The sight of distraught Ryan Shawcross walking off with his shirt covering up his face and tears told a thousand words. His statement yesterday only added to his regret over the challenge that left Aaron Ramsey, the Arsenal player, with a broken leg during Saturday's game at Stoke.
"There was absolutely no malice in the challenge," said Shawcross, 22. "I would never, ever go out to hurt a fellow professional. I am deeply upset that Aaron has suffered such a bad injury and my thoughts are with him. I would like to send him my best wishes too for a speedy recovery." The heartfelt comments from the Stoke defender are something Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, should ponder following his own vitriolic criticism of someone who received only the first red card of his career.
When Eduardo suffered a similar injury at Birmingham two years ago this month, a furious Wenger said Martin Taylor - the defender who made the late tackle - should be "banned for life". But having had time to reflect and view the incident again and again, he responded to say his initial comments were "excessive". Wenger's initial viewpoint following the Ramsey incident was similarly emotive and damning.
Words like "horrendous and unacceptable" were used as he claimed Arsenal were victims of an over-aggressive approach from opponents. "For a boy of 19 with his talent to be kicked out of the game like that is beyond words," said Wenger. "A three-match ban is just ridiculous. But I would prefer to give my support to Ramsey rather than to play the judge." Ironic words from a manager who, early this season, admitted to turning a blind eye to controversial incidents involving his own players.
But, like Taylor, Shawcross does not deserve to be vilified in this manner, especially when it did not appear to be a reckless or predetermined act. Stoke are physical and combative, but intent is something that is very difficult to prove. Shawcross's teammate Danny Pugh said: "I have obviously seen it and I think it was a 50-50 tackle. It is just unfortunate that the lad has been hurt so badly." Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, admitted it was a "poor challenge", but added: "I know my players better than Wenger knows my players.
"His opinions, in respect of Ryan as a person, I wouldn't give tuppence for, because he doesn't know the kid." Shawcross is a committed player and these were qualities recognised by Fabio Capello to earn him a call-up for England's frien-dly against Egypt on Wednesday. Given the effect the incident could have psychologically on him, it is unlikely Shawcross will be make his debut, but support is crucial for both him and Ramsey.
The Welshman is out for the season and no one can know for certain if he will play again, let alone fulfil his potential as one of the most promising midfield talents in Europe, let alone the Premier League. With an exquisite touch, precise passing, strong running and goalscoring threat, he resembled a young Kaka. Under the tutelage of Wenger, Ramsey was expected to develop in the same way as the Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas.
It is still likely that could happen. Eduardo has come back to play at this level. So too Abou Diaby, who fractured an ankle after a tackle from Dan Smith in a game against Sunderland in 2006 and admitted that he considered quitting the game while on the comeback trail. Arsenal confirmed yesterday that Ramsey had undergone surgery for fractures to the tibia and fibula of his right leg. "The operation successfully reduced the fractures and while it is too soon to state an exact timescale for recovery, Aaron will certainly miss the remainder of this season," said a club statement.
"Our thoughts are with Aaron at this time and everyone at the club wishes him all the best in making as speedy a return to action as possible." What the loss of Ramsey did at Stoke - and could do for the rest of the season - was to inspire Arsenal to success. A Fabregas penalty and Thomas Vermaelen tap-in conjured up a 3-1 victory that put them three points behind leaders Chelsea. When Eduardo was hurt, Arsenal never recovered that season and their Premier League and Champions League bids faltered.
This time, it could be different. Fabregas gathered the players for a huddle at the end. It was a symbolic show of unity. "We learned from when it happened to Eduardo," said Fabregas. "We lost a lead that day. It's very difficult to stand up, but we showed character and knew if we won, we still had a lot to say [in the title race]." firstname.lastname@example.org