Issue #114 Paul Anderson’s broken leg and the Refereeing of low expectations

As told by Michael Wood

While not quiet having the effect of overshadowing the lack-energy display against Peterborough United at the weekend the injury to Paul Anderson and Phil Parkinson’s search for a replacement has taken some of the attention away.

As Parkinson started looking down his list of wingers available – seemingly not keen to give Dylan Motley-Henry a place in the team which his squad status demands – the club and community were in regret over Anderson. The BBC noted benignly that Anderson had broken his leg while City themselves bemoaned the bad luck involved.

Bad luck is if you slip on ice and break your leg.

If someone jumps at you with a studded boot without taking care for your safety, and of the referee who is supposed to be in charge of your safety ignores it and all the builds up to it, I think you are entitled to put it down to something other than misfortune.

Indeed Anderson did not break his leg. It was broken and it was broken by Michael Bostwick.

Let us not blame Michael Bostwick

That Bostwick made the challenge he did is not the bone of contention. He approached the prone Anderson a minute after breaking his fibula in two to acknowledge and perhaps apologise for it. Both were probably appreciated by Anderson and by the City players but neither were strictly necessary. Bostwick was not even spoken to by Referee Paul Tierney.

Tierney saw the tackle – we assume – and decided that the break was an accident (in that it was an unintentional outcome) rather than an intended outcome. He is probably right that Bostwick did not try to or want to break Anderson’s leg but one hopes Tierney is given pause to question the cause and effect of his application of the rules around the aggressive play that Peterborough used on Saturday.

The Posh battled and that battle resulted in any number of tackles which could have and did not injure players. They were not especially guilty of this over and above other teams (including, at times but not on Saturday, City) but they were guilty of it.

We enjoy seeing physical committed football and it is a way to win games. To fight for the ball is a good thing as long as it is done within the remit of the rules which – Tierney’s judgement is – Bostwick did.

By way of example

Consider – if you will – Anderson’s injury in the context of him playing a chess match with Bostwick. It is unthinkable that a Chess player would break another’s leg. Breaking limbs, indeed grazing hands as they reach for pieces, is just not done in Chess.

It is a ludicrously extreme example. Imagine a Badminton game where a leg was broken. A physical sport and one where players have been know to be physical with each other there is at least a convention in Badminton that if the ball is near your opponents head so that to hit it would be to hit him or her then one does not swing at it.

At the other side I’m sure there are sports in some dystopian future in which the aim is to inflict pain and that Anderson’s broken leg is a victory for Bostwick. Who knows? My point is that there is an ability within the sporting context to set what is considered acceptable force in pursuit of victory and what is not.

And I would suggest that Tierney has his calibration of that wrong and – so much as he represents the views of Referees and Authorities who agree with him – English football has that calibration wrong.

Low expectations

Tierney and his ilk convict themselves of having low expectations of the English lower league footballer.

A tackle like Bostwick’s – and again I do not blame him for playing within the rules as played every week – is considered acceptable in League One because of a low expectation of the players involved in the game. Who can expect more of a League One midfielder than that?

But to expect a player to deliver less because of a perceived lower ability is to ignore the evidence that emerges from growing leagues in football. Leagues like the Japanese Football League which for obvious reasons is less physical and has fewer technical skills in the tackle but is not more violent as a result. It is not that in the J-League tackles like Bostwick’s are sent off more, they are just not done.

The calibration of the football culture – more recently established than the third tier of the English game – has made recklessness in tackles inappropriate.

The opposite is true in the Australian League – eye wateringly brutal at times – coming as it does in the culture of Aussie Rules and Rugby League.

There is an ability to tune the calibration of what is acceptable in football which – at the moment and in the English game – is I would suggest – a little off towards the physical side of the game that left its mark on Paul Anderson’s leg.

But the crunch

None of which is to suggest that Michael Bostwick has to foul to be a good player. His opposite number Gary Liddle typifies the idea of a player who can be commanding and aggressive without being dirty. Liddle is forceful but in control of what he does.

Liddle is the modern type of central midfielder a far cry from some of the players who played that role for City. Players like Greg Abbott and Mick Kennedy spent entire games kicking player as much as ball. There is no comparison between those players of the 1980s and Bostwick, let alone Liddle, but the fact that thirty years ago those players could be popular in the game and are not now suggests that it is possible to change what is acceptable in the game.

Is watching Liddle worse than watching Abbott or Kennedy? I would argue that Liddle winning a ball firmly is better than Abbott’s hard but fair because of the skill that goes into the tackle.

There is nothing lost by forcing players at all levels to be better at tackling if they are going to tackle.