This weekend saw a very healthy competition played out at Anfield as Manchester United and Liverpool fans, players, and managers came together in support of each other – well, mostly. Liverpool’s Jonjo Shelvey clearly never received that memo – the one from Sir Alex Ferguson telling everyone to calm down and be nice (I paraphrase).
Shelvey was awarded a straight red car in the 39th minute for a dangerous two-footed lunge on United’s Jonny Evans who, luckily, wasn’t seriously injured by the challenge. He wasn’t – but he could have been.
We see them week in, week out – call them “dangerous”, “reckless” or just plain “bad” tackles, they are illegal, a red card offense, and why? Because they break people’s legs and end football players’ careers. Not all the time, of course, but every now and then we get one of those “he’s not that sort of player” incident where some over-zealous lump goes in for a ‘50/50’ and comes out with a broken Croatian, or Welshman, or Frenchman, or Spaniard.
The manager of the now injured player attacks the fouling player in his understandably fuming post-match interview. The opposing manager acknowledges sympathetically that it was a 50/50 challenge that his player got “all wrong”. “These things happen in football” he’ll say, “but he’s not that kind of player”.
What does that mean then? He’s not the sort of player who breaks other players’ legs – because he just did. Do they mean he’s not the sort of player that would intend to injure another player? The fact that “he didn’t mean it” is unlikely to offer much comfort to the now hospitalized playmaker of the opposition who will spend an entire season, a potentially half of the next, rehabilitating.
Luckily, Jonjo Shelvey did not break Jonny Evans’ leg on Sunday. And if he had have done, I’m sure he wouldn’t have meant it but, although it was unfair on a Liverpool team that dominated the first half, had the better chances and were unlucky to lose overall, Shelvey deserved his sending off. His subsequent reaction to the card was petulant, especially on a day that ‘respect’ had been of such paramount importance.
What Shelvey’s red card signalled was possibly a key change in English football – when referees penalize dangerous fouls and reckless challenges, it sets a precedent – not just to the Jonjo Shelveys, the Martin Taylors, the Ryan Shawcross[es], the Karl Henrys, the Nigel de Jongs and the Roy Keanes of the sport – but also to the players that really aren’t “that sort of player”.
Football is a physical game, highly competitive but also skilful – and there is as much skill to tackling as there is to scoring goals – it is, at it’s best, an art.
image: © kong niffe