WHO DECIDED that football should cease to be a contact sport? The last vestige of what was once an integral part of the game has all but disappeared.
If further evidence was needed, anyone who witnessed Chris Basham’s dismissal at Glanford Park was left in no doubt that things ain’t what they used to be.
It was an eventful afternoon for the 28-year-old Geordie who reverted from his central midfield role to start the match as cover for injured central defender Jake Wright. He gave Sheffield United a first-half lead against League One trailblazers Scunthorpe, prodding him a deft set-piece move. Ballet from the training ground which caught the Iron unawares.
It was Basham’s fifth goal for the club since signing in July 2014. The irony being most of those have come when deployed as a defender. But the joy was short-lived. Instead his abiding memory will be securing a three-match ban for a dismissal wholly undeserved. Fortunately it didn’t cost ten-man United defeat. After trailing 2-1 with seven minutes remaining, Billy Sharp rescued a point from the penalty spot and extended his team’s unbeaten League One run to five matches.
Before football’s governors embarked on a mission to sanitise the sport, Basham’s collision with Neal Bishop as both went for a 50-50 ball wouldn’t have merited a yellow card let alone a red. Nowadays, however, over-reaction is matched only by embarrassing – or at least they should be – theatrical displays up and down the country. Players roll around, as did Bishop, in pseudo agony with the express intention of trying to get a fellow professional sent off.
Basham’s mistake was to go to ground as he attempted to win the ball. It’s a judgment. Yes, it can be downright dangerous and so can crossing the road, but in this case it wasn’t. There can be no truck with the argument either that referee Darren Deadman was only applying the letter of the law. He chose not to when Basham was the subject of a similar challenge from Scunthorpe’s Murray Wallace.
“If he [Deadman] sends their boy off and then sends Basham off then I think both managers and six or seven thousand people agree with it,” said Blades boss Chris Wilder.
“Let’s be right about it, punters want to see competition and players making contact with each other. Let’s make sure that doesn’t go out of the game.” The voice of reason.
What the likes of Tommy Smith, Norman ‘Bites yer Legs’ Hunter and ‘Chopper’ Harris of Liverpool, Leeds United and Chelsea respectively from a bygone era would make of it all one suspects is total disdain. “Smith,” said Anfield’s greatest manager of all time, Bill Shankly, “was quarried not born.”
It is unlikely a player of today or in the future will ever match that description. If they did it would be of little use because he would be as good as permanently suspended. And that’s a good thing. There is no denying football in the Seventies was often brutal. It was also hugely exciting, entertaining and effective. Safe to say that a generation of fans was hooked by what was arguably the most iconic and transfixing era of the game. For the right reasons as well as magnetic fascination for the wrong ones.
The master exponents of the cynical approach, tribal heroes, had little to be proud about when viewed from today's vanatage point, but many teams – respected trophy-winning sides – had one. They used fear, often of the career-ending type, intimidation and a blatant disregard for the rules to stop the opposition and win football matches. They also knew how to take it as well as dish it out. Leeds in their ‘golden era’ being a perfect example. A side that combined sublime football with butchery. It was a different time.
Smith, now 71 and a living legend on the Kop at Liverpool, paid a heavy price for an approach to the game that made him feared across Europe. He can barely walk unaided. The man whose autobiography is aptly entitled Anfield Iron, has had both knees replaced along with a hip. In his book he wrote: "When Jimmy Greaves came out at Anfield one time I handed him a piece of paper. He said: ‘What’s this?’ I said: ‘Just open it.’ It was the menu from the Liverpool Infirmary.”
Revered on Merseyside and remembered affectionately, despite his ugly side, by the majority, who like me, saw him play. Rightly so. He was a key contributor to Liverpool's success story which earned him an enviable medal haul: four [former] First Division titles, two European Cup, two UEFA Cup and two FA Cup honours.
At Bramall Lane after the midfield artistry of Tony Currie and the wonderful attacking skills of Alan Woodward, the name of former skipper Chris Morgan appears high on the list of those held in high regard. Morgan, however, was in no way the brutish defender some like to paint him. A pussycat when compared to the hatchet men of the distant past. Hard but fair and respected for it.
Unlike some of the pretenders such as Vinny Jones, most of these tough guys could also play the game. Jones’s 35 appearances in a Blades shirt coincided with a season at Bramall Lane remarkable because of United’s spectacular recovery under Dave Bassett to remain in the old First Division [now the Premier League]. This despite having reached mid December having suffered 12 defeats and amassed only four points. Vinny’s days at the Lane, however, are rarely mentioned.
Most Blades fans will remember him for the assault as a Chelsea player on Dane Whitehouse just three seconds into an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. Jones entered the record book at the time as well as the referee’s by receiving the quickest dismissal in professional football. He was working up to it. A year earlier, in a Blades shirt, Jones was booked after only five seconds at Manchester City.
Little more than a cynical thug who regarded his boots as a weapon and traded on fear. In stark contrast the admired hard men of the game also had a football brain. Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner alongside Hunter at Leeds, the late Dave Mackay at Tottenham and then Derby, Graeme Souness at Liverpool for example. Roy Keane at Manchester United although in his case it is doubtful if Alf Inge-Haaland would agree.
Keane effectively ended the Norwegian international’s career with a deliberate and callous crunching high tackle, studs first, during a Manchester derby. Revenge he admitted in his autobiography, for the false claim Haaland, then a Leeds player, had made that Keane was feigning injury to avoid punishment after a bungled attempted trip on the Norwegian at Elland Road. In fact Keane was carried off with a cruciate ligament injury and sidelined for 12 months. Haaland, who was booked for his protestations, it has to be said was no angel himself. Ironically he has cited Smith's uncompromising methods at Liverpool as something he admired. All of which makes recent events at Glanford Park appear laughable.
No one, not even those with a conviction for GBH, would surely wish a relaxing of laws to the extent of returning to the brutality of the past. It is the ‘beautiful game’ after all. But as with society in general, political correctness when taken too far damages the very fabric it is trying to improve and protect.
High octane days they were but the football experience has improved immeasurably since the Seventies. As much as it is popular to look back with misty-eyed nostalgia for those who remember the likes of Rodney Marsh, George Best, and managers Brian Clough and Don Revie in their pomp, it's very easy to overlook systemic problems.
Widescale hooliganism and dangerous grounds unfit for purpose to mention but two. Undoubtedly it had to change off the pitch but not before the Ibrox disaster and tragedies at Hillsborough, Bradford City and the Heysel Stadium in Belgium triggered transformation. It will never be perfect but football now provides a safe environment for everyone unless you are a West Ham season ticket holder who doesn’t want to stand up at the newly-acquired London Stadium. The only risk calculation about taking your children to matches is purely financial.
On the pitch, however, the strength of the antiseptic has become a little too strong. To win the ball first and the challenger then dives over an outstretched leg is commonly adjudged a foul, perplexingly less so if it occurs in the penalty box. Gone is the art of the shoulder charge; goalkeepers are wrapped in cotton wool, almost unchallengeable.
At the same time falling over has become an art, a form of cheating that is rarely punished. Chasing a lost cause is no longer the case when you can leave a trailing leg that earns a free kick or a penalty. Intent to foul is regarded as legitimate reason to penalise even though the event never occurred. And all this while players routinely hold, barge and obstruct each other without punishment when a corner kick is being taken. Any part of the pitch outside of the penalty areas and such action would be penalised.
It could be argued that the absence of genuine hatchet men and zero tolerance is the reason why football has become an arena to encourage actors, cheats and frauds. In truth none of it should be acceptable. It’s a compromise which will probably never be achieved.
That’s football's default position and despite its many faults, Basham’s red card injustice and all, we still love it.