Commitment is key but a balance has to be struck

Luke Varney is sent off during Pompey's 1-0 defeat at Hull
Luke Varney is sent off during Pompey's 1-0 defeat at Hull
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When does a physical, committed and competitive team overstep the mark and become a disciplinary liability?

Pompey boss Steve Cotterill believes it is the officials who are predominantly to blame for the current rash of cards that have been dished out to Blues players already this season.

Fans demand their players fly into tackles and show total commitment to the cause when there is a 50-50 tackle to be won.

So does that mean that suspensions are simply an occupational hazard this season or do the players need to be a bit more shrewd and choose their moments more wisely?

The ideal combination is the old metaphor: Fire in the belly and ice in the brain.

But just how easy is it to switch that kind of full-blooded commitment on and off in the cauldron of battle when decisions are made in a split-second that can directly affect the result of a match?

It’s easy to make those judgement calls from the stands.

We can argue all we want about how the game is poorer for having become a virtual non-contact sport in 2011 and how seeing a defender pile into a dangerous striker was secretly enjoyable to watch – if, of course, it was a Pompey defender leaving the opposition striker in a crumpled heap.

But mistime a full-blooded tackle and these days, it usually means at least a yellow card.

This, however, is not a new phenomenon so nobody can say that Pompey have been taken by surprise at new laws introduced.

Back in the day, you could get away with four or five ‘reducers’ – the kind of tackle that would seriously hamper an opponent – before the referee had even called the offender over for a quiet word of warning.

But the game has moved on and referees now go by a stricter set of laws so Pompey surely have to abide by that – even if they may not agree with it.

Managers will often dispute statistics but, nonetheless, a glance at the Football League’s disciplinary table does not make for pretty reading.

Before today’s game with Blackpool, Pompey were top of the bad boy’s table by a distance with 107 fouls, 19 yellow cards and two red cards.

Leeds United were second with 87 fouls, 15 yellow cards and four reds. Bottom of the table – perhaps the only time when bottom is actually good – were Cardiff City with just 50 fouls and nine yellow cards this term.

Cotterill is a pull-no-punches boss and has been known to voice his opinions rather vehemently in the dressing room if he believes a player has pulled out of a tackle.

He did it towards the end of last season with a tirade at a player who is no longer at the club. And most fans would have applauded him for that.

Some supporters, however, are now raising questions over the on-field discipline.

But a Pompey team with players who walk the disciplinary tightrope is nothing new.

And the current crop of 2011-12 would have, quite simply, been eaten for breakfast by some of their more fearsome predecessors.

For those who remember Fratton Park dust-ups from years gone by, just imagine a Pompey team in this day and age with 1980s stalwarts Noel Blake, Billy Gilbert, Kevin Ball, Mick Tait or Mick Kennedy in the ranks.

Maybe throw in Gavin Maguire, Martin Kuhl, or Martin Allen from the ’90s.

Then think about how many cards that lot might have collected under the refereeing guidelines from 2011.

The mind boggles.

Alan Ball’s promotion-winning side of the 1986-87 season once ended a game with eight players after Gilbert, Tait and Kevin Dillon all saw red in a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United.

With Mick Quinn and Paul Wood both cautioned by police for swearing at a linesman and Quinn then sent to prison for motoring offences later that same season, it’s fair to say that Ball’s side were no angels.  

Ball, a World Cup winner let’s not forget, could certainly play a bit and so could his team. But show him a player who was not committed to the cause and that player would soon be shown the door.

Blake was a man mountain of a central defender and his partnership with the equally- uncompromising Gilbert was probably one of the scariest ever seen at Fratton Park.

They made the Krays look like Sooty and Sweep.

Had they played in this modern era the way they played in the ’80s, they’d have been looking at about 10 early baths between them per season.

Kennedy was an aggressive midfielder sold by the club during their one-season stay in the top flight to address their financial situation – and his departure was often cited as the reason Pompey were eventually relegated.

Once that nasty edge had been taken from them and the midfield was no longer enforced as it was, Pompey were a softer touch.

But while Ball’s side revelled in their reputation, this was not a team thrown together to go around kicking opponents off the park.

They could handle themselves in a physical battle but they could just as easily out-play opponents with the quality of their football.

Older fans will still wax lyrical about Jimmy Scoular – a hard-as-nails Scot with a fiery temper who played a key role in the Championship-winning sides of 1948-50.

One story goes that playing against Preston at Fratton Park, Scoular tore across the pitch and flew into an outrageous tackle on Tom Finney.

The referee said: ‘Bit late, Jimmy.’

Scoular replied: ‘I got there as quick as I could.’

As a manager, Cotterill will want both sides – the ugly and the beautiful – within the make-up of his current team.

But when players are left sitting in the stands as they serve suspensions or playing against teams with a one-man advantage becomes a regular occurrence, then surely something needs to be addressed.

Successive red cards for Liam Lawrence and Luke Varney does not suddenly make them the kind of blokes who eat razor blades or drink petrol for their pre-match meal.

And turning Pompey into a team full of choirboys who don’t tackle for fear of committing a foul will not suddenly improve results.

So Cotterill, more than anyone else, will be fully aware that striking that balance is no easy task.