 21st-century football. Is it any wonder that our football is stagnating when the rest of European football has long since moved on from such robust challenges being praised.
At the same time as that reckless challenge happened at Ibrox Stadium, I was listening to the post-match reaction in the car to the Hibs-Hearts game. Neil Lennon was complaining about the robust challenges of the Hearts players and the dreadful pitch that was being played on whilst the pundits were praising Hearts for their ‘strong’ style of football, their ‘hard challenges’ and the fact that Levein had made Hearts ‘a hard team to beat.’ All of this was a euphemism for Hearts being a dirty team but in the world of Scottish football where hard challenges and not creative play are seen as positives such rigorous thuggery will continue as the norm.
When Scotland failed to reach the 2018 World Cup, Brendan Rodgers commented that the ‘man’s game’, the ‘get into them’ and the ‘hoof it up the park’ mentality around our game has resulted in our stagnation for 25 to 30 years. Whilst the rest of European football has moved on to allow the creative players to become more creative and therefore encouraging attacking football we are still in the Dark Ages where, after a couple of losses, managers are encouraged to do away with their ‘fancy Dan’ styles and play a more direct game.
Direct football (hoof it up the park) and ‘getting about them’ football has ended across continental Europe but as long as our referees and managers continue to encourage and allow this to prosper players will continue to leave the football field on a stretcher.