By Paul Gardner
If you watched last weekend’s English Premier League game between Stoke and Everton (for your sake, I hope you did not -- this was just awful stuff) you will have seen, thanks to television replays, three examples of extremely violent play. All three of them were perpetrated by Everton’s Marouane Fellaini at the expense of Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross: A full-blooded head butt, an elbow to the face, then a hand, more of a punch, to the face.
The curious thing was that referee Mark Halsey missed the first two, and awarded only a free kick to Stoke for the third -- no punishment for Fellaini. So Fellaini got away with assault and battery. Poor Shawcross. Not really. Shawcross is a serial offender when it comes to illegally tackling, holding and generally impeding opponents. And he invariably gets away with it. Holding -- indeed, clamping -- opponents at corner kicks is now the rule rather than the exception at EPL corner kicks, and rarely is it punished.
I would argue strongly that Shawcross was a big-time provocateur in all these incidents -- but that is not to in any way excuse Fellaini’s conduct, which was appalling.
It is of course quite possible that referee Halsey did, genuinely, fail to spot all the fouls because his line of vision was blocked. Possible -- but highly unlikely. Why would Halsey allow that to happen when he had to be aware that the two players were constantly provoking each other?
Halsey to blame, then? Not really. The basic fault here lies with the English style of refereeing. Giving verbal warnings, chatting with players -- which, we are told is, what Halsey at one point did with Shawcross and Fellaini -- is considered good refereeing in the EPL. So the fouling, the provocation -- and the reactions -- continue.
On a regular EPL weekend Halsey’s failure to call Fellaini’s blatant fouls would no doubt have stood out as quite the worst decisions on offer. Halsey got lucky. This was not a regular weekend. For Halsey’s errors shrink away to nothingness when set along side that of referee Mike Dean, who had charge of the Tottenham-Swansea game.
With the game almost over -- in its 95th minute -- and Spurs leading 1-0, a long ball was played toward the Spurs area. Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris came racing toward to edge of the area to punch the ball away, while Swansea’s forward Michu ran forward trying to get a head on the ball.
Both players had their eyes on the ball. There is no suggestion here of either player deliberately trying to smash into the other. But, of course, that’s what happened. An ugly looking collision in which Lloris got his fists on the ball to punch it away, but he also clearly made violent contact with Michu around the head area. Michu went down, heavily, and stayed down ... motionless.
It wasn’t that long ago -- 1982, just 30 years back -- that we saw the most horrendous of these goalkeeper collisions, when Germany’s Toni Schumacher wiped out France’s Patrick Battiston in a World Cup semifinal. Battiston left the field on a stretcher, unconscious. Michel Platini, a teammate that afternoon, feared that Battiston had died, so desperate was his condition.
Battiston lived, and so too did the memory of that awful moment. At least, one would have thought so. Referee Dean was 14 when it happened. Surely he must know about it? And even if he doesn’t, what on earth are the English referees taught to do in these circumstances?
Dean had a choice to make and he made the wrong one. After a quick glance at Michu on the ground, Dean allowed play to continue, he raced away from the incident, trying to keep up with Andros Townsend as he led a Tottenham counterattack. Townsend failed to score ... and only then did Dean stop play and allow Swansea’s trainers on the field to look at Michu.
Watching the incident, with the memory of 1982 intruding all the time, it seemed to take forever for Dean to at last pay attention and blow his whistle. It wasn’t forever ... it was a mere 16 seconds.
Sixteen seconds. Could that make much difference? Yes, when you’re dealing with head injuries, with an unconscious player, it could. It has been my understanding for some years now that referees will stop play and call on the trainers the instant they suspect a head injury. This caution is the result of a tremendous amount of research that has been done over the past decade on concussions.
Dean seemed to be totally unaware of all this. He made the decision -- the dreadfully wrong decision -- that the Spurs’ counterattack and a possible goal (which would hardly have mattered as this was the 95th minute and Spurs were already leading 1-0) were of more importance than Michu’s safety.
Michu eventually got to his feet and walked, slowly, off the field. So, thankfully, it turned out well. At least, as far as we know. For concussions, as we are finding out, are sneaky, insidious injuries. The long-term effects are far from fully understood.
If it is English refereeing policy to ignore blatant head clashes, then that policy needs to be changed. If the English policy is to stop play at once for all head injuries, or even for incidents that appear to cause head injuries, then Mike Dean should be strongly reprimanded for ignoring that policy and for making a highly dangerous call.
For the incident involving Michu, Dean must take all the blame. But there is more blame to share out. Plenty of it belongs to the sport’s rulemakers. They are the ones who have been trying for about 100 years to fashion rules that will work both for real soccer players, who are forbidden to use their hands, and goalkeepers who are allowed to use their hands.
This flat out contradiction must mean that rules designed for field players are unlikely to work for goalkeepers. So modifications have to be made for goalkeepers -- there are plenty of them to be found in the rulebook. And the intriguing thing is that most of these modifications seem designed to make the goalkeeper’s job easier.
There is no rule that says a field player cannot attempt to block an opponent’s shot, or his pass. But there is a rule that penalizes a player who attempts to block a goalkeeper from punting the ball. There no rule that defines a field player having “possession” of the ball, and no rule that bars an opponent from challenging for it. But goalkeeper possession is clearly defined (in a very liberal way) and a goalkeeper who has gained possession “cannot be challenged by an opponent.”
It is this sort of pro-goalkeeper bias that allows frightening collisions like that involving Michu to happen. Listen to goalkeeper Lloris: “I had to go for it and impose myself.” Is that so? By that rationalization, then, it’s OK for a goalkeeper to race out, leap into the air and simply smash into opponents -- maybe punch them pretty solidly while they’re at it, too.
Would a field player be allowed to “tackle” an opponent by simply jumping straight into him and flattening him in an attempt to win a head ball? He would not -- he would be called for a foul, and almost certainly yellow-carded if he jumped in with the force used by Lloris.
What Lloris calls “imposing” himself is nothing more than brutal physical intimidation. It should not be permitted. Once again, the rules need to be modified to allow for the hand-ball players -- but this time they need to place restrictions on the goalkeepers' bullying.
Dean’s failure to acknowledge the possibility of a serious head injury to Michu raises another point. If the medical staff on the bench is convinced that a serious injury may have occurred, what are they supposed to do? Just sit and wait until Dean calls them on, however long that might take? Or should they simply take matters into their own hands and race on the field, unbidden, even while the game continues?
That option, raising the picture of assorted trainers, coaches and physios wandering on to the field whenever they feel like it, is obviously not workable. But it would not be necessary to even imagine it if referees do their job properly and pay attention to the dangers of head injuries ... something Mike Dean so lamentably and so dangerously failed to do last Sunday.