13 January ~ Manchester City fans will no doubt be asking this particular question right about now. Vincent Kompany's red card, dished out by referee Chris Foy, for such a challenge on Manchester United winger Nani in last Sunday's FA Cup thriller – and the defender's subsequent statement on the matter – have opened up another one of those fun debates the football world (i.e. television pundits) love to wring dry. It seems like every week we're supposed to be concerned about a different burning issue in the game. This week it's tackling.
Pouring a tank full of fuel on the already burning fire, Liverpool and England (I wonder if that's relevant?) full-back Glen Johnson made a similar, probably worse, tackle at the end of City's very next game, in the League Cup semi-final first leg. Having just gone out of the FA Cup, City's defeat to Liverpool leaves them in danger of exiting a third knock-out competition in two months.
City fans are not talking about their side's lacklustre performance – probably their most low-key home display since Roberto Mancini's side threw off the defensive shackles of last season and set about swatting aside almost anyone who lined up against them at the Etihad stadium – but Johnson's tackle and the injustice that their man was dismissed for possibly less.
Even Liverpool fans will be scratching their heads and wondering how midfielder Jay Spearing could be sent off for his tackle on Moussa Dembele at Fulham in December, while Johnson's didn't even warrant a free-kick according to the referee Lee Mason. Spearing's red card and subsequent three match ban for his tackle were quickly followed by the same player being on the end of a horror tackle from Newcastle's Johan Cabaye. The challenge went unpunished by referee Lee Probert and was not deemed worthy of sanction by video replay.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter: consistency. Those that believe Kompany's dismissal was correct have cited "the letter of the law". United defender Rio Ferdiand took to Twitter to express surprise there was even a debate about the sending off. Wayne Rooney joined him in his amazement, perplexed at Mancini's assertion that his reaction had influenced the official's decision to reach for his pocket.
Rooney is no stranger to a red card, or indeed an appeal – having had a three-match ban for kicking a Montenegro defender reduced after the FA ignored their own stance on "frivolous" appeals (one of which led to Rio Ferdinand's ban for striking Hull's Craig Fagan being extended to four games a couple of years ago) to ensure that Rooney will be able to represent England in at least one game in this summer's European Championships.
Referees are proving to be inconsistent, the FA likewise. Of course fans, players and managers will always be inconsistent depending on whether their team has been on the right or wrong side of the decision. Mancini criticised Rooney, but when Martin Skrtel fouled Yaya Toure in City's recent league game against Liverpool, the manager ran along the Eastlands touchline waving an imaginary card.
Mancini's assertion that Johnson should have been sent off, as Kompany was, has been met with resistance – first in the tunnel after the final whistle and later in a television interview – by Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain said Mancini shouldn't criticise Rooney for demanding Kompany's dismissal, while also demanding equal punishment for Johnson.
Neither tackle in this particular saga led an injury to the player on the receiving end, and the defender can claim to have won the ball in each case. Both of these arguments have been put forward by those, Kompany included, who believe the decisions (or at least his) to be wrong and also a sign that tackling is being eradicated from the game of football. Former Liverpool defender, pundit and self-assumed hilarious deadpan comedian Mark Lawrenson, voiced this opinion during the BBC's live coverage of the semi-final.
In the light of horrific injuries to the likes of Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey, there has been a clamour to outlaw the two-footed tackle, or any challenge that could cause similar injury through excessive aggression or recklessness. It may or may not have escaped City fans' minds that their own midfielder Nigel de Jong went unpunished for a challenge that left Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa with a broken leg in October 2010, after which de Jong was dropped from the Netherlands squad.
The phrase "won the ball" should be obsolete when discussing a tackle's merits and potential danger. The fact that it isn't is partly due to an old-fashioned view of football held by fans and pundits alike, but also because of the inconsistency of officials – be they holding a whistle or sitting on an appeals panel.
After Kompany's red card, a friend said to me that referees are banning these tackles for a reason – the damage they can do to the player. My response was that only some of them are being banned. I didn't think I would be proved right only three days later. The profile of the players and teams involved is of course the only reason the pundits are currently dissecting the issue (me too, maybe?). But when the furore dies down and we move onto another issue, we'll be left with the same inconsistency between the letter of the law and interpretation of it. By the way, my mate would say that anyway, he's a United fan. Stephen Adams