Over the past week, we've heard a lot of talk about whether Ryan Shawcross (right) is "that type of player". Which is to almost completely miss the point. Because whether Shawcross is or not, it's undeniable that football is very much 'that type of sport'. The lack of definition on how to tackle cleanly but also the dynamics of the game have fostered a form of the sport where a certain amount of horrific injuries – à la Aaron Ramsey's – are unfortunately inevitable.
Indeed, tackling in soccer could well be the most dangerous type of contact in any similar ball sport, as one study by Donald Kirkendall of the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of North Carolina indicated. In truth though, we needn't look beyond this island. Simply compare soccer with the most popular ball sports here. In both Gaelic football, hurling and rugby, the main manner of tackling is done with clashes of the upper body, providing the opponent with an opportunity to defend himself and allowing the tackler a greater degree of control over how he exerts his power. Sure, Gaelic football might be a more abrasive game and rugby might lead to a far greater level of wear and tear where crippling neck injuries are a threat, but the latter applies when a player obviously oversteps the rules. As David Busst's injury at Old Trafford 14 years ago proved, players can keep cleanly within the rules of soccer and still get badly injured.
Because, essentially – and in great contrast to both rugby and Gaelic football – tackling in soccer comes down to high-speed, low-control movement of legs where even the slightest mis-step or mis-judgement can unintentionally leave a badly exposed and fragile leg bone badly broken. Quite simply, your legs are a lot less guarded than your more upholstered upper body. And yet the guidelines on how to tackle are a lot less clear.
Indeed, Fifa rules leave much open to interpretation: "It is an offence to charge an opponent in a careless manner, in a reckless manner [or] using excessive force." And that's it. Most referees will often look to the height of the foot or whether studs were showing to judge 'carelessness' or 'recklessness'. Yet, unlike the Martin Taylor-Eduardo incident, Shawcross's studs were facing the ground and his foot barely raised off it. As any coach will tell a young player, he didn't pull out so as to avoid injury to himself. But, unfortunately, neither did Ramsey. The young Arsenal man's leg, however, was lower to the ground leading to the catastrophic injury. It was an accident, but of the sort the game's dynamics ultimately made inevitable. Legs will clash, a small percentage will break, an even smaller percentage will break badly.
For all that, it is less than two years since – in the aftermath of Eduardo's injury and a spate of horror tackles that season – the match officials body attempted to solve the problem in the Premier League. At the time Keith Hackett said, "Challenges that endanger the safety of an opponent are unacceptable and you have to have the courage, quite correctly, to go to the straight red. The player has to have control over the speed and intensity of the challenge."
Here, Shawcross did. But he didn't have control over the speed and intensity of Ramsey's challenge. In any case, Shawcross received the red Hackett would have wanted. Yet that red is hardly going to serve as a deterrent since the free-for-all nature of tackling still reigns. And, although Hackett's change in attitude was intended to be applied this season, Frank Lampard's comments at the time still stand. "The players do not know where they stand and I don't think they ever will."
The muck-and-bullets spirit ingrained in Irish and British soccer has undoubtedly only exacerbated this, but it's a situation Fifa are seeking to change. Having undertaken a study that found slide tackles are responsible for far and away the most injuries in the game – 25 per cent – they want to make it go the same way as the challenge from behind. Those intentions have already been taken up in spirit by the likes of the Spanish federation, where the frequency of free-kicks is in direct contrast to the frequency of horror injuries when put against English numbers.
Such moves open up another argument however, about the art of tackling itself and whether the game would be better for less contact. One of the most satisfying elements of soccer, after all, is a cleanly-won tackle a defender simply had to make – à la Paul McGrath on Beppe Signori in USA '94. A bobble on the pitch or a split-second slip from the striker, however, could easily see that clean tackle become a dirty break. Is it worth removing a large and historic element of the game because of that small chance of serious injury? Or do we just reluctantly accept that, as with Shawcross and Ramsey, accidents occasionally happen? After all, that incident didn't even involve a slide tackle.
Certainly, it's something that's going to provide a challenge for the administrators but one that must be looked at.