Is it still acceptable to ‘rough up’ skillful players?

Discussing deliberate fouls on fellow professionals has become a bit taboo since Roy Keane’s admission about his premeditated knee-high tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, but Bolton’s Kevin Nolan has broken the silence to say that he urged teammate Jlloyd Samuel to foul Theo Walcott during their match against Arsenal on Saturday.

Nolan said: “I said to Jlloyd Samuel, ‘Give him a little kick and see if he comes back at you’. We are in danger of losing that side – the roughing up of people.” It remains to be seen whether Nolan will face any action for his comments.

This sort of thing has always gone on in football, and particularly in British football. The typical defence to this sort of thing normally run along two broad lines. One is that football is a “contact sport” and, by implication, if you don’t want to get kicked then don’t play. The other defence revolves around playing to your strengths. Nobody would dare to ask Theo Walcott if he mind sprinting at 70 per cent to give Samuel a chance to tackle him cleanly, so why shouldn’t the defender take advantage of the fact that he is bigger and stronger than Walcott?

The rebuke to the latter argument is pretty obvious: Walcott’s pace doesn’t hurt anyone (at least, not unless they get their legs tangled up) and it will not end someone’s career. Undoubtedly there are players up and down the country applying these principles week-in, week-out at grassroots level, and by the same token there are players who were just a bit too good for the game they were playing in who get their leg broken every week.

I can sympathise with Nolan who, as an industrious midfielder not afraid to put his foot in, obviously feels this aspect of the game is dying out. But this is not what the majority of the public want from football matches in the 21st century. In the past, the likes of Norman Hunter and Ron Harris have carved cult reputations for themselves through their willingness to kick the proverbial seven shades out of opponents, but that is no longer the case. There is still a place for tackles, even hard tackles, but watching the best player on the field get kicked around the park does not appeal to your average football fan.

The star names in football at the moment – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Lionel Messi – have that status because they are given the protection to show us what they are capable of, and football would be a duller sport if we didn’t get to see their skills.

Sheffield United 1-1 West Ham (extra time to follow)
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