With a timely reminder of the injury blows that international windows can provide domestic clubs coming recently in Seamus Coleman’s incredibly unfortunate double leg break against Wales - not to mention subsequent blows for Everton boss Ronald Koeman in Ramiro Funes Mori’s knee injury and James McCarthy’s hamstring issue recurrence – it would be easy to suppose professional football is an accident waiting to happen in 2017. Certainly, with the furore surrounding Neil Taylor’s mistimed tackle on the Irish full-back, it would appear to the outsider as if nothing to this divisive extent has ever previously captivated the audience of a football match. Some wish to portray this era of professional football; more physically demanding, mentally infuriating and commercially dependent than ever before, as the haven of inevitable disaster, the product of generational shifts, lax refereeing and the kowtowing to commercial demands above player’s rights. Others point the finger at managers – those who are employing unprecedentedly extreme, intense and demanding training sessions in the pursuit of delivering on boardroom targets – opposition players, who supposedly leap into more threatening tackles than ever previously possible and the radical scaling-up of professionalism in each corner of the game; Arsene Wenger one of the first to rid changing room culture of post-match beers and training centre canteens of egg and chips in the late 1990’s, for example.
Quite why it is more dangerous to be a player in this era – in the physical sense at least – is yet to be defined, nor is which of these dramatic changes in culture is most to blame. Whether it is, in fact, more dangerous than say, 50 or 60 years ago, to play top-flight football is alone a contentious claim to make, as we will discover, delving into each area of the argument, hopefully returning a definitive conclusion.
I thought we’d establish first quite why Coleman’s horrendous injury, laying him on the side-lines for what some predict to be an entire twelve months, came to fruition. Obviously, Taylor’s miscalculated, regrettable last-ditch slide to prevent the Everton man surging away into the Wales box was the culminating, ultimately decisive stage in the array of events leading up to the 69th minute at the Aviva Stadium last Friday (24th March), but what I’m interested to pinpoint is whether outside factors led to the inevitable occurrence of Coleman’s injury. Taking a step back in the hours and days leading up to the World Cup Qualifier, and you uncover Roy Keane’s pre-match press conference hints on Irish tactics to repel the threat of Gareth Bale; “somebody get to him, get to him as quick as you can, don’t let him get his head up like he does at Real Madrid. Don’t give him space in behind because the boy can run. Tackle him. Hit him…fairly. Tackling is part of the bloody game.” Undoubtedly antagonising those in Welsh ranks with typically uncouth, candid press bites, Keane stoked up inevitable tetchiness come the hour of play in Dublin, possibly reflecting on Chris Coleman’s own tactics – with both sides resorting to overly physical challenges to assert any sense of dominance, particularly evident on Bale’s own outlandish lunge on John O’Shea only minutes, as well all know, before Taylor’s similar effort.
All’s fair in love and war, but when physicality usurps actual intent to play the game, scything down menacing attacking forces in mid-flow just to hold the defensive barriers; clearly a line has been crossed by both management teams, who no longer have the best wishes of the players at heart, which should be paramount to their position. As Keane said, tackling is part of the bloody game, but to resort to it in the event where, particularly late in the game – with both sides chasing a vital goal – the players, and management more prominently, know all too well how high tempers are flaring, it appears a reckless use of brute force that is clearly endangering individuals, costing the likes of Coleman a year of what can be anything between 15 and 20 years of professional service.
Bringing me nicely to my first point of notice when contrasting the modern day to the 1950’s or ‘60’s, and the tenure of the average footballer is an obvious marker of how long careers, arguably more physically demanding than any other in modern sport, can be. The well-renowned playing days of Stanley Matthews, forging a 33-year club career at both Stoke City and Blackpool from 1932 to 1965, in which he won the last of three FA Cup Finals reached at the age of 38, a Ballon d’Or at age 41 and the second of his two Second Division titles at 48, was of course something of an oddity, but in a Stoke side that was victorious in the Second Division of 1962/63, he was one of six over-30 members of a squad of 23. Contrast that to the leaders of the Second Division, or Championship today, in 2017 there have only been runouts for three over-30’s on Wearside; Daryll Murphy (34), Jesus Gamez (31) and Yoan Gouffran (30) starting 36 games in total, a vast majority (29) of which can be accounted to the Frenchman, a relative spring chicken. Testament to the physical rigour of the modern game; the endless training, the rehabilitation, the strict diets and moreover, the stigma surrounding the use of older players at the top tiers – with many (Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Cole, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, to name but a few) the recipients of a virtual one-way buss pass to the MLS for octogenarians, even of their calibre.
It is not, of course, impossible for such special players in Matthews’ ilk to continue, not to 50 perhaps, but to their late 30’s and early 40’s today. The Wizard of the Dribble was widely recognised for being well ahead of the times in terms of professionalism, with his emphasis on wellbeing and longevity evident in his approach, unfathomable in such informal working class periods as 1930’s to ‘60’s Britain, to refrain from smoking or drinking throughout his career, to run along Blackpool beach daily at 7AM – wearing boots lined with lead – during his time with the Tangerines, and to opt for salads and fruit over traditionally hearty pre-match grub. Even taking the step to abstain from food every Monday, he was a trendsetter of truly monumental proportions, with his personal philosophy the key to his record-setting endurance.
Why, with a far greater emphasis on diet, exercise and tactical awareness in 2017, can nobody replicate his feats at the top level, though? With a greater accessibility to physiotherapists and scientific studies on endurance, over the course of both 90 minutes and a 20-year career, is it that players are now told, everywhere they go, that they cannot realistically pursue a career in the sport they love beyond 35 for a striker, 38 for a defender or 40 for a goalkeeper? Ryan Giggs certainly defied nature in the latter stages of his career, and dare I say it, could’ve probably extended his playing days away from Manchester United had he not taken up the position as Louis van Gaal’s assistant at the age of 40. Aside from the Welsh Wizard-turned-dreary pundit, however, there are desperate few relics of even 15 years ago, let alone 20 – especially with Francesco Totti, confined to the bench in his current guise, set to retire from his playing career with Roma this summer, culminating a 25-year long spell which has taken him to age 40.
Required to be prime physical property of the clubs they sign for, perhaps it is that players, with such emphasis upon them to deliver results and maintain standards throughout testing periods, can no longer be trusted beyond the dreaded glass ceiling of 35 years. We often hear both pundits and fans comment patronisingly on how the likes of Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry and John Terry are ‘doing extremely well’ to be consistently reaching such heights at their ages, but it is only a product of our castaway footballing culture that such longevity is valued. As only a small share of players remain at their given club for more than five years, ours is a footballing world where short-term success is greeted with greater acclaim than a decade-long project, a world fickle enough to scarcely fathom a player serve under more than two or three managerial tenures. While objectively their physical attributes will wane as the years catch up on them, their technical prowess is honed in these grey-haired playing days – as witnessed on many occasions – and their character will not be one to question, allowing them to protect themselves from serious injury by not only realising the futility of rushing into late tackles, but by also striving harder to reach peak physical condition.
It is on this theme, the excessive turnover of coaching staff, that we continue our analysis. With such highly contrasting and diverse arrays of coaching approaches – to fitness training, not only team bonding, build-up play, defensive strategies or positional awareness – it can be challenging physically, rather than solely mentally, to adapt to, say, the varying regimes of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. For those generally perceived as ‘older’ players, this process is likely to be increasingly taxing, as even winning the trust of new managers is demanding to say the least – Bastian Schweinsteiger under Mourinho, Landon Donovan under Jurgen Klinsmann and Roberto Baggio under Arrigo Sacchi, cases in point – prior to the strain which the quick reversion in tactical outlook can place on men of their quality. Though Massimiliano Allegri resisted the temptation to make wide scale tactical changes to his Juventus side inherited from Antonio Conte in the summer of 2014, the ushering out of Andrea Pirlo by the next summer certainly proved his faith in the long-term worth of Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio in his mould, individuals who though only half a dozen years younger, had considerable energy in their legs to complement their winning experience.
There is no doubt in my mind that, while injuries are more easily, statistically, attained when players reach their latter working years, the opportunity for serious harm is far greater when these employees – lacking perhaps the life lessons or exposure to wider coaching philosophies – are in the early stages of their playing days. Casting our minds over the catalogue of career-severing hospitalisations witnessed over the years, very few occur in wiser heads – Dean Ashton and Michael Johnson the recipients of eventually decisive grievances, while the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ledley King and Owen Hargreaves have been the unfortunate victims of recurring issues – proving that perhaps training intensity does play a prominent part in the number of casualties clubs suffer. King, markedly, only managed to maintain a playing career throughout his knee troubles by training away from the rest of the Spurs squad of the time, focusing on physiotherapy and weight training in the gym to prolong his future in the game he loved. This case, I dare say, remains today for individuals with such flagrant shackles to their abilities, and without significant sympathy for the plights of such players, little progress is being made for those in their position – either forced to play through the pain to maintain a position in their club’s squad, or seek a career away from their present home, likely further down the pyramid. A case proven by Wilshere, who likely will have no choice but to make his current loan spell with Bournemouth permanent to sustain Premier League ambition.
The victim of a stress fracture to his left ankle in a pre-season friendly with the New York Red Bulls in the summer of 2011, which ruled him out for 17 months after his breakout season in the Gunners’ midfield at the age of 18, Wilshere’s continuing left ankle fears have plagued what once appeared an era-defining career for both the North Londoners and England. Quite whether the initial tackle that led to the injury, reportedly made in the previous fixture of the 2011 Emirates Cup (a 2-2 draw with Boca Juniors) and inflamed in the subsequent Red Bulls test, was the sole area of blame in Wilshere’s prolonged series of niggles, is to be argued.
For all we know, as Arsene Wenger once argued, Wilshere’s physical strains in the early stages of his career – with England’s Under-21’s, the full England side and Arsenal in quick succession – with varying demands of the Stevenage-born playmaker, could have taken their eventual toll in what first appeared an innocuous ankle swelling, yet what extended to an eventual 22 months on the side-lines over the course of his career to date. Had it been an inherited frailty exposed by as rigorous a career in central-midfield as a young player could wish for, with his passion and natural combativeness his eventual downfall in the middle of the park? Was it, instead, the inability of Wenger, Stuart Pearce, Fabio Capello or Roy Hodgson to make adequate arrangements for his specialist requirements, failing where Eddie Howe seemingly has achieved some protracted respite to the young maestro’s fears? Similarly, in Daniel Sturridge’s case, can his consistently unfortunate array of troubles; thigh, calf, hip, knee, hamstring, groin and ankle, not a jarringly specific game of head, shoulders, knees and toes but instead the list of areas he’s incurred wounds in over the past few seasons, be attributed to a simple case of over-training?
One aspect I can assure fans is not to blame in the event of serious injury in 2017 is the supposed increase in career-threatening, unpunished tackles. Where Stanley Matthews was in the minority, a vast array of players were forced out of the game throughout his career by the repeated hits withstood over the course of 15 to 20 years, exposed to torrid playing conditions, lenient refereeing (to say the least) and rain-wearied clods of balls, all while proudly cherishing relatively Victorian hand-stitched boots they had to bathe in to mould to their feet. Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse, the other stars of Matthews’ era for the Three Lions, retired in circumstances similar to many players of the age, citing groin and ankle injuries respectively – a stark comparison to the likes of Xabi Alonso, Totti and Philipp Lahm, who can all afford to pinpoint retirement timescales for this summer without having experienced any kinds of persistent issues at this stage in their careers. They have accrued their fortunes, while the likes of Finney and Lofthouse could only afford to pursue their plumbing and coaching careers respectively to maintain a steady flow of household income, left with no other option in an era where playing incomes were, quite rightly, closely in touch with average national working wages.
Players have certainly not become more violent in the subsequent 60 years, and have, by the extending rules of the game – especially at the highest standard, where an example has to be set – tailored their actions in accordance with changing cultures. Instead, we exist in a period of football currently where fans, partly by blind loyalty, and less by factual credibility, are more likely to complain about a red card being too severe, rather than coming too late, as many would’ve commented on what is often described as a period in the 1950’s where the tackles crunched, the games flowed and, for the want of a less sexually circumscribing phrase, the men were men.
Referees are certainly more in-touch with the strict instructions of FIFA and the FA in the modern day, an obvious bi-product of the increased presence of global broadcasting technology in grounds at such a level, reprimanding players for offences previously unforeseen, as indicated in Zlatan Ibrahimović’s recent three-match ban for striking Tyrone Mings with a flailing elbow, an offence that in the context of post-war play, would be highly unlikely to incur such a wrath. While it is effectively a referee’s first responsibility to protect each of the 22 players out on the pitch at any given time, he or she will have to combine this with a sense of detachment and objectivity in their decisions, so it is incredibly difficult to keep on top of continually unfolding action. That said, I feel referees do an incredibly thorough and widely unrecognised duty, and are, in my eyes, the main party to thank where the establishment of a safer brand of football is concerned.
Having trawled through all these contrasting circumstances then, I believe it impossible to even defend the suggestion that football is more dangerous in 2017 than ever before, at least for those who are employed to play it at the top level. While the opportunity for significant physical damage still remains in a guise unprecedented, the sheer density of matches and close proximity of high-octane training sessions to these places players in a position where there is but one inevitability. As physiotherapists and sports scientists harness increasingly advanced technology and theories to aid the discovery of underlying issues, diagnose newly acquired injuries and pinpoint dietary and exercise regimes for specific individuals, the availability of expert care has placed a protective shroud over ultra-professional players today, while resultantly increasing the injured population. With players, managers and physios all wary of the threats even a minor niggle can pose, football occupies a paradox in which, aiming to protect the individuals involved, it has gone to extreme measures previously only endorsed in health-and-safety officer comedy skits.
There’s little doubt that players today are over-trained to boot, as you only have to gaze over the innumerable cases in which players have pulled out injured in pre-match warm ups – even affecting the semi-professional Lewes FC of the eighth English tier last week – or have wounded one another in nine-a-side training drills, to gain a sense of the threats associated with the overabundance of eagerness to perform. So desperate to instil their brand of football into their utilitarian chess pieces, the main protagonists of today’s action – the managers – barely allow players a period off football longer than a matter of hours at a time. Naturally, this isn’t beneficial to the long-term physical or mental health of the players involved, but to produce results, with points meaning the prizes of financial prosperity for the shareholders involved, it is a needs-must situation for those involved.
While every other orifice of the game has attempted to ease the physical strain on players, the money men have only wound the burden up another dozen notches over the past few decades, influencing the scheduling of games and the lack of recovery time for players, the quick turnover of managers and training regimes for players to adapt to, the pressure on managers and the inevitable provocation to revert to overly physical tactics in pursuit of results, and the foolish eagerness to promote young starlets, unnerving even the best and often resulting in the dissolution of many a promising career to injury. Players have had to stomach a lot throughout this arduous time, and putting aside clear monetary crimes in the game to seemingly appease these naïve young individuals, I have to admit my sympathy for their cause, well, not for having to eat past at 9AM for a 12:00 kick off, but for the profound and acutely hazardous degrees of training they have to put their bodies – the only quality they can retain throughout their life – through for a good 15 to 20 years of their existence, a quarter, on average, of their time on this earth dedicated to training four times a week, in addition to a game or two. While it may not seem much to some, the sacrifices they make are considerable and to place themselves in a direct line of fire, as Seamus Coleman can account, is just the first of these forgoes. Quite simply, I believe modern players to be worked too hard for their own health, and even though they fortunately inhabit a culture fundamentally far less dangerous than that borne by the likes of Matthews, Finney and Lofthouse, there will never be a footballing world bereft of danger. If we still need the debate arisen from Coleman’s injury to reveal that, then football should take an extremely self-invasive assessment of its values.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!