Date: 20th September 2010 at 9:24am
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Arsenal ticket scheme members may receive the annual pack which is usually a decent collection of Arsenal artefacts, dvds, giveaways, yearbooks and the like. This season the pack included an edition of Eddie Hapgood`s autobiography. ‘Happy` Hapgood was captain and full back star of Chapman`s all conquering pre-war Arsenal side. The autobiography is a fairly rudimentary account of his career for Arsenal and England written in 1945 at a time when he`d set the record for most England caps. Anyone born when Hapgood produced his work would now be qualifying for their state pension.

As historical record it`s an entertaining enough read but maybe what strikes the reader most is how much pain players had to accept for their sport and how proudly they wore their battle scars. These were times without substitutes so broken noses, distressed muscles and damaged limbs might get you moved to a safer area of the pitch but you`d rarely leave it, other than temporarily, if you could stand. As much as you can admire their endurance, bravery, their toughness no real supporter would want to return to those days of laced footballs and industrial boots.

Much else has changed about football since those times which, despite the natural appeal of nostalgia, has been to the good of the game. Substitutes are now allowed – three of them, the same number of points as you can now earn for a win. Changes in the laws restrict the handling of backpasses and complicate the understanding of the offside rule and the abolition of the minimum wage eventually led to some players becoming multi-millionaires in their teens. But among the biggest of changes are changes in the players themselves and the conditions under which they play the game.

You needn`t go back as far as Hapgood`s time to appreciate the differences in playing conditions. A number of old voices, Redknapp, Allardyce, Coyle and Moyes among them have recently invoked the 60`s and 70`s as a benchmark by which to consider today`s tackling issues. Tackles then were often made on muddy, sodden pitches at a pace that allows them to be examined without today`s slo-mo replays. Much of what was done 30 or 40 years ago you could see coming.

It wasn`t just pitches that made tackling less dangerous players themselves were much slower. British researchers looked at games played in the old first division in 1976 and found that the average player covered a distance of 8 to 11 kilometres a game, 25% of which was spent walking and 11% in sprints. Modern premiership players will cover 50% more distance with an average of 11 to 14 kilometres a game while the number of sprints in a game has more than doubled. The modern footballer is fitter and runs much further, for much longer and much faster than his 1970`s counterparts. It probably isn`t possible for a midfielder of the current era to feel contentment with the sobriquet ‘Stroller`. Still the physical demands increase each year and it`s clear that the game is getting faster and more physically intense – dramatically so compared to 30 or 40 years ago. The speed and power of the game now means that bad tackles will cause more damage than they did in the past.

When conditions change in other spheres then we expect to have to adjust behaviour accordingly. As more traffic with better engineered vehicles and motorways produced greater power and acceleration and greater average distances travelled cars were fitted with seatbelts and motorcyclists compelled to wear helmets. Similarly, in almost any profession if accidents occurred repeatedly you`d be obliged to look at them, the changed conditions under which they occur, and adjust your behaviour or conditions to bring about a reduction. Most employees, their families, friends, bosses and professional organisations would insist that is done. There`d be media outrage if it didn`t happen. You certainly wouldn`t be permitted to deflect any inclination for action by saying that it was pretty bad 40 years ago too. So why do we expect football to live in a bubble that seeks to exclude it from the simple common sense we apply elsewhere? ‘It`s a contact sport – what do you expect?` is no more valid an observation than that cars are still made of metal.

The laws of the game are clear. You cannot tackle in a manner that is careless, reckless or uses excessive force. There’s no need to change any laws but there is a need to ensure that they are interpreted to the standards and needs of the modern game and not those that prevailed decades ago. What prevents that from happening? Who is scared of bringing about change that could only benefit the game? Many of the answers can be heard in those old voices locked in the past.

If we can see and applaud improvements in players’ technical ability to perform feats of skill at high speed why wouldn’t we want that to include their tackling skills? What’s wrong with thinking about the purpose of tackling and even redefining it in coaching terms if that’s what it takes to make it more relevant to the objectives of the modern game? The ideal should be for a tackle to regain possession of the ball – or as a last resort in the final third an endeavour to clear your lines to avert a threat to your goal. But ugly, careless or reckless lunges, too often with force disproportionate to the aim of winning possession, are made in areas of the pitch in which they can serve no purpose other than to stop the game – and maybe bring a player down. It’s a blight on the modern game in its faster and more athletic form and perverse when those similarly conservative voices object to the introduction of video technology on the basis of its potential impact on the free flowing game. In a good tackle there is a desire to win possession not simply to clear the ball. Many tacklers will tackle with absolutely no idea where the ball will end up – but a fairly good idea of where the player will. A good tackler should be looking to win the ball and has the next pass or movement in mind when he does so.

Those old voices seem to feel the only choice to be made is between tackling and not tackling – not one between good tackling and bad tackling. There`s no need to outlaw or abandon tackling it just needs to be appreciated and refined as a skill set relevant in the modern age of football. There`s nothing tremendously difficult about it. It can be done easily enough if the understanding is there and taught and appreciated as an improvement in technique every bit as valuable as any other football technique.

If referees were to enforce the existing rules by defining the criteria of carelessness and recklessness in the context of today`s game and not that of decades past then the need to coach players in the art of the good tackle will become more urgent. Those old voices can only speak of times gone by. We need some new, younger voices to encourage the game to understand and look forward to the needs of the future. At present there are too few of them making themselves heard.

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