Danny Murphy: Whistle Blower?

Danny Murphy and Paul Konchesky of Fulham FC.

Image via Wikipedia

Danny Murphy threw himself into the debate on tackling in English football late, two footed, and playing the man.

In unusually candid comments for someone still playing the game, he pointed the finger at Messers Allardyce, Pulis and McCarthy, accusing them of sending out teams so “pumped up there are inevitably going to be problems”.

I’ve now heard a host of reasons why there’s been a horrible spate of broken legs. Players aren’t taught how to tackle; players don’t wear proper shin pads; it’s a contact sport; it’s part of our game, it’s a legitimate tactic, the only way inferior teams can compete.

Circling round the argument are a legion of ex-pros testifying that the game today isn’t as hard as when they played. But are we any closer to understanding what’s happening. What should we conclude?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that the rheumy eyed old hard men from years past have a point. The game is not as “hard” as it used to be. You only need to watch Match of the 70s to see how what constitutes an acceptable tackle has changed. If modern day refereeing standards were applied there wouldn’t have been a game in that decade that ended with 22 men on the field.

Outlawing the tackle from behind has also made a huge difference in promoting ball playing over ball winning. This has been reinforced by countless FIFA tweaks to the interpretations of the existing laws. But if tackling is now less rugged, why are we seeing worse injuries?

I turn back to another observation from watching Match of the 70s. Compare the spindly limbed physiques of those players to the build of the heavyweight hulks who ply their trade today.

Like many other sports, football has improved the diet, nutrition and fitness of its players. Players are more muscular, faster, and crucially heavier. Apparently the average weight of the Chelsea team is over 13 stone. With heavier players tackling at faster velocities it’s little wonder that there are more impact injuries and more broken bones.

The quality of the pitches for me is another likely culprit. Compare the quagmires that teams in the 70s played on to the lush, smooth, un-rutted pitches that are played on today. Yes, it’s dead easy to slide tackle on a muddy pitch, but you can’t do it at pace. It’s just impossible to run at your top speed on a boggy pitch with your boots caked in mud.

There’s an interesting parallel with rugby. The same improvements in sport science have led to bigger, stronger and bulkier players and corresponded with a similar rise in impact related injuries.

So if that is the reason what can be done. You can’t limit the size and weight of players. Tougher penalties for reckless fouls would fail because it’s impossible to prove intent. Murphy’s himself hints at what I think the solution is, that players use more “brains” when making challenges. It might be the solution, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

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