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Is the Premier League too dirty?

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Phil McNulty | 11:09 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010

When Danny Murphy effectively named and shamed Blackburn Rovers, Stoke City and Wolves as three teams on the Premier League's dark side, he did more than guarantee hostility next time he steps out at The Britannia Stadium, Ewood Park and Molineux.

Murphy, one of football's most eloquent and informed spokesmen, was articulating the fears of those who believe the price of success - and the penalties for failure - in the top flight is forcing players to cross the line when it comes to physical contact.

The former England midfield man suggested Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis and Mick McCarthy are three managers who are "sending out their players so pumped up there are inevitably going to be problems".

Murphy's outspoken views may have been shaped by Fulham's recent painful experiences against the three clubs he has put in the dock by his remarks at the Leaders in Football conference at Stamford Bridge.

Fulham recently lost Bobby Zamora with a broken leg in a tackle with Wolves captain Karl Henry - although there was clearly no malice in the challenge - and £5m summer signing Moussa Dembele following a wild late lunge by Stoke's Andy Wilkinson in the Carling Cup.

The Cottagers were also angered by some of Blackburn's tactics in the recent game at Ewood Park, especially a charge on goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer by El-Hadji Diouf which led to a goal.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has long been in the vanguard of a campaign to clean up the Premier League - and he now appears to have a willing ally in Murphy.

Jordi Gomez is felled by Karl Henry

Henry's tackle was the latest in a series of X-rated challenges in the Premier League. Photo: PA

Events in the Premier League last weekend added weight to their argument, with Henry sent off and roundly condemned - by his own manager McCarthy as well it should also be stressed - for a shocking tackle on Wigan's Jordi Gomez and Newcastle's Hatem ben Arfa suffering a broken leg in an early challenge by Manchester City's Nigel de Jong.

De Jong was subsequently dropped by Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk, who complained that he "needlessly looks to push the limit", although the suspicion this was a calculated cosmetic exercise remains.

Fine words and actions from Van Marwijk, although his principles deserted him in the World Cup final, when De Jong's studs meeting the chest of Spain's Xabi Alonso was the sum total of the coach's tactical subtlety. No talk of punishment then.

So, is Murphy right to express these fears?

Is the Premier League in danger of getting out of hand?

Allardyce, Pulis and McCarthy will argue, with some justification, that if they sent out their respective teams to play the beautiful game against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, the only certainty would be defeat and the potential to have their employment prematurely terminated.

Physical contact cannot, must not, be removed from the game, while watching football at The Britannia, where the passion of the crowd dovetails with the competitive approach of Pulis's team, is one of the most intoxicating experiences in the Premier League.

And already, in the wake of Murphy's remarks, I have been contacted by many Blackburn fans demanding to know when a player last suffered a serious injury against one of Allardyce's teams.

It is hard to accept the argument that the game is dirtier now than it has been in the past. One Premier League manager of fairly recent vintage was only too happy to boast to me (off the record, of course) that he encouraged his team to "dissuade" the opposition's more skilful players from wishing to spend time on the ball.

Another explained the futility of arranging a hot date on the night you played Don Revie's Leeds United in the 1960s and 70s because you were more likely to find solace in the arms of your doctor or dentist than your girlfriend.

If the argument goes that those acts were perpetrated by better players then than they are now - Everton's Peter Reid, Liverpool's Graeme Souness and Manchester United captain Bryan Robson were ruthless operators but also outstanding footballers - then this would have merit.

And let's get another thing straight. Fulham boss Mark Hughes, so outraged by Wilkinson's challenge on Dembele, was never behind the door when it came to, let's say, looking after himself. Hughes' teams do not tend to be shrinking violets either.

Wind the clock back further and to suggest men like Dave Mackay, Tommy Smith, and, of course, Ron "Chopper" Harris would turn their faces away from the combat of today's Premier League is laughable.

Are there more dirty players around than in previous eras? Hard to prove but, at a guess, highly unlikely.

A significant factor is the increased tempo of the modern game. If you combine the speed with the potential impact of heavy collisions, then this is where the risk of serious injury is greater. If you arrive at a tackle at high speed, huge momentum and recklessness, then you have a potent and damaging cocktail.

Fifa's top medical official Michel d'Hooghe claims football is being disfigured by "criminality" and "brutality" on the pitch - but for every complaint of this sort you are likely to find another bemoaning that it is becoming "a non-contact sport".

As for intent, unless there is an open-and-shut case, as with De Jong's challenge on Alonso, then the only person who really knows is the man making the tackle. The Manchester City player has been villified since his challenge on Ben Arfa, with Newcastle even demanding retrospective punishment, but on first viewing it is easy to see why referee Martin Atkinson let play continue.

This is not suggest it was a good tackle but proving De Jong intended to cause the eventual damage is a tough job.

Where Murphy is absolutely on the mark is with his criticism of players failing to weigh up the potential consequences of their challenges.

He says: "The pace in which some players go into tackles now is ridiculous. There's no brains involved in the players who are doing that.

"I don't believe players are going out to break another player's leg but there has to be some logic and intelligence involved. If you are going at someone at a certain pace and you don't get it right you are going to hurt them."

No names from Murphy but allow me. Step forward Henry, whose challenge against Wigan was everything Murphy was referring to. Uncontrolled, at pace, lacking any semblance of common sense and very fortunate not to result in serious injury for the tumbling Gomez.

Sadly, there have always been bad tackles in football. And the growing acceptance of what some laugh off as the early "reducer" - clumsy code for a hefty challenge usually inflicted on the opposition's most gifted player - is crass.

So is the Premier League too dirty or any dirtier than in the past? Not in my opinion. Is there a problem of growing recklessness from players without thought for what might result from rash tackles? Definitely.

You can follow me at twitter.com/philmcnulty and join me on Facebook.

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