By Paul Gardner
I begin to despair of ever making any sense of Howard Webb’s refereeing. He is held out as the best of the EPL referees, maybe the best in the world -- he did, after all, get the World Cup final this year. And all things considered -- to wit the massive provocation of the dirty Dutch -- he did a good job of keeping his head in a very difficult situation.
But back in the EPL, we’ve just had another example of what makes him a problem referee -- two examples, in fact, in the same game, Tottenham-Sunderland earlier this week.
At the 53rd minute, Webb doled out a yellow card to Spurs’ David Bentley for diving in the Sunderland penalty area. Forget for the moment that I have had the advantage of looking at replays. Before I saw those, simply looking at the live telecast, it seemed pretty clear to me that Bentley had simply slipped as he tried to cut inside a defender -- his leg went out from under him. That was what I thought I saw. Almost immediately, Sunderland’s Bolo Zenden arrived on the scene, sliding in with a crude attempt at a tackle. But Bentley was already going down before Zenden arrived.
Later -- looking at those replays -- it was clear that Bentley had slipped, and that Zenden had made contact as he slid in. In other words, there was considerable doubt the whole incident -- it did not look like a penalty kick (as Spurs’ coach Harry Redknapp later said it was), and it was not a dive.
So where does Webb get his certainty about the dive from? It could not possibly have been based on what he saw in front of him. The suspicion always hovers in these diving decisions that the referee is simply making his own life easier by refusing to call a penalty and then masking his cop-out by falsifying the incident with a yellow for diving. Which shifts the blame on to the victim.
My feeling about yellow cards for diving --which amount to an accusation of cheating -- is that the referee should be damn certain he’s getting it right. I don’t see how Webb could possibly have been that certain -- unless he doesn’t believe that a player can loose his footing. Maybe we have reached that stage in this incessant diving witch hunt. Last Saturday, when ManU’s Chicharito Hernandez went down in the Wolverhampton penalty area, he got an earful of abuse from Wolves’ defender Richard Stearman ... when he had clearly slipped and was not trying to con anyone.
Webb’s call on Bentley was a bad one. But not his worst -- his absurd diving call on Lionel Messi in a Champions League game last year will not soon be forgotten, not around here it won’t.
From diving, in which no one gets injured, but which Webb likes to call, to violent play, which does injure players, but which Webb far too often fails to penalize.
Just 15 minutes after the Bentley episode, we have Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole sliding viciously into Luka Modric. Fortunately, very fortunately, Modric managed to jump as contact was made. Webb was immediately surrounded by outraged Spurs players, no doubt demanding a red card. Which it obviously should have been. But not for Howard Webb. All he did was engage in a short chat with Cattermole, and then give him a yellow.
“He could have broken my leg, could have ended my career,” was what Modric thought about it -- and Modric has some experience of this sort of violence, having had his leg broken last season in a clash with the lovely Lee Bowyer.
As if his appalling leniency is not bad enough, Webb has since announced that he saw everything and that he is satisfied with his decision. But there is every reason for him to know that his call was a bad one, because he is well aware of Cattermole’s dreadful disciplinary record: a pro career that so far includes 50 bookings and five red cards (two of them this season) -- and he’s only 22!
It comes back to this insistence from referees that in making their decisions they must not allow knowledge of a player’s history to have an effect. Fine, in theory. In practice, a disaster. I have commented recently on this, when referring to the MLS’s own problem boy, Dema Kovalenko. He and Cattermole are two of a kind -- players who revel in violent play and are unwilling, or unable (it matters not which) to change their style.
It is a shameful blot on refereeing that so many referees have bought enthusiastically into the anti-diving crusade, while at the same time they blithely refuse to come down hard on murderous tackles. It is hard to have any sympathy at all with Webb’s view that it’s OK to give only a yellow for a leg-endangering tackle, yet to give the same punishment for a dive -- which was not a dive.
On this matter of a player’s background: Newcastle United’s Joey Barton is unquestionably one of the most violent personalities in English soccer. To take only the most spectacular evidence: he has been jailed for six months for common assault during a late-night incident in Liverpool city center; he has stubbed a lit cigar into the eye of a teammate; he sent another teammate to hospital after violently assaulting him during a practice session. Plus various thoroughly nasty fouls during games -- stomping on the heel of Pedro Mendes in 2008 was a choice example.
Barton, a rather ordinary player, is now with Newcastle United. On Thursday he decided to punch Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen -- behind the referee’s back. The cameras caught him at work, though, and the English FA investigated. Rushing to his rescue came the Newcastle coach Chris Hughton, moaning that Barton’s “record might lead him to be judged more harshly than he deserved on this occasion.”
And so it should. But of course, it was not. Barton received the standard three-game suspension, and issued a gushing apology to everyone.
Dreadful tackles and serious injuries, or miraculous escapes from the slaughter, are becoming a weekly staple of EPL news. Have we heard any statements of concern from the EPL -- even a mild one? Their stunning silence is bound to arouse some unpleasant thoughts about the image the league wishes to project, and how it sets about marketing it.