Ryan Shawcross is available for Stoke City’s fixture with Tottenham Hotspur this weekend, providing he recovers from minor ankle surgery, but the victim of the awful tackle that caused the 22-year-old’s suspension – Aaron Ramsey – is still a long way from returning to action himself. What justice, then, when the perpetrator of a leg-breaking, career-threatening injury is free to make a comeback while the innocent party has barely begun his rehabilitation?
This writer does not believe Shawcross, or any Stoke player, set out to seriously hurt a fellow professional. But Stoke and many other teams in England, approach games with the intention of ‘getting stuck in’, ‘letting their opponents know they’re there’ or any other way of saying kicking their opponents off the park without actually saying it. The longer we accept this as a legitimate tactic against a more skilful side, the longer we will have to contend with the sickening images of a footballer’s leg literally hanging by a thread. And when we accept that is the way to go about facing Arsene Wenger’s side, we are accepting an approach that is just a few steps away from setting out to break legs. It is a fine line and Stoke live their lives on it. When they cross that line, as Shawcross did, the results are horrific.
For Shawcross to protest his innocence and claim there was no intent is no defence of his actions. Whether he meant it or not, Shawcross broke Ramsey’s leg and the punishment does not fit the crime. Not that Shawcross should be banned for as long as Ramsey is missing – that would be Draconian – but a tackle that leaves a player’s career in the balance has to be punished heavier than any other foul receiving a straight red card. The FA has the power to fix this. They could convene a board made up of respected ex-players, managers or journalists, or even a combination of all three to judge how dangerous a tackle that weekend was and recommend appropriate punishment. The idea is not to outlaw tackling as some myopic old pros would complain, but to correctly punish those that deserve it.
It is a myth that removing these dangerous tackles from the English game will hamper it or damage what makes English football arguably the most popular league in the world. The fervour generated from the masses in the stands and the action on the pitch is nothing to do with studs-up tackles or career-threatening lunges the likes of which we see all too often on these shores. The English game is an aggressive game but that aggression must be channelled because when it is not, English football goes from being the epitome of what is good about sport – skill, commitment, teamwork, passion – to being the last refuge of the hatchet man, thundering bullies who do not deserve to share a field with the many talented players who call the Premier League home.
Shawcross is not a thundering bully – far from it – but rather a combative, never-say-die defender who is worthy of his place in Fabio Capello’s thoughts ahead of the World Cup. By all accounts he is also a charming, down-to-earth man, but all of that could not have less to do with the issue. If a player with a poorer reputation than Shawcross – Vinny Jones, for example – had been the one to injure Ramsey, would Jones’ intimidating and aggressive persona have made the challenge any worse? It could be argued Jones’ past history of on-the-field violence would bring about a harsher punishment, but while Shawcross does not have nearly the track record of the former Wimbledon midfielder, the incident with Ramsey was not the first time he has left an opposing player with a severe injury.
Francis Jeffers, Emmanuel Adebayor and now Ramsey have all been casualties of Shawcross’ tackles but Shawcross himself is just a symptom of a problem deep-rooted in English football. By and large, we glorify those who hurtle head-long into tackles with scant regard for their own welfare or that of their opponent, and yet we are shocked when terrible injures such as the one Ramsey suffered occur. What should be most shocking is the relatively minor penalty handed out to the person responsible. Shawcross missed a handful of games, Ramsey will miss countless more. Who here is really being punished?