There is an institutionalised dishonesty about bad challenges that passes for managers defending their players' morals
Spare us the character witnesses who cry: "He's not that type of player," after the victim has been carted off to the infirmary. Let the poor man on the stretcher have his scan without being told the perpetrator is a "lovely lad" who takes flowers to his mum on Sundays.
"The tackle from Ryan Shawcross was horrendous. Spare me how nice he is," Arsène Wenger protested after Aaron Ramsey's leg had been mangled by a Shawcross tackle in February 2010. The Arsenal manager added: "That is not football for me and I refuse to live with it."
Look at the pictures of the Stoke defender after Ramsey's leg had been snapped and you see distress and contrition. Tony Pulis may well have been right to say Shawcross "has no bad blood in him whatsoever" – and the Stoke manager did concede that it had been "a bad challenge" and "a sad day for football". But the habit of shifting sympathy from the guy in the oxygen mask to the one with the guilt complex continues unabated, this time with Alan Hutton's disgraceful lunge at Shane Long in last weekend's Aston Villa-West Brom match.
"I know how Alan has been painted but he's not that type of player," said Villa's assistant manager, Peter Grant, on Thursday. Sorry, but Hutton is precisely that sort of player, because he has a history of reckless interventions, one of which broke his own leg, when Rangers played Kilmarnock six years ago. The BBC report at the time said: "Right-back Hutton came off worst after a rather wild first-half challenge on Garry Hay. Rangers manager Alex McLeish said: 'It's a real shame for Alan, who has been so impressive for us this season.'"
Hutton, then 20, put himself out of the game for six months with his hack at Hay. McLeish is again his manager, at Villa, and pops up often in the narrative of players seriously injuring opponents and then being defended by their bosses. It was McLeish, remember, who dealt with the aftermath of Martin Taylor's leg-breaking tackle on Eduardo da Silva when Birmingham City met Arsenal in February 2008.
Straight after that horrible incident McLeish told Sky: "Martin's distraught. He's not that type of player. I need to see that again. He didn't think he made a lot of contact with him. It's not in Taylor's make-up to produce a malicious tackle." In mitigation, McLeish later admitted that he may have sent his Birmingham side out too pumped up with the idea that Arsenal were susceptible to physical pressure, but his comments about the Hutton tackle on Long suggest an enduring blind spot to the sins of his players.
"Alan made a tackle, the ball was there to be won," he said on Friday. "It is something Uefa are clamping down on and I'm sure in 10 years you won't see any contact at all in football. It's heading that way."
Contrast the notion that "the ball was there to be won" with the assertion by Roy Hodgson, the West Brom manager, that Hutton's leap had "no place in football" and was "wicked". Long, 24, who had been so impressive against Wolves the week before, is out for six weeks with knee damage. "People haven't said in the past that Alan is aggressive, goes over the ball and is a dirty full-back," Grant said. "I think his biggest problem sometimes is that he's desperate to hit the ground running in games. There's that impatience in his game."
You can picture how this must sound to West Brom, and to Long. There is an institutionalised dishonesty about these "challenges" that passes for managers defending their players from moral attack. The most physically aggressive types draw comfort from knowing that they will always be excused on the basis of a supposedly kindly nature.
That kind of self-deceit was apparent when Lee Cattermole of Sunderland, who had amassed 47 yellow cards and five reds, said earlier this month: "It's something I have to address, but if you put every foul I've ever made up on the television, I think there'd be one tackle which was actually a bad one.
"That was against Scott Parker when I was playing for Wigan and I have spoken to him since to apologise about it. That's the only bad tackle I've made in my career – all the rest have been genuine attempts to win the ball, not nasty attempts to hurt someone. I'm not a dirty player, I'm just an honest player, but maybe that's the way football is going at the moment."
Again we hear this inference that football is heading in a prissy (or non-contact) direction, thus depriving the real men of their birthrights. And if anyone has a limb cracked, the first duty is to absolve the tackler of any malicious intent, not look at the challenge honestly.
Judge the act, not the actor, is the best guide. Even Villa fans are not inclined to defend Hutton. You never know: one day a manager may walk into a press conference and say: "I'm ashamed of that challenge. The problem is, he really is that type of player."