Ken Early: Every player is a Neil Taylor until the rules are enforced

Referee did not send off Bale because he would have been accused of ruining the game

Wales manager Chris Coleman has defended his star player Gareth Bale, who picked up a yellow card during the game, following the 0-0 draw with Ireland in Dublin

 

Ireland 0-0 Wales did not produce much memorable football, but it made up for that by posing more ethical questions than you usually find yourself puzzling over as you leave a football stadium.

RTÉ made the decision not to show replays of Neil Taylor’s foul on Seamus Coleman that left the Ireland captain with a double fracture of the right shin. Of course, within minutes the pictures were available online and nobody who wanted to see them had to look very hard to find them.

There then arose a social media backlash saying that these pictures should not be shared, and that anyone who did share them should feel ashamed of themselves. Instead, people were being encouraged to share the picture of Shane Long hugging Coleman as he lay on the pitch, as this comradely image was deemed more healthy for public consumption than the gruesome incident that had prompted it.

These pictures illustrated, in the starkest terms, why football needs to be tougher on dangerous play

The campaign was perhaps noble in intention, but it was silly in practice. There is nothing shameful in people being curious to see what had happened. It’s one thing to be told that Seamus Coleman has suffered a terrible injury after a reckless challenge by Neil Taylor. It’s another to see the evidence with your own eyes. These pictures illustrated, in the starkest terms, why football needs to be tougher on dangerous play.

Wales’s manager, Chris Coleman, defended Taylor with a familiar line: “He’s not that type of player.” That drew an equally familiar, scornful response: how can you not be that type of player when you have just done the very thing that makes you that type of player?

The distinction has to do with intentionality. When managers say their player is “not that type of player”, they mean the player is not the type who deliberately tries to injure opponents. In reality, there are not many psychopaths of that particular type in the game and if Neil Taylor was one of them, it would have been obvious before now.

Tough to accept

In truth, Taylor was guilty of nothing more than recklessness, which can be tough to accept, since the harm to Coleman was so great. It offends our sense of justice to think that so much damage can have been caused by something so banal. The instinct to impute malice and to assign blame is strong.

The laws of the game say that challenges made with excessive force are punishable by red cards. But this rule is not consistently enforced

Instead, we ought to face the fact that we are all that type of player, especially if it has turned into that type of game. We are all capable of endangering others through recklessness, and we are much more likely to engage in reckless behaviour if everyone seems to be doing it and nobody is being punished.

The laws of the game say that challenges made with excessive force are punishable by red cards. But this rule is not consistently enforced. The reason referees are reluctant to apply the rules is that we tend to punish them for doing so.

Take the example of Gareth Bale’s challenge on John O’Shea just before the Taylor/Coleman incident. Bale lunged in with a straight leg, he missed the ball and drove his studs into O’Shea’s shin. The force is excessive; it’s a red card.

People complain about 'he’s not that type of player', but the phrase we’d be better off retiring is: 'the sending-off ruined the game'

Yet even the yellow card Nicola Rizzoli issued is now being appealed by Wales. The hopeless protest illustrates their desperate reliance on Bale, but it also gives you an indication of the world of pain Rizzoli would have been stepping into if he had applied the rules strictly and sent Bale off. The fact that by doing so, he would have saved Coleman from a horrible injury could not have counted for anything. You never get any credit for the non-existent disasters you prevent.

People complain about “he’s not that type of player”, but the phrase we’d be better off retiring is: “the sending-off ruined the game.”

We all know how frustrating it is when a match we were excited about is turned into a one-sided bore by a red card. Sometimes it does feel as though the game has been ruined. The mistake we make is to think in terms of only one game, rather than The Game in general.

Annoying red cards

If referees started enforcing the rules, there’d be some annoying red cards in the short run. The trade-off would be worth it in the long run, as it became accepted that any high, studs-up challenge was going to get you sent off. The players would adapt and you would see a massive reduction in dangerous play.

Anyone who doubts this should remember that it was still legal to tackle from behind until 1998. Then the rules were changed so that tackles from behind got you sent off. Nobody tackles from behind any more. Players can change their ways, but as long as the rules against dangerous play are not enforced with any consistency, they have no incentive to.

A concerted attempt to crack down on dangerous play would be opposed by those who think violence is part of the game. There’s still a strain of nostalgia for the old days, when men were men, and tough guys with nicknames like “Chopper” and “Bites Yer Legs” could become legends.

If you’re feeling wistful for those days, think of Marco van Basten, the greatest centre-forward of the 1980s, kicked out of the game aged 28. Think of Seamus Coleman, and everything this injury has cost him. There are plenty of sports for those who love violence, from rugby to the UFC. For those of us who think football is better as a contest of skill and ingenuity, let’s step back and give the referees some space to enforce the rules.

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