Custodians? I don't think so
I watched the Newcastle game at Wigan on Sunday and saw the tackle by Callum McManaman. Having seen the replays it is fair to say that referee Mark Halsey couldn't see it as a player ran across his view just at the moment of impact. However, as we heard yesterday, at least one of his linesmen did see the incident. For some reason that linesman did not deem it appropriate to help his referee by telling him it was a heinous foul that should have resulted in a red card. We still don't know the extent of the damage done to young Haidara's knee, I suspect because the swelling and tissue damage is too much to make scan results conclusive.
Wigan Athletic lost a lot of neutral admirers with the reactions of Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan. Whelan in particular left a very nasty taste with his insistence that it was a "fair tackle" and that McManaman had won the ball cleanly. When you consider that Whelan has recently been recalling how his own leg was broken in an FA Cup Final it's fairly sickening to hear what he has been saying since Sunday. Obviously he wishes to protect his player and his Club, but there are times when honesty is required. Sadly Wigan Athletic have chosen to follow the Stoke City path.
So what has this got to do with an Arsenal blog? The answer is that we have suffered from this sort of thing more than any other Club, going right back to May 2006 when Abou Diaby was banjaxed by a no-mark piece of scum from Sunderland. Seven years on and Diaby's career has suffered immeasurably from that act of deliberate violence against him. Dan Smith, the perpetrator, basically got away with ruining the career of one of Europe's brightest midfield prospects. Diaby has done very well financially out of not being able to play football, but he would surely have gone on to have professional success were it not for having his ankle shattered by a thug under instruction from his stand-in Manager Kevin Ball. Who knows, Arsenal might have fared better had Diaby been able to to fulfil his potential unhindered by a knackered leg.
When it should have been nipped in the bud
Had the FA dealt with Dan Smith appropriately and given him a massive ban then such things might not have become a feature of English football. You would have to think that maybe, just maybe, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey might have trodden a different path had an appropriate deterrent punishment been handed out to Smith those years before. Obviously we can't say that for certain, but the FA certainly didn't test the water, did they?
Even when Eduardo had his career shattered there was no comeback. Indeed there was actually sympathy for Martin Taylor, the perpetrator, because Arsene Wenger chose to attack him in a post-match interview. The same applied to Shawcross after Ramsey was carried from the Britannia with a leg facing in three different directions. These particular reactions are not the fault of the FA, but I'll come to the media in a minute. What the FA did yesterday, by failing to ban McManaman is put the careers of other players in danger in the future. There is no reason to pull out of such reckless challenges when the worst that's going to happen is a red card on the day of the game, followed by a three match suspension. The FA is supposed to protect the game of football. By allowing this violence to go unchecked they are protecting nothing except their own free dinners.
All of which brings me to the media and the way they deal with the issue. Back in 2003 Arsenal travelled to Bolton for a crucial end of season game. It was a game Arsenal had to win in order to retain the Premier League Title. At 2-0 up it seemed comfortable. At that point Allardyce's kickers went in to overdrive. For the last half-hour of the match Arsenal's players were booted off the pitch (literally) and out of the Title race. The press rejoiced in the way Arsenal's footballers were kicked in to submission. Allardyce had identified the "tactic" to be used if you were to give Arsenal a problem. They didn't like it up them. Over the next couple of years it became a regular sight.
The Invincibles of the following year were too good even for the violence displayed by numerous opponents. But when we went to Old Trafford in October 2004 it finally got too much. The Neville brothers kicked Jose Antonio Reyes (the best player in England at the time) out of the game. It effectively ended Reyes' career in England as he was never the same player again after the assault he suffered. Once again the press loved it. It was apparently acceptable to be "physical" with Arsenal. If you "let them play" they would destroy you. You had to be "in their faces" to beat this team. The blueprint was set in stone. Week after week us Gooners watched as it was allowed to happen. Arsene Wenger pointed out that eventually someone was going to get hurt. He was laughed at as the whingeing foreigner who was looking for excuses in defeat. When it finally happened with Diaby at Sunderland there was no apology towards Wenger. Le Boss even made the point that it had become "okay" to kick Arsenal players in his post-match interview that evening. The press chose to ignore that and carried on the same tack.
Finally we come to the sympathy culture I alluded to above. When Martin Taylor broke Eduardo's leg (again under instruction from his Manager to get in to the Arsenal players) he got sympathy. Apparently Eduardo didn't return his text messages of apology. The heinous foreigner wouldn't respond to the English gentleman. We were told to consider the fact that Taylor might be haunted by what had happened to Eduardo. I'd imagine he wasn't half as haunted as the player who faced a future that could have meant he would never play again. As it was his Arsenal career never did get back on track. Eduardo had to leave English football to try and resurrect what looked set to be a massive career at Arsenal. But we're expected to feel sorry for Taylor. And, remember, he's "not that sort of player". Nor, too, was Ryan Shawcross (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary before and since). Indeed, on the night Aaron Ramsey had his leg shattered we were told by Tony Pulis, who was backed up by Sky and the assorted media, that Shawcross was desperately upset. He had left the pitch in tears and his Mum had to come and pick him up from the ground. Well boo-hoo. Poor Ramsey was facing the same doubtful future as Eduardo had but as long as Shawcross loves his Mum then all is well. You couldn't make this up.
I went on Twitter after the tackle on Sunday and I said that I wondered how long it would be before someone made out that McManaman was a victim too. Lo and behold, McManaman was substituted shortly after the second-half began and Rob Hawthorne (Sky's Man Utd supporting commentator) told us that he was surely distraught at what had happened. Indeed, following the way Newcastle's coach had reacted at half-time we should spare a thought for the youngster (I believe he's actually 22 years-old so he's not really that young, is he?) This mentality astounds me.
In my mind I have identified two things that need to change before these tackles become a thing of the past. The first is that the FA must dish out proper punishment. A three game ban for a red card (whether issued at the time or retrospectively - or not at all in this case!) is simply not enough with a player's career hanging by a thread. Six months must become a minimum. The second is that the media must change it's opinion of the perpetrators. They should be shown up as the villains they undoubtedly are. The fact is that they clearly are "that sort of player" (McManaman, like Shawcross, has previous form). But what will cause this change to happen? Clearly the prevalence of such incidents is making no difference (there was one in the lower divisions about a month ago). As far as I can see the only thing that will bring this to a head is when it happens to an England player, at the hands (or feet) of a non-English player. All the high-profile incidents of the past seven years have involved an Englishman kicking someone who is not English. Things would be very different if it happened, God forbid, to Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard.