SPORTS THOUGHTS: When did defending become so expensive?

Chris Jenkinson
Chris Jenkinson

Is being a defender more difficult than it used to be? I’m not sure difficult is the best way of describing it, but it’s certainly become more costly and complicated.

Is being a defender more difficult than it used to be? I’m not sure difficult is the best way of describing it, but it’s certainly become more costly and complicated.

Growing up I admired the likes of Leicester City’s Matt Elliot, a central defender who wouldn’t think twice about leaving a stud in here or a shoulder in there. Back then though, such tactics were merely referred to as ‘gamesmanship’ by commentators.

How times have changed. In today’s climate, those challenges once described as nothing other than ‘robust’ are now deemed ‘dangerous’ in the minds of officials throughout the game. This means committing a dangerous challenge in one of our games on a Saturday afternoon usually leads to two things: a red card and a £40 fine.

Up until recent years, it was considered an unwritten rule of the game that players were allowed one modest foul prior to going into the referee’s notebook, especially at our non league level where the odd mistimed tackle comes with the territory. As a result, I can usually count the number of cautions I pick up throughout a 60 game season on one hand.

Tightening up the laws on tackling, however, means this is no longer the case. Twenty odd games in and I’ve already amassed five yellows (at £10 pounds a go), and served a mandatory one match ban. All this and I honestly don’t think I’ve left a mark on any opponent I’ve come up against.

So why has defending become more complicated? Well firstly, it is no longer acceptable to “take” both man and ball in what used to be described as the perfect tackle. Nowadays such tackles are always met with a satisfying roar of approval from the fans. The next, much less satisfying noise, however, is the blast of the referee’s whistle, who then proceeds to make his way over, notebook in hand, sharpened pencil at the ready. Then there’s a flash of yellow and you’re another tenner down.

Secondly, simply defending is no longer enough for the modern defender. They are expected to be comfortable on the ball and offer a way out for the midfielder who has nothing else on. Inevitably this does cause problems of its own, as we saw with Gary Cahill against Brazil. I bet he’s still wishing he’d taken a solid first touch and pumped the ball long.

Another issue complicating the lives of defenders is one we could talk about all day: diving. A skill which strikers seem to becoming ever-more exceptional at, it has made tackling in the box terrifying for defenders and supporters alike. As a result, going to ground in the penalty area is now only done by the most desperate or immature of defenders.

However it’s not all doom and gloom for the game. I actually believe that stamping down on the “reckless” tackle is a good thing. Most people come to football matches to see the tricky and skilful players, not the big burly defender knobble them after five minutes.

And shirt pulling is now seen as a last ditch attempt by a poor player trying to prevent a good player gallivanting past them. Such an infringement is now always accompanied by the card and fine combination of the refs choosing depending on where you are on the pitch.

After reading this you may feel I am of the opinion that football is going down the pan in England. In fact I feel completely the opposite. I believe that if our national team is ever going to mount a serious challenge at winning something we must do everything to protect our creative players then maybe, one day, the FA will have something other than an anniversary to celebrate. Something much more valuable...a trophy.