You never forget an opposition manager yelling: “Break his f**king leg, Bully!” Not when you are the intended target and Lee Bullock is sizing you up. Even during the 1990s this was considered unacceptable behaviour from Neil Warnock but that was the shout I heard.
There were others, like Kevin Muscat, who used to go over the top of the ball, making contact around the knee. I witnessed Muscat inflicting potential career-ending injuries every time we shared a pitch (lovely lad off it, mind).
Inevitably, there was a victim. In 2004 former Charlton Athletic player Matt Holmes received £250,000 in damages following a successful legal case against Muscat and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The challenge was so severe that a surgeon said Holmes was lucky to avoid amputation.
It’s 2023 and crazily here we are again. Not since Ron “Chopper” Harris cut George Best in half has the Irish football community suffered such a sharp collective intake of breath as when r Fabinho latched on to Evan Ferguson’s Achilles last Sunday.
The failure to show a red card is still incredible but this ridiculous standard of officiating had already been set. On Saturday Andy Carroll’s non-punishment for a scissors “tackle” on Christian Eriksen, moments before he ended the Danish midfielder’s season, left Ferguson exposed.
Thankfully the Irish teenager’s injury is not as ruinous as feared – with Brighton manager Roberto de Zerbi saying on Friday it was “not too bad and maybe he can play tomorrow or the next game” – but the lack of disincentives or consequences for Fabinho and Carroll offers proof that the bad old days have returned.
I caught the tail end of that time. There’s an ugly scar down one of my lower limbs to prove it.
You never forget the worst of them. Everton against Charlton, Graham Stewart and I are chasing a bouncing ball from opposite directions when he goes in two-footed, way over the top, smashing my shin.
“You could have ended my career” I told him in a state of agony.
Despite the medic sewing 14 stitches into my leg at half-time, I played on. Adrenaline and disgust fuelled that second-half performance.
Avoiding serious injury used to be potluck. That’s why the rules were changed. Severe punishment all but removed the more heinous football crimes.
A straight red for tackles from behind became the norm in this century, as it was decided that Messi would not go the way of Maradona or Pele – hacked to pieces by age 30.
The modern skilful players were protected. Until now. Suddenly, it is open season on creative players.
Fabinho is not a dirty player but professionals, in any walk of life, see how rules are interpreted and act accordingly. He knew what he was doing. Look at his face. The young boy was outclassing him, Liverpool were getting knocked out of the FA Cup, so he did Ferguson. We’ve all been there. You boil over.
But it’s not like a 50-50 situation when you decide to go in harder than your opponent. Fabinho’s cowardly act is a red card on any football pitch in the world at any time in the history of the game. Blows would be exchanged during five-a-side for that challenge. Amateur matches have been abandoned for less.
To my mind, only showing yellow cards to Fabinho and Carroll brings English football into disrepute.
Punishing horrific tackles with a caution is made worse by former referees, cloaked by VAR, supporting a colleague with silence. This is an abdication of their most basic duties.
To be clear, the officials are to blame for the current spike in violent acts, but football authorities must share the load. VAR was supposed to stamp out human error, but it’s managed to awaken another monster – human nature.
This is a top-down edict. See the World Cup in Qatar, where you needed to pull a blade from your sock to get sent off. the Netherlands versus Argentina quarter-final ended with 18 yellow cards before Denzel Dumfries’ antics during the penalty shoot-out were punished by a second booking. Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz also witnessed two mass brawls in Lusail that night, without sending anyone off. It felt like he was under orders. The result: chaos.
If the challenges on Eriksen and Ferguson fail to prompt officials to rein in this glaring problem, we are heading towards tragedy.
[ Ken Early: Evan Ferguson the victim of an inept refereeing culture ]
Football has overdone the ‘let it flow’ philosophy, with Irish football almost paying a heavy price. We have waited 25 years for a talent like Ferguson to come along.
Hopefully he recovers quickly as I really like the technical aspects of his game. There’s that little look over the shoulder when balls are rolled into him, and in possession there’s an awareness of team-mates some players never develop.
Comparisons with the great strikers who have come before Ferguson must be kept in check, but not since a teenage Robbie Keane sampled life in Serie A have we reached these levels of excitement.
Nor do I want to compare him to someone such as Harry Kane – Ferguson is quicker – but he is developing into a similar type of number nine who can drop into the number 10 role to pick a pass.
[ Michael Walker: Evan Ferguson is a natural – the soft first touch, the sureness, the strength, the speed ]
He is still a doubt for the France qualifier on March 27th, and it would be a real shame for Stephen Kenny’s team if he missed that as Ireland have not had a genuine Premier League striker since Robbie.
At least 2023 should begin with Matt Doherty featuring in La Liga. It’s a gutsy move to terminate the remaining 18 months of his Tottenham contract for a five-month deal with Atlético Madrid but the risk-reward could prove spectacular. Break a leg, Doc.