My jaw almost hit the floor.
It was FA Cup 3rd Round weekend. The opening stages of the Manchester derby. I sat taking in the game in a local bar, watching with keen interest as the countries top two sides met in what was undoubtedly going to be an explosive encounter. With United striking the first blow after Wayne Rooney's terrific headed opener broke the early deadlock.
With just 12 minutes on the clock, the ball is played into the path of Uniteds energetic winger, Luis Nani in the Manchester City half. Before the Portuguese man can come forward with the ball, The Citizens' captain Vincent Kompany slides in and smuggles the ball away. Nani, not exactly known as the most sporting of players, stumbles a little, but remains on his feet, before turning and attempting to win the ball back.
In the brief moments between the impact of the challenge and the referees whistle blowing, only one of the several United players surrounding the challenge reacts. Or even looks at the referee. As the whistle is blown, unsurprisingly, all of the United players run to the referee, putting into practice the clubs long-running and effective 'quick there's the whistle let's all constrict the referees breathing until he gives a decision that suits us' tactic.
Then it came. Chris Foy strolled over to Kompany, and without hesitation, produced the red card.
The TV coverage replays the footage of the incident over and over again.
'Reckless or excessive force' states the rulebook. A seemingly intelligent addition to the rules, in order to limit the amount of injuries caused by poor challenges. When Vincent Kompany saw Nani about to pick the ball up in a dangerous position, it was his job to make an attempt to win the ball. As his front leg comes in to the tackle, his back leg has to swing around, in order to keep his balance and in order to not contort himself into an awkward position that could potentially injure him. He wins the ball clean, and does not injure Nani. His tackle could hardly be deemed to have shown excessive force either. I doubt any football fan in the country did the obligatory wince we see when an horrific challenge goes in after Kompanys slide.
And with that, came the death of the tackle.
My qualm here is similar to the age old complaint that 'referees' have never played the game at the highest level'. I argue whether those that enforce these rules have ever played the game at all. I'm by no means saying what I have achieved through playing football is similar to that of Vincent Kompany, but I have played amateur and junior football for approximately twelve years as a defender mainly, and am fully aware that some tackles have to be won in a certain way. Sometimes it's physically impossible to win a tackle without a stud showing or both feet momentarily leaving the ground. And it's in your nature to win the ball. It's instinct to not allow that attacker to pass.
So with such a high profile decision in such a high profile game, calls for red cards seem to be coming from every tackle that's being made now. Glen Johnsons tackle for Liverpool on Joleon Lescott at the same stadium as the Kompany incident just days after was as bad if not worse than Kompanys. But it still should not be a red card (and wasn't on this occasion.) He wins the ball cleanly and there is no malice in the challenge - Johnson does not intend to hurt Lescott. End of story.
The seeds have been planted over the last few months. Rodwells challenge in the Merseyside derby way back in October that saw the youngster dismissed for a challenge that even the rule-creating bigwigs themselves would have deemed safe.
But then, in the Premier League game between Stoke City and Sunderland on Saturday February 4, another turning point. Stokes tenacious centre back, Robert Huth, slides in for a challenge on Sunderland midfielder David Meyler. On first viewing, it's an horrific challenge. After a few viewings, three things are revealed. Firstly, Meyler makes the most of it. Secondly, we see, as Huth lunges in, he drags his back foot along the ground, in an attempt to not break the rules of the game. This means Huth, in an awkward position, is dragging his foot along a frozen and not entirely safe surface. He's lucky that his foot doesn't get caught - it could cause an injury. And this rule was brought in to try and prevent injuries? Thirdly - He doesn't actually make contact with Meyler. If anything, once he has realised he's not won the ball, he tries to prevent himself from injuring the Irishman. It's madness.
Many people are saying consistency is the key here - if every challenge like these ones are deemed worthy of red cards, eventually they will be eradicated from the game. With that, slowly but surely, comes the death of the tackle. Defenders scared of making a tackle in fear of their side being reduced to ten men. It is possible to win a tackle, with 2 feet in the air, or with a stud showing. If a player is one hundred percent sure they are going to win the ball when they go in for such a challenge, then what's the harm in it? Just look at Kompanys challenge on Nani. When he commits himself to that challenge, he is going to win the ball. He does - and Nani is not harmed. Same with Rodwell, and Johnson. Even when Huth doesn't win the ball, he doesn't make any contact with Meyler.
I think Mick McCarthy summed up the thoughts of all 'old-fashioned' football fans in the country, when in his post-match interview after Wolves' took on Arsenal earlier in the season, he was questioned on Ninad Milijas' sending off for his team.
"Was it a red card? Not while I've got a hole in my bum."