Rangers against Birmingham, and Loftus Road was quiet. The mood was that now too familiar mix of underwhelmed, frustrated and resigned. Then Ariel Borysiuk snapped into a full-blooded sliding tackle and all around there were roars of approval and, for a moment, the torpor lifted. Part of the excited response was because these tackles are becoming a rare treat for fans, as referees seek to drive out the dangerous and the uncontrolled from the game. There’s much to celebrate in this; reading To Stan, with Love, there were many reminders about how great players of the past were unprotected when their artistry was met with brutality. Football, however, is not just a sport of skill and finesse but also of crunching challenges. Like any other contact sport, part of its appeal will always lie in the thrill of controlled violence and the sliding tackle, even when perfectly executed, will always be violent. It’s not possible for it to be otherwise when one person hurls themselves at another. Fans are left to enjoy sliding tackles as both a rebellion against the footballing authorities they mistrust and a reminder of a part of the sport they miss. There’s a particularly honest aggression in a sliding tackle. Unlike a subtle rib to the chest or a tug of the shirt, you are making your intentions very clear.
Fans miss aggression but perhaps most of all they berate the lack of passion in the modern game. The English game has always valued passionate players. Here, more so than in other countries, the honest trier gains respect for running endlessly around the pitch and screaming at all his teammates. The sliding tackle is a conspicuously passionate act; you are putting your body on the line. It’s the display of passion that made the roars that greeted Borysiuk’s tackle so loud; Rangers fans were desperate to see a player prove that they cared. But for all the excitement it sparks, a sliding tackle is usually a mistake. The player will often not gain possession for their team and even if they do, they will be on the turf and unable to make use of it. The risk is rarely worth the reward. Mistime it by a fraction of a second and you leave your team a man down for the rest of the game; a definitively selfish act. It may be boring but the best option is nearly always for the player to stay on their feet.
The things we cheer and enjoy aren’t always in the team’s best interests. We as fans praise passion but passion isn’t the same as commitment to the team. James Perch may have been extremely passionate when he went flying into that kamikaze challenge against Wolves but in getting himself sent off, he displayed a total indifference to the team’s fate. The commitment that a team needs isn’t exhibited in dramatic acts but in consistent service and respect for the consequences of your actions. That player who shows for the ball when the team are struggling and no-one else wants it rarely gets a cheer. Few fans will ever appreciate that striker who puts in the extra few hours of shooting practice on the training ground. Such commitment is easily missed and hard to get excited about but it’s the stuff that successful football teams are built on.
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