London – It doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you watch it. The way he lands, his instinctive reaction to assess the damage, the split second where you just hope your first suspicions might be wrong. But then Shane Long is cradling Séamus Coleman’s head and that is the point when you don’t need confirmation from any doctor or press officer. You know it’s snapped, you know that’s him done.
And, deep down, you know this is one of those occasions – “a good old British game”, to use the jarring words of Chris Coleman – when a certain level of aggression is considered OK, mandatory even, and the people demanding it usually just assume everybody will be able to walk off at the end. “Heavy-metal football,” the Irish Times called it: all thrash, not enough melody. The kind of game, in other words, when players do cross the line, behaviour-wise, and the risk of getting hurt is higher than usual – often wrapped up in the guise of “passion”.
That is not to excuse the wild, flailing challenge from Neil Taylor that inflicted the damage and, whatever the scale of professional shame and remorse that must be swimming through his mind right now, it isn’t easy to find too much in the way of sympathy for the Wales left-back. For all the character references, there is no pride to be had for anyone who shatters a fellow professional’s leg.
The bottom line is there can be no mitigation for what happened in Dublin on Friday. But there must be an explanation and maybe, in the process, there is a lesson for any of us who likes to think there are certain fixtures, the Republic of Ireland against Wales being one, when different standards should apply and the two sets of players should somehow be allowed to get away with more.
In the buildup to the game, it was widely circulated that Ireland needed to be physical. They needed what is known, in football parlance, as “a reducer”. More than anything, they needed a moment to let Gareth Bale know he was in for a difficult night. Roy Keane, whose equivalent on Marc Overmars is remembered as one of the all-time Lansdowne Road moments, had said it might be an idea. Wales must have known, therefore, that it was going to be a battle. Their manager would have made it clear they had to hold their own.
And so it transpired. Glenn Whelan planted a forearm into the jaw of Joe Allen, a colleague at Stoke City, before half-time and played part of the match with a bandaged head after taking a kick from Aaron Ramsey. Long clattered Ashley Williams, who had dealt out some rough treatment to Jon Walters, and James McClean was the Ireland player who introduced himself, with interest, to Bale.
“Are you saying all the bad challenges were from us?” Chris Coleman asked afterwards in a defiant, bristling press conference. And nobody in the audience who wanted to challenge the Wales manager, or take exception to his talk of “a typical British derby”, could raise their hand to argue that Martin O’Neill’s team had been entirely innocent.
The truth is these kind of hostilities are almost expected on certain football occasions. It is part of the Irish culture and, if it wasn’t, Roy Keane would not be as revered as he is and the Overmars moment.
This still doesn’t excuse what happened in that game.
The Guardian Sport