When Willie Young scythed down the diminutive Paul Allen in the 1980 FA Cup final the “football world” reacted with righteous outrage. I was twelve at the time and that moment has stayed with me ever since. Any discussion about the “professional foul” is accompanied in my mind by the image of a giant ginger defender taking the legs away from a young Hammer on his way to score a second and cup winning goal for his side. I think Young got a yellow for his troubles and West Ham went on to win the cup anyway so no real harm done but it did effectively change the rules of association football forever.
This week John Terry’s red card for rugby tackling his opponent was rescinded on the grounds that it was not considered “serious foul play”. There was discussion on Match Of The Day about whether or not Terry had been sent off for a “professional foul”. There’s no mention of this term in the FIFA Laws of the game only a list of reasons to send a player from the field of play. This includes “preventing a goal scoring opportunity” which is the most common interpretation of a professional foul. It’s clear Terry didn’t do that as Ricardo Carvalho was desperately dashing into view to provide the excuse of a covering defender. The Referee stated post-match that he had sent Terry off for “serious foul play”. I really didn’t understand why anyone would have an issue with this. It was after all exactly that. Halsey stuck to his guns, earning in the process some element of respect (from me at least), but was then told by the FA that he was wrong and “demoted” to officiate in a League One match.
I completely fail to understand what the FA feel they’ve achieved by doing that other than to undermine one of their own officials at a time when they are supposed to be encouraging respect from all parties. Personally, I think it was exactly the sort of challenge that should be punished with a red card. It was clearly a cynical foul and completely outside the frame work of anything I think any fan of the game would want to see on a football pitch. To Terry’s credit he didn’t complain too strongly and left the field after only a minor whinge at Mark Halsey. A small gain for the Respect campaign possibly, but wait, here comes Sir Alex Ferguson to exercise his right to operate completely outside the boundaries that other managers attempt to stay within.
Meanwhile, over at the circus that St. James’ Park has become, a more serious offence was also being correctly dealt with. Danny Guthrie’s tackle rightly received a red card. An automatic three match ban – no problem there. However having subsequently discovered that he also broke Fagin’s leg, putting the Hull player out of action for at least six months, further punishment was surely appropriate. I don’t believe Guthrie is normally an aggressive player but the challenge was premeditated and the outcome something the governing bodies should have been keen to do everything in their powers to condemn. The FA didn’t agree. This time they claimed that only in exceptional circumstances could further punishment be applied, citing the Ben Thatcher attack on Pedro Mendes as an example. Well done English FA. One moment your undermining your own referee’s for reasonably interpreting the laws of the game, the next you’re failing to offer any sanctions against those players who might take sporting endeavour a little too far. I’m sure Danny Guthrie regrets what he did, and is unlikely to make a similar rash challenge again, but what sort of message does this send out to the type of player (and yes, even after Roy Keane’s retirement, they do still exist) who see this as part and parcel of the game?
Maybe it’s just nostalgia but back in the day when we allowed Referee’s more opportunity to make their own minds up we seemed to have less controversy. Of course the media is a major cause of this. The growth of digital television and the introduction of more dedicated sports channels means broadcasters need content to fill their programmes with. Too often it looks as though football authorities are just reacting to the media clamour, rather than thinking for themselves. However, it’s just as important that when the FA (or UEFA or FIFA) do have to get involved in decision making, they get it right. I’m afraid from my viewpoint they very rarely do. I think we need an independent body to make these judgement calls, a group unconcerned with it’s own media image, made up of ex-professionals and ex-referees who actually understand and love the game. Can it really be that hard to achieve?