Mouthy Messi getting a longer ban than Neil Taylor sends an odd message
You don’t need to be a hard man, but the game is dangerous if not played with due care
Wales defender Neil Taylor is shown a red card by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli for his tackle on Seamus Coleman. Photograph: Getty Images
Stop me if you have heard this one before, but Neil Taylor really isn’t that sort of player. Like his fellow Wales full-back Chris Gunter he is one of those slight modern professionals who seems so softly-spoken and well-mannered you wonder how he ever got so far in such a rough old game.
Seamus Coleman’s leg is still broken though, so this is not to excuse the Aston Villa defender’s rash tackle in the game against the Republic of Ireland, just to ponder what can be done to set the balance straight.
It is tempting to suggest anyone uttering the platitude contained in the opening sentence ought to be banned from television studios or pitchside microphones for a considerable length of time, though it is repeated here because it reinforces an important point opposite to what is generally intended.
If previously well-behaved and responsible individuals who have even suffered serious injury in their own past can lose their heads to such an extent as to threaten the career of a fellow professional, then anyone can. The game is dangerous if not played with due care and control, and you do not need to be a notorious hard man or serial offender to prove it.
Who are the thugs implied by “that sort of player” anyway? Football has speeded up considerably since the 60s and 70s, when every leading team seemed to have a reducer whose uncompromising style was not so secretly admired by the crowd, and the increased athleticism means the potential for mistimed or miscontrolled challenges exists all over the pitch.
This was not quite the case when Ron “Chopper” Harris was in his pomp, as the former Chelsea full-back outlined a few years ago. “In those days every team had their kicker,” Harris explained.
“There was Norman Hunter at Leeds, Nobby Stiles at Man United, Peter Storey at Arsenal and me at Chelsea. Funnily enough I never used to come across any of the others on the pitch. We would stick to our own halves, so we would never usually meet.”
Harris and his ilk were normally in the business of intimidating opposition wingers, or at least forwards. Generally nobbling their victims by arriving late – ie kicking a more skilful player after the ball had gone – they would not have encountered too many situations similar to Friday night’s, when opposing full- or wing-backs were going full pelt for the same ball.
While it can safely be said that Taylor did not intend to break Coleman’s leg, which is presumably what Chris Coleman and others meant when they pointed to his previous good character, because of the escalating level of recklessness within the game in Dublin it is impossible to simply wave it past as an accident either.
Taylor has got to be at least guilty of behaviour likely to result in injury, and because his behaviour actually did result in injury it is no surprise to discover Fifa is considering lengthening his ban.
The only surprise, if that is not too weak a word, is that the authorities are talking of increasing an automatic one-game suspension to three matches, perhaps four.
Three matches being the standard tariff for violent behaviour. Meaning that Taylor could end up with the same punishment for a career-threatening foul as, say, Sergio Agüero did for his disputed elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid back in August. If the FA commission decided that particular incident was “aggressive and brutal”, which it did, then fine. Manchester City and their player had to accept the verdict and the suspension.
But if that was aggressive and brutal what words would suggest themselves for Taylor’s challenge? Not only was Reid not injured – Slaven Bilic’s words, after the game - neither Andre Marriner nor his assistants even noticed the incident first time around. If three matches is the going rate for the sort of sneaky foul that causes an opponent discomfort but needs video replays to prove it, what sort of punishment would be appropriate for putting a player out for the rest of the season with the type of injury that could shorten his career?
While Fifa is thought to be looking at an extra game, it has just banned Lionel Messi for four Argentina matches for swearing at an official. Everyone knows a stand has to be taken against that sort of abuse, but with the best will in the world how will it look if you get no more for breaking an opponent’s leg than for a verbal tirade?
There is no need to gang up on Taylor, who must be feeling bad enough, but as long as you can get three matches for clipping an opponent round the ear or grabbing him briefly by the throat the same sentence is bound to seem inadequate for a vastly more serious lapse of on-field discipline.
It has been suggested in the past that players in Taylor’s position should be forced to wait as long as their victims before returning, though this is almost certainly unworkable, unenforceable and unfair.
Yet if you can get three matches for a challenge that is only theoretically dangerous – think Jamie Vardy on Mame Biram Diouf this season, for example – it seems odd, to say the least, that you pick up no more for a foul that ends up with your opponent in a hospital bed worrying about his future in the game.
A greater deterrent is needed, but while it would do no harm to double or triple the usual sentence for injuries that require hospital treatment, the real problem is still not being addressed. The real problem being that almost anyone on the pitch in Dublin could have found themselves in need of a stretcher, and almost anyone else might have finished up in the dressing room shouldering the blame.
It is too easy, in other words, to call for draconian punishments on the relatively rare occasions when something bad happens while continuing to tolerate, even defend, dangerous play that crops up on a weekly basis.
Vardy could have injured Diouf, just as Agüero’s elbow might have broken Reid’s jaw, points apparently lost on Leicester City and Manchester City respectively, who both appealed against the convictions.
James McClean could have been sent off for his “reducer” of a challenge on Alexis Sánchez at West Bromwich Albion this month, the one that saw his opponent literally limp through the rest of the game before being substituted. Arsène Wenger did not make too much of a deal of it, apart from indicating his player should probably not have gone out for the second half, even though the Arsenal manager of all people knows exactly where such misplaced leniency can lead.
Motorists who ignore the speed limit or text at the wheel are already guilty of dangerous driving, and it would be silly to wait until they cause a pile-up before throwing the book at them.
If recklessness on the football field is to be stamped out, it follows that referees and disciplinary committees need to take an even sterner view of overheated situations and poor challenges before they lead to stretchers and oxygen masks.
A zero-tolerance approach in Dublin, for instance, would have seen Gareth Bale sent off for his foul on John O’Shea. That incident might not have happened had Ireland’s various earlier transgressions been properly dealt with. The game might have been ruined as a spectacle by a referee intent on maintaining order, but the game was not much of a spectacle anyway.
At least poor Seamus Coleman would still be on his feet.