Nice played Saint-Etienne on Saturday March 2, in a Ligue 1 game between two sides chasing the Champions League places but who would probably both settle for a Europa League spot. After 24 minutes, Nice’s Valentin Eysseric lunged late and dangerously into Saint-Etienne’s experienced midfielder Jeremy Clement, and the result was horrific.
As Clement fell to the ground in agony, his ankle fractured, TV pictures captured the bone at a right-angle as he struck the turf. It was horrendous, and Eysseric was quite rightly sent off. What happened next, though, was interesting and—given the ongoing saga following the challenge by Wigan’s Callum McManaman on Newcastle’s Masadio Haidara—instructive.
First of all, Clement was rushed to hospital and ruled out for six to eight months. Eysseric, 21 years old, sat in the dressing-room and felt sick. As soon as the game finished, he phoned Clement’s father and passed on his apologies. He took full blame for the injury, and told L’Equipe that he expected a long ban for his recklessness. That’s the thing about red cards in France; all carry one-match bans (the next match) and then get assessed and potentially extended depending on the severity of the incident.
Eysseric was eventually banned for 11 games (unlike most players, he turned up for his hearing), but by the time it was handed him, he had already formed an unlikely relationship with Clement. “I still feel guilty and the image of the ankle still haunts me,” Eysseric told L’Equipe. “But I felt better after speaking to Clement; he told me that the operation on the ankle had gone well, and he will be back playing football. Ultimately, he was the one who reassured me. I thought it was very classy of him. He must be mad at me, and this is normal, but he showed no sign if that.”
He also gave Eysseric a generous prognosis: the surgeon who operated on the ankle, Remi Philippot, had broken off his holidays to attend to the stricken player, but was not so confident. “It’s a serious injury, very serious, and his future [as a player] will depend on his ability to recuperate and other factors besides,” he told France Football. “We need to be honest, it’s serious and we can’t say for sure if he will be back or not. We will know more in three or four months.”
Eysseric visited Clement three days after the tackle; they spent an hour together in Saint-Etienne’s North Hospital, Room 329, and the Nice player brought in a box of cakes. “We are all human, dammit. The day we stop feeling for other people, we might as well all give up,” said Saint-Etienne’s emotional co-president Roland Romeyer during a teary interview with France Football the next Wednesday.
Now compare the reaction following the McManaman-Haidara challenge in England a fortnight ago. First of all, the resulting injury was nowhere near as serious as Clement’s, but the aftermath focused on whether McManaman would be banned or not. Surely not, boomed Wigan owner Dave Whelan: “The ball was there and McManaman got the ball as clean as a whistle, then followed through and they collided,” he said. “That’s an accident. There is not one ounce of malice.”
Coach Roberto Martinez said McManaman wanted to apologise to the player, but not before clearing his name. “It’s nothing malicious, he’s not that sort of boy. It’s the normal enthusiasm that you get in your debut… If Callum hasn’t apologised yet then he definitely will do that because we’re a football club where those values are very important.”
Haidara has since said he thought his career might have ended, and was surprised that there was no retrospective action taken. "You must protect players. This type of tackle cannot be condoned. The authorities must take action,” he told Le Parisien. “He could have ended my career and ruined my whole life and he will play again before me—ridiculous!”
No action was taken because referee Mark Halsey had seen the incident. Halsey, you may remember, was also in charge when Marouane Fellaini got away with head-butting his marker Ryan Shawcross during a game against Stoke, and subsequently elbowed and slapped the same player on two separate occasions. Halsey missed it, so that time Fellaini was given a retrospective three-match ban.
The FA has been roundly criticised for its stance on this issue, but for once, I have some sympathy with the governing body. I think that the FA would be open to a new red-card regulation, whereby every red card carried a one-match ban and was then subject to further punishment depending on the severity of the incident. If one player were to be shown a second yellow for slapping someone’s cheek, that might just be one game out; if someone else broke a player’s leg and ruled him out for the season, that could be eight games out. The Premier League clubs, whose players have more to lose, are the ones more likely to reject the proposal. And as new FA chairman Greg Dyke is soon to find out, the Premier League wags the tail of the FA more often than the other way around.
Looking at the sensible manner in which the Eysseric-Clement situation played out, it’s hard not to think that a similar system would make sense in England.