Wigan's Callum McManaman: The Tackle Doesn’t Justify The Twitter Vilification
Wigan's Callum McManaman is the devil incarnate, or so I’m lead to believe. With a single lunge of his leg he was transformed from a young, exciting, talented prospect into the next Kevin Muscat (Defender, Australian, easily vexed). The Wigan player has no previous form for this sort of thing of course but hey, he’s got a 100% record: 1 Premier League start, 1 injury inducing tackle. Then I hear public outcry from the stands: “He’s a disgrace! Three matches isn’t a long enough ban for him! Ban him for life with Shawcross, Martin Taylor and the rest of that mob!” is what I imagine Arsene Wenger would be shouting at his TV. Perhaps in French though. It’s in the minutes following the incident, iPhone in hand, that bafflement washes over me.
After daring to show a degree of disagreement with the general consensus I had football fanatics tweeting me that Callum McManaman should have both his legs broke, he should never be allowed to play again and dishearteningly, I even saw one writer for The Times calling for him to be “shamed in to not doing it again”. Ah, Twitter: the voice of reason.
I just don’t share the indignation of the masses so forgive me for asking this: can someone tell me why you are so hellbent on seeing him punished? If there was clear intent, and I’m pretty sure we can rule that out, why are people so outraged on Haidara’s behalf? The injustice? Don’t make me laugh. This is sport not a war crimes trial at The Hague. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for Newcastle's Massadio Haidara. A shudder goes through me whenever I see another player being carried off the pitch in pain because I know the exact cocktail of pain and fear as you lie there hoping the agony subsides. It’s in these situations where you can find the most empathy amongst all players.
With every tackle made, the potential for something to go wrong exists. There’s an innate desire to win the ball, especially in defensive areas where a lost tackle may result in conceding a goal. You don’t want to be the one who let the side down and as long as football is played and tackling isn’t outlawed altogether, you’ll always get the odd tackle like this. In any 50/50 challenge there will always be one player who is a fraction sharper in mind or body than the other and in the moment you realise you’ve committed to a challenge you’re not going to win, there’s a natural instinct to protect yourself. This is something that’s crept into the modern game, rather than players going over the top of the ball in malice, it’s quite often a last second change of heart to make sure they don’t end up coming off second best that leads to ugly challenges. Some might call it cowardice, some might say it’s a natural reaction but look at the injuries someone like Bryan Robson suffered throwing himself in to lost cause tackles and you can see why 100% honesty isn’t always the best policy.
In any contact sport there has to be a margin for error and misjudgment when competing for possession without the pitchfork pointing from stands. I suppose Twitter can take a large portion of blame for the instantaneous outpouring of outrage towards anything that strays either side of what is normal and acceptable but I just don’t agree with it in this instance. When I see the vilification of a twenty-one year old player making his debut for Wigan in the high pressure atmosphere of a Premier League relegation fight, I go straight in to full-on defensive mode. I can’t help it. What I think has been missing from the shouts of “HE DEFINITELY MEANT TO BREAK HAIDER’S LEG!!!” and the less irate “McManaman’s a disgrace! Make and example of him!” is an appropriate analysis of what happened. Let’s walk through it.
Newcastle's Yanga-Mbiwa plays the ball out to Haidara. As the ball travels to Haidara, Wigan's McManaman holds his ground. No sign of a hothead with a mind full of rash intentions so far. If he’d lost control and was to be accused of recklessness, he’d have followed the ball as it traveled towards Haidara and attempted to take the ball and the man then. The ball then arrives at Haidara’s feet but his touch is heavy and bounces out of his immediate control. McManaman sees this and in a split second he decides he can win the ball. Here’s the crucial point. He’s not sat at home, all relaxed with a cup of tea, a packet of chocolate digestives and SKY+ rewind button for company. He is not a robot sent back from the future who can calculate every single possibility and choose the best option in a fraction of an instant. Neither does liquid hydrogen run through his veins.
What he does have is that split-second instinct that has been formed over hundreds of games since he first touched a ball. He has assessed situations such as this one thousands of times over and he’s come to a point where thought doesn’t come in to it. Past experience and instinctive judgements take over. It becomes second nature, particularly in British football where tempo of pass and speed of thought are more frequent and higher paced. Unfortunately the ball sat up at a height which meant his follow through will be dangerous but it’s now too late for him to retract his foot. He’s not Inspector Gadget. It’s a bad tackle, he doesnt cleanly take the ball, it should be a red card. Agreed.
But to those who accuse him of lack of thought and sheer recklessness, I admire your ability to slow down time and thoughtfully process questions such as “Can I get to the ball first? Shall I try to win it? Is there a possibility I may injure my opponent or even injure myself?” within the blink of an eye.
I’ve been on either end of tackles such as McManaman’s and come off second best in a few of them but you put trust in your fellow professionals and presume their intent was not to harm. Two incidents in particular spring to mind. One was a challenge from ex-Coventry City striker, John Williams who slid in after I had secured the ball in my hands and I ended up with seven stitches above my eye and a nurse asking me “Has your nose always been like that?”.
The second was perhaps a bit more controversial. It was at Ibrox, as Artur Numan pumped a long ball forward I was confident I could race from my box and clear the danger with my head. I was right, I won the ball comfortably. The next thing I know, I look up and see the Aberdeen club doctor with his two identical brothers stood either side of him and able to touch my ear with the tip of my nose. On both occasions I was asked by journalists “Did you think it was intentional?” to which I simply replied “No.” and I moved on. You see? Because you know what it’s like to have the threat of your career being ended with every challenge you make, your empathy stops you from attempting to cause harm to your opponent.
THIS is why people say “He’s not that type of lad.”. THIS is why it’s said so often because we all know our already miniscule lifespan as a player is under threat with every turn, challenge and in the case of some cruciate ligament injuries, a mere step. Football is as safe a game as at any other time since it’s inception and incidents like these are so rare you can recall every one. We can all see that the end result is regrettable. Nobody wants to see players writhing around in agony but to suggest, as some have done, that by going unpunished, McManaman’s exploits will be copied on school fields and local parks of Britain is ridiculous. Cries for tackles like this to driven out of the game are redundant and are the calls of one who obviously hasn’t been watching football for the last ten years. We’ve already dealt with wild challenges but now the cynicism has been extracted from tackles we should avoid seeing the evil in the cumbersome and mistimed.
One thing I can understand is the reaction of both clubs as they’re merely protecting their own. Newcastle's John Carver was quite right to fight his player’s corner whilst all Wigan chairman Dave Whelan was trying to do, in his elderly, ham-fisted manner, was to shield his boy from the barrage of abuse that winged his way. My hope was that Haidara makes a swift recovery, McManaman receives an appropriate three match ban and we move on but the FA have decided to prolong the outrage and put the lawyers of Tyneside on full alert.
All I’ve tried to do here is put a more measured slant on a situation that’s in danger of getting out of hand but before you leave your abuse at the bottom of this page, do me a favour. The next time one of your players loses a tackle or backs out of a challenge and you call him a “fanny” for not showing commitment, just remember your reaction to what happened at the DW Stadium. You wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt, would you?