A Kick Where It Hurts

By Dan Buxton
Last updated : 13 September 2010

I have to admit to being very concerned by the direction in which football is heading and the start of the new season has only served to exacerbate my fears.  

You could be mistaken for thinking my issue is with the exorbitant prices that we fans have to pay. Perhaps you think my issue is with the ridiculous sums of money players now earn? Maybe I’m fed up with the way the big clubs are allowed to dictate what happens in the Premier League? Could I be sick of the behaviour of the celebrity footballer given the latest headlines in the “red tops”?  

Of course all of the above statements have given football fans food for thought over recent seasons but my main worry is that certain supporters, managers and elements of the press wish to make our great game a non-contact sport.  

In our first two seasons back in the top flight we have of course been labelled as some sort of “Premier League Pariah” in some quarters. We have been partly to blame ourselves after making many pundits look like idiots by not only staying up but surviving with relative comfort. We have also been pigeonholed as being a “dirty” team who play “anti-football” and who basically score all our goals from long throw-ins.  

The style issue has of course been done to death but the “dirty” allegation clearly needs looking at in greater depth. My own view is that we aren’t dirty enough and don’t “play the game” as well as our more established peers do but perhaps we don’t actually want to become more like them?  

Clearly Tony Pulis likes his teams to be ultra competitive and hard in the tackle. Now this philosophy is where the new age of fan and the armchair supporter struggle to get to grips with things. I would class the current Stoke team as a fairly hard bunch but I certainly don’t think we are a dirty team. The Premier League circus doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish, so let me try and assist. A hard team is a team whose players are committed to the cause and are prepared to go into challenges knowing full well that they themselves could end up getting hurt. A dirty team is a group of cynical players who niggle and trip, safe in the knowledge that they have absolutely no chance of getting injured.  

To further indicate that we aren’t as bad as people would have you believe you only have to look at the statistics for red cards in the Premier League over the last three seasons. On average there has been one red card for every six games. Stoke’s average in our first two seasons (battling to survive) has been a red card almost every eight games. Now I’m not suggesting that our record is particularly good, in fact I’d much prefer to see fewer red cards but what it does show is that we simply cannot be as “dirty” as we are made out to be.  

So it does seem to indicate that our reputation is far worse than the reality of it all. Sadly the facts don’t seem to wash and we will no doubt continue to be tarred with this particular brush for some time to come.  

Over the weekend we saw our near neighbours from Wolverhampton come in for some criticism for their apparent “rough house” treatment of Fulham at the Cottage. During this game Bobby Zamora suffered a bad injury following a challenge from Karl Henry. It has been pointed out that Wolves earned a large number of bookings and eventually had a man sent off but does that tell the whole story? I’ll admit that I have only viewed the highlights of the game but if I’m honest I don’t recall any really bad tackles at all. There were bookable offences that were rightly punished but you’d expect that when a team travels away from home. As for the Henry tackle on Zamora, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable tackle that sadly for the Fulham striker resulted in a serious but also very unlucky injury. I’m convinced that if Karl Henry performed that very same challenge 100 times he would never cause another injury such as the one Zamora suffered.  

Karl will no doubt get some stick off certain fans but hopefully it won’t be anywhere near as hysterical as the treatment I’m expecting our own Ryan Shawcross will receive when we visit Arsenal this season. Fans tend to react to their manager so hopefully after listening to Mark Hughes’s very sensible appraisal of the game, Fulham fans won’t have the same bile reserved for Henry as Arsenal fans will have after listening to their manager’s views on our young defender.  

Hopefully common sense will prevail and football will continue to be the full-blooded contact sport that it has always been. It must be allowed to give real football fans the excitement that other sports simply can’t compete with due to its physical nature and the passion that football consumes us all with. To those who question this I would simply say please be careful what you wish for, as the “perfect” game you are looking for could just be the death of our national sport.  

Here’s to the Villa game, hopefully a high octane contest with plenty of tackles and great goals……and three points for the Potters of course!

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