As Wolves continue defending Henry’s red card at Arsenal, English football needs to put skill higher on the agenda

(by Hugo Saye)

“Clearly, Rosicky is not injured. Henry’s challenge was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill foul. We should all take exception to players surrounding officials, designed to pressurise referees into making an unfair decision.”

And so the furore surrounding the decision of Andre Marriner to send Wolves’ Karl Henry off for his foul on Tomas Rosicky of Arsenal last weekend refuses to die down. (Watch here.) The above words were those of Wolves chairman Jez Moxey in his programme notes this weekend, refusing to accept that his midfielder had been rightfully sent off for what he suggests was only “probably a foul.”

The fact is Henry went into Rosicky from behind with unnecessarily excessive force, colliding with his standing leg and barely, if it all, getting the ball. Rosicky’s touch just prior to the contact ensured that any contact Henry may have made with the ball would have been insufficient to win possession if the foul had not happened.

Marriner clearly judged this to be an example of ‘serious foul play’ and sent Henry off. To say Rosicky is not injured seems a beligerant contradiction to the TV footage of the stud marks up the back of his leg (footage that was strangely absent from the Match of the Day debate into the issue that evening) and the fact that he was a serious doubt for the Champions League game against Barcelona three days later, probably only playing in the end because Arsenal’s other injuries left little alternative.

Moxey’s other major complaint is about the players “surrounding officials,” something for which Henry himself branded Thomas Vermaelen an “absolute disgrace” in the aftermath of the event. But Vermaelen did not run to Marriner to demand a red card, he ran to Henry to let him know exactly what he thought about the foul on his teammate, just as anybody would do on pitch in the country from Sunday league to Premier League. And can you blame a side that has suffered seven bone fractures this season for being a little sensitive to reckless play?

However, I’m not actually here to discuss the rights and wrongs of the particular incident. What is striking for me is not the sending off itself but the reaction to it amongst many members of the press and the public, a reaction that’s indicative of some deep problems in English football. A small, skilful player had his standing leg smashed into by a more physical opponent with an uncontrolled slide, and the media side themselves with the person who made the tackle.

It says much about the way we view football in this country, and always have. At Association Football’s very birth there was much debate over whether ‘hacking’ should be permitted, a debate to which one man contributed that outlawing it would ‘do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who will beat you with a week’s practice.’ Residual traces of that man’s disgust that football should be about skill on the ball rather than good old English ‘pluck’ still linger in the game today, and that is our biggest problem.

In this country we love physicality in sport, our machismo-driven approach to the beautiful game is something in which many people take a lot of pride, but the fact is it fails us time and time again. On current and historical trends we will never produce a team like today’s Barcelona or like the Ajax of the early 70s or enter a World Cup with a national team like Brazil 1970 and Holland 1974. We have our great players but will there ever be an English Pelé, Maradona or Cruijff? No, because skill still comes in behind grit and desire in the race for our affections.

Put simply, Henry’s tackle on Rosicky was dangerous. In Spain would people have leapt to his defence and demanded he should never have been sent off? Would his cause be championed in Brazil? Very unlikely, because they are two nations who see the game differently, and reap the rewards in the form of world class footballers and international trophies. And until we start seeing the game the same away, and allying our sympathies with the skilful ball player rather than the over-physical bruiser, we will never produce football on the same level as those two nations.

Excuses are frequently made for the excessive use of force we see in our country. Lower teams’ defenders have to go in hard against the better sides and ‘let them know they’re there’ because they simply can’t compete on a technical level. This is fine, and it is what gives our Premier League league its edge of excitement over many other leagues, but as soon as it becomes dangerous it must be stopped and that is exactly what Marriner did last weekend.

For too long we have looked on physicality as an acceptable substitute for skill, and this kills any hope of creating an environment in which technical football can flourish. Grit and pluck may be capable of producing some big, one-off upsets against superior opposition but they are not what should be encouraged when looking to build a platform for long-term international success.

Going back to Moxey’s notes, it is players making bad challenges we should really take exception to, not those seeking security from referees. The excessively strong tackler should be condemned not consoled and the skilled technical player lying on the floor should be afforded more protection. This should be the way forward for English football because, although the tough men may not like it, footballing success derives from skill, not force.