Watching Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira reeling in the years left many mourning the passing of the tough tackle.
I watched with great interest the Best of Enemies programme on Tuesday night, which brought Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira together to reminisce about the battles they had with each other throughout their careers.
These were two players I held in the very highest regard for the intensity with which they played the game, their will to win – even if that meant they sometimes overstepped the mark — and the passion they displayed in abundance when they walked across that white line.
Like a lot of people, I’m sure, I thought it was strange seeing Roy Keane in this type of nostalgia documentary environment and even more so to find how relaxed and open he was. I mentioned a few weeks back that I thought his media career has been a massive help to him, as he has now seen how it works from the inside and has a better understanding of what the media are trying to get out of players or managers by pushing certain buttons. Now I think we are seeing a more polished Roy Keane who looks very comfortable no matter what questions are put to him.
As I watched the programme on Tuesday night and, especially, the clips of the tackles Keane and Vieira made against each other at the height of the Man United-Arsenal rivalry, it struck me forcibly that I haven’t seen anything of that ferocity for years on a football pitch. Sadly, tackling is an art of the game that has almost now become a thing of the past.
I am a little young to have seen the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Billy Bremner play, but I’m well aware of who they were and how hard they played the game back in the ’60s and ’70s.
Even in more recent times, when I was beginning to forge my own career in football, there were players in the game renowned for their tackling, some of which was definitely ‘dirty’! I’m thinking of people like Vinnie Jones, Stuart Pearce, Paul Ince and Denis Wise to name just a few of the ones who relied heavily on no-holds-barred tackling as a big part of their game.
Don’t get me wrong, someone like Ince was also a fine footballer who — as Roy Keane rightly observed the other night — probably didn’t get enough credit for his many attributes. Put it this way: you don’t get to play for Manchester United, Inter Milan and Liverpool if all you can do is tackle.
When I started playing at a professional level it was regarded as customary that a defender would get one ‘free’ tackle/foul on the attacker, which is why you often saw some of the most determined attempts to soften up an opponent happening early in the game.
But not any more, even though some are struggling to come to terms with the changing times. That’s why you will still sometimes see a player pleading with the referee that it was his first offence. But his protests are guaranteed to fall on deaf ears now because, within the laws of the game as they are applied today, if the tackle is deemed worthy of a yellow then the referee is left with no choice but to issue a card.
In today’s game you also often hear the term ‘holding midfielder’. When this term first began to be used, the holding player was always the one who was the more defensive-minded of the midfielders, the one who could tackle and enable the other midfielders to attack in the knowledge they had someone covering for them. But, again, the tackling part of that role is becoming less significant as the game changes.
An example: Manchester United’s holding midfielder for the past few seasons has been Michael Carrick who, even by his own admission I’m sure, doesn’t regard tackling as a huge strength of his game. Rather, his game has always been about his ability to pass the ball, while in recent seasons — as more defensive responsibilities have been given to him — he has had to improve his reading of the game to ensure he doesn’t allow the opposition pick up space in front of his defenders. The result is that while Carrick is one of the best there is at making interceptions, you will rarely see him making a tackle.
When I was at Blackburn Rovers under Sam Allardyce he was big into stats and this aspect of the game – reading the play and making interceptions — was something he encouraged his midfielders to try and improve on, as he too recognised the game had evolved.
Another example of how things have changed: I played against Steven Gerard in a youth team game in 1997 and I remember everyone was going on about how good he was and predicting that he would definitely go on to play in Liverpool’s first team. The one thing that struck me about him was that he was putting in one tackle after another to the extent that I knew I would have to go in strong on him to make sure he didn’t do me over.
If you contrast that with the youth team match I watched down here at Brighton a few weeks ago when we faced QPR, the difference was acute. The kids of today are being coached a lot better and are superior technically than we would have been in our youth team, so I would imagine very little attention is given to the ‘art of tackling’. Certainly, there was nothing like the tackle-rate of the young Gerrard on show.
I for one, find this sad. Sure, the game needs to be conscious of the safety of payers but, equally, we don’t want to get to a stage where a footballer won’t attempt a tough, honest tackle for fear of a red card.
That said, I cannot see the game going back to what it was even ten years ago when in every single game there were still proper tackles flying in.
Now that’s what I call the very beautiful game!
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