The culture of dissent

Mark Clattenburg hasn’t had an easy time of it in the last week or so. In Manchester United’s game at Wigan last week, he committed the unforgivable sin of watching the players who were challenging for the ball. This meant that, when a passing hooligan elbowed an opponent in the head, it was just out of his field of view, so all he saw for definite was a collision.

He then compounded this crime by answering a direct question honestly when the Football Association put it to him. The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter has a much better report than I can produce on the details of Clattenburg’s reaction to this incident.

Clattenburg’s subsequent assignment was in the FA Cup, taking charge of Manchester City’s tie with Aston Villa. From the highlights I saw, the game presented him with no challenges at all. And yet ITV managed to create some controversy where none existed, by highlighting a caution for Mario Balotelli. City’s Italian striker jumped into Chris Herd with an outstretched arm, catching his opponent in the face.

The offence was a cautionable one, and the caution was issued. But co-commentator Jim Beglin decided that Clattenburg was at fault. “I’m not sure if he’s seen that, or whether he’s just reacted to the protests”, said Beglin, ignoring the visible fact that the referee had a clear and unobstructed view of the incident and that it was a challenge for the ball, so to suggest that he hadn’t seen it would be to imply an astonishing dereliction of duty.

My guess is that Beglin reacted to the wrong offence, presumably because his employment with ITV precludes him from comment on actual Premier League games. But it did go to show that, among professionals within football and the football media, there is a certain culture of dissent to refereeing decisions that bears no relation to what has actually happened on the pitch.

I feel a bit guilty dragging Guy Mowbray into this. Of the current batch of national football commentators, Mowbray is, in my opinion, the best, and will probably remain so for many years unless Barry Davies is unexpectedly tempted out of retirement. But in his commentary on Aston Villa’s defeat at Bolton yesterday, he provided more fuel to the dissent culture with a comment which simply did not reflect reality.

In the lead-up to Villa being awarded a penalty, Bolton claimed the ball had gone out of play for a throw-in. Over a replay of the incident, Mowbray stated “Oh, and that’s gone out”, and went on to express some sympathy with the home team’s protest. Except that the pictures showed no such thing. They didn’t show conclusively whether the whole of the ball had crossed the line, were shot from a low angle, and were shot from about 60 degrees to the touchline. They did show that the Villa player trying to prevent the ball going out was quite clearly fouled in the process, but that was not mentioned.

This isn’t to say that Mowbray was demonstrably wrong in his comments, merely that the evidence didn’t exist, and that there were no grounds for the chap with the microphone overruling the chap with the flag. That he chose to do so can only add to the feeling that match officials are generally incompetent and deserve all the dissent they get. (See update below for Guy Mowbray’s comments on this)

Of course, the media are by no means the worst offenders in kneejerk dissent. Players and managers have the market pretty much cornered there. Yesterday’s games provided more examples of the phenomenon. In keeping with the week’s theme, Mark Clattenburg was involved again. This time, the allegedly contentious decision was the award of a penalty to the home team which secured their 3-2 win over Blackburn.

Clattenburg had turned down an appeal for a penalty seconds earlier in a demonstration of the difficulty of the job of refereeing. Andy Johnson probably was fouled by Grant Hanley, but it is impossible to tell when Johnson has been fouled and when he is doing his dying swan impression. Refs who can claim a 50% success rate when dealing with Johnson are doing well.

It wasn’t in doubt, though, that Hanley was fouling Aaron Hughes when the latter attempted to make a run into the box as the subsequent corner was taken. Neither the penalty nor the caution issued to Hanley were remotely disputable under the laws of football. So the sight of a gaggle of Blackburn players, led by Congolese international and man mountain Christopher Samba, physically confronting Clattenburg in order to scream their disagreement was just more depressing confirmation that basically “football people” will argue with anything.

After the match, and presumably with the benefit of having seen a replay, Blackburn manager Steve Kean tried to justify the protests not in terms of the actual decision itself, but on the grounds that if referees went round giving correct decisions all the time there would be ten penalties in every game. This was later backed up by BBC pundit and former professional assault-merchant Alan Shearer.

The problem is this: everybody knows that if the Laws were applied as written there would be absolute uproar from every corner of the football world. The Fulham game provided a good example of this in that, in order to apply the Laws to the letter, Clattenburg would have had to caution Samba and his fellow protestors – five yellow cards in one incident – as well as sending off Fulham’s Chris Baird for some pretty obvious arm-waving dissent immediately after being cautioned for a retaliatory foul on an advancing opponent. As it was, the official’s patience finally snapped when the previously-substituted Gael Givet charged on to the pitch at full time to dish out some abuse so unpleasant that it clearly warranted a straight red card.

I’ve written down more notes on other examples of unwarranted dissent, but even I can only rattle on for so long (and to so little effect) about this. As I write, national and local journalists are incessantly tweeting about nothing but refereeing decisions. As it stands I have no idea what happened in the Wolves v Tottenham game other than the fact that Mark Halsey has made an apparently dodgy decision.

The only other thing I would say in respect of this weekend’s games is that Arsene Wenger’s sporadic vision must be extremely frustrating for the poor man. Some weeks he is unable to see all-out assaults just yards from his nose, yet this week he was able to express “disgust” – yes, disgust, not mild irritation or understandable frustration – at a very tight offside call and a push which was missed by a referee who I suspect was directly behind the incident and therefore probably couldn’t have seen it.

Perhaps referees could help their case by explaining their decisions on television after the game? This has been done by some officials with some success in the past. Some have been given credit for doing so by pundits on Match of the Day and so on. But there has also been an undercurrent of accusations of “limelight hogging” from certain sections of the media when referees and their spokesmen have tried to put the officials’ case. Graham Poll suffered from this in previous years, and now the tabloid element appear to have taken exception to Alan Leighton of the Prospect union saying what the refs cannot, namely the uncontroversial fact that “Sir” Alex Ferguson really needs to keep his mouth firmly closed wherever possible.

I’ve long been of the opinion that what is needed in football is basically a “work to rule” by match officials. If they try to apply the fabled “common sense” – which means nothing more than picking and choosing which rules are applied – then they are hammered for inconsistency. Yet consistency means applying the Laws as they are written. If a player dissents – in any way, not loudly, or repeatedly – he should be cautioned. Most do it again as the yellow card is being shown – so they should be sent off. This will, as I said above, cause absolute outrage on the field and in the media, but I think it’s the only way for referees to reclaim their authority and banish the culture of dissent and cheating.

UPDATE: Guy Mowbray tells me that the picture he saw showed conclusively that the ball was out of play, but that he didn’t see MOTD so can’t confirm it was the same picture we saw. That raises two possibilities: either his interpretation of conclusive differs from mine, or the MOTD editing is not doing commentators any favours with stroppy bloggers like me. He goes on to add: “remember officials get one view, no replay”, which in my view is the single most important thing for everyone in football to remember.

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One Response to The culture of dissent

  1. Aske P. says:

    Excellent piece and I agree with your latter point about dishing out cards with more frequency when it comes to dissent. A player of the calibre of Rooney screaming in the face of a ref is unsightly in the extreme. If people began getting sent off for dissent, they would be incentivised to not act like a 12-year old who has had his Playstation taken away.

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