The lost art of the tactical foul

Rooney's botched professional foul shows that players today aren't properly schooled in the dark arts of gamesmanship.

Duleep Allirajah

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Wayne Rooney is no longer regarded as the saviour of English football, but, judging by the febrile reaction to his red card at the weekend, it seems we still retain an unhealthy obsession with the Manchester United striker. Never has so much vacuous claptrap been spouted about such an unremarkable challenge since, er, last weekend.

Those who saw the incident through red-tinted spectacles felt that the sending off was unfair. United boss Louis van Gaal defended the challenge as merely a ‘professional foul’, but accepted that Rooney’s execution had been ‘too unfriendly’. Danny Baker was incredulous that anyone was seriously questioning Rooney’s dismissal. ‘People still debating Rooney’s red card?’, the broadcaster tweeted. ‘He kicked a bloke up the bollocks. Red card.’ The argument that Rooney’s challenge was no more than a professional foul is plainly nonsense. Rooney may well have intended to break up play, but his wild, dangerous kick was the polar opposite of ‘professional’. Former United teammate Gary Neville described the challenge as ‘stupid’. The Sky Sports pundit said: ‘You do want to break up play, but the mistake Rooney makes is the height of the contact.’ A sly tap of the ankles would have been sufficient – a younger, nippier Rooney may well have been able to keep up with Downing in order to make contact in a more discreet way. A less aggressive trip would have been punished with a yellow card at most, rather than the costly red card and three-match ban.

On the other side of the debate are those who saw the foul as conclusive proof that Rooney was unfit to wear the captain’s armband, for both club and country. The red card has reopened the old debate about Wazza’s suspect temperament. The spectre of Roo Rage has haunted English football ever since he stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s knackers in the World Cup quarter-final in 2006. But some perspective is needed here. Rooney’s disciplinary record is actually remarkably good these days. Saturday’s red card was his first for his club since March 2009. Moreover, the argument that a captain shouldn’t be making rash challenges and getting himself sent off is of course absurd. United captains have a proud tradition of losing the plot. Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidić, Eric Cantona – they were all partial to the occasional act of brutality.

And why should the red card be unbecoming of an England captain? The job of the England skipper is largely decorative. He has to shake hands, exchange pennants and, well, that’s pretty much the sum of it. Oh yes, and he’s expected to apologise for another dismal exit from a major tournament in the post-match press conference. But, beyond that, a captain’s soul needn’t be pure as the driven snow. The man who leads out the players is the figurehead of a football team, not a moral exemplar. Those who romanticise football’s lost golden age, before the game was supposedly corrupted by money, have short memories. Bobby Moore is revered as the golden boy of English football; the elegant gentleman footballer who wiped his muddy hands before shaking hands with the Queen in 1966. But Moore was no angel. Like most footballers of his generation, Moore liked a drink. He frequently drove home to Chigwell after a boozy night out with the boys. Moore escaped the long arm of the law for many years – on one occasion crashing his car into a roundabout and abandoning it – but was eventually convicted of drink driving in 1977. His hero status, however, was never tarnished by that incident – something that would be unthinkable today. Such is our obsession with football that we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s just a form of entertainment, not a vehicle for moral instruction.

Rooney has apologised for his rash tackle, saying that no malice was intended. And I believe him. His clumsy foul clearly wasn’t in the same league as Roy Keane’s infamous ‘take that you c**t’ assault on Alf Inge Haaland. Rooney’s intention was to prevent West Ham from breaking and allow United to reorganise. It was an attempted professional foul that went very badly wrong. But while the very idea of a professional foul may offend Corinthian sensibilities, I do think it’s a legitimate and undervalued skill. The best professional fouls appear like mistimed tackles. They look accidental when in fact they’re utterly calculated. Often the contact appears so minimal that no yellow card is even brandished.

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin once said that ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge’. He probably wasn’t talking about professional fouls, but the same principle applies. Sadly, the Opta stats don’t recognise the value of a great tactical foul. A well-executed, timely professional foul can be a match-winner. I’m not joking. While playmakers are generally lauded for their intelligent orchestration of play, the poor old midfield stoppers are seen as gormless thugs. Nothing could be further from the truth. An expert professional fouler is a visionary in his own right. The stopper anticipates danger before it becomes manifest. He sniffs it out. He can envisage how catastrophe will unfold unless he stops the opposition gathering momentum.

Rooney’s botched attempt at a professional foul exposes a glaring failing in the English game. Our young players simply aren’t properly schooled in the dark arts of gamesmanship. They’re taught about ethics; told that diving and feigning injury is wrong. Tactical fouls are described as ‘cynical’. Consequently, English players are not equipped with the tactical nous to break up the rhythm of play through a series of small, niggly infringements. Instead of bemoaning Rooney’s lack of discipline, we should celebrate the sly professional foul. Tactical fouling is an art form. It should be part of English football’s core curriculum.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be speaking at the debate From Yid Army to Green Brigade: free speech for football fans? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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