Sunday 24 February ~
John Cartwright has a low profile these days but from the early 1980s, when he was the youth coach at Crystal Palace until the start of the current decade when he managed the England Under-20 side, his often acerbic views on the state of English football appeared in print regularly. Probably the most widely reported comments he made were in 2000 when a series of violent incidents in League matches led him to bemoan the attitudes that he felt had taken root in English football. "In this country we lack class in everything we do," he said. "Football follows the culture of the country, and sometimes vice versa. We have a thug culture; we play thug football." It wouldn't be a surprise to see Cartwright's views in circulation again now that a new debate about violent play has been triggered by Martin Taylor's leg-breaking tackle on Eduardo during Birmingham v Arsenal.
Speaking directly after the match, an incandescent Arsène Wenger called for Taylor to be banned from playing – which he has since retracted – and suggested that one day someone might die in such an incident. No one would say that Taylor, who was said by his manager to be "distraught", deliberately set out to injure Eduardo; it was clumsy rather than malicious. But it's conceivable that Taylor wouldn't even have been sent off if it wasn't immediately obvious that it was a very bad injury. The fact that Lee Carsley's comparably late challenge on Stephen Hunt during the Everton v Reading game produced only a yellow card may have been due in part to Hunt's instant, angry reaction, which also served to show that he hadn't been badly hurt.
Any regular spectator knows that similar tackles are attempted routinely at every level of English football without any punishment for the perpetrator, aside perhaps from a warning that he might get a yellow for the next one. Harsh physicality has always been actively encouraged – spectators like to see players "get stuck in" and "battle" and it's not unreasonable to think that many managers' team-talks don't stretch much further.
Lunges that make contact with the man rather than the ball happen wherever football is played. But nowhere else is it such an integral part of the game – to the extent that it's the most frequent complaint about English football made by foreign players. Periodically there are refereeing clampdowns on violent play but after few games in which teams end up with nine men there's always a counter-reaction and the old laxity returns. Martin Taylor might get an extended ban although that's less likely now that Wenger has admitted that his initial comments were "excessive". But the underlying attitudes that lead to such incidents are as entrenched as they were when John Cartwright spoke out.