More curious tales from the world of English refereeing

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.

13 comments about "More curious tales from the world of English refereeing".
  1. R2 Dad, December 18, 2012 at 1:05 p.m.

    This issue of grappling in the box takes advantage of the fact that referees don't want to whistle the foul on a defender in the box, and in most corners both teams are within the 18 so no foul is called because a PK would be harsh. What's the remedy? In the minds of the referees there is talking, and there is issuing a PK. Unfortunately, no one wants to call for an indirect free kick at the point of infraction, which should often be the call but when have you last seen it played?

  2. Bob Escobar, December 18, 2012 at 1:18 p.m.

    what's new in the EPL? nothing....week in week out the same old garbage, referees are plain simple, terrible!!!! but lets look here in the US, MLS refereeing is a continuation of college refereeing, TERRIBLE, these guys don't even know the rules, perhaps the worst is, illegal tackles from the side and back, referees don't seem to understand what is intentional, non intentional, reckless, etc....skillful players in the US are few, why? because 99.9% of youth, college and professional coaches encourage this type of aggression, at every game you hear them yelling "go hard lad, go hard" or "go through it", what they mean is, plow through it!!!! you almost never ever hear them say, "skills kid, knock it around, take them on, don't panic, if you can't go forward go back, keep your composure, we need a control game, slow it down, lets use more give and gos out there, etc etc"...all we hear is nonsense, nonsense futbol brought to the US by the Brits, the reason why we have so many Brits coaching at every level in the US is they speak English, not because they know how to teach the beautiful game, like the game Messi, Neymar, Xavi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Zinadine Zedane, Roberto Carlos, Falcao, Oscar, Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, etc in this country will never ever play a skillful, passing game with great individual skills, as long as the Brit mentality still exist in every youth team, every college team and every professional team in America!!!

  3. James Froehlich, December 18, 2012 at 1:37 p.m.

    Bravo Bob !!! Now get ready to be attacked.

  4. Tom Symonds, December 18, 2012 at 1:53 p.m.

    "Tear Away Jerseys"! (Darn that Greg Pruitt) Pretty hard to petition your innocence to the referee when you have a fistful of material while your opponent is off and running - albeit in an air-conditioned kit. But if the FA, UEFA, and FIFA don't like my TAJ idea, then I'm okay with the referee enforcing the laws of the game and awarding penalties. It's always incumbent upon the players to know the laws of the game and to abide by them. They know what's a foul according to the laws and they know what the consequences are supposed to be; time for the referees to make the calls. After conceding cheap goals, it won't take many matches before the players get accustomed to the 'new normal'...ah hem, playing by the laws of the game. No big deal for the fans - we scream for a PK when we're offended so we need to accept a PK when we offend.
    Re Lloris-Michu collision: Michu knows that a GK can fist away a ball and that a world-class GK, like the French #1, will challenge a ball at the top of the box...he knows that! as does Lloris who knows a strong center forward never gives up on a ball. Yes, it was a violent collision, but one that both parties were aware of happening even though they may not have looked for each other. I don't fault either player for the collision: both gave 100% to attack/defend the goal. Your criticism of the referee is spot on - the health of Michu superseded any potential Spurs attack.

  5. Chris Sapien , December 18, 2012 at 3:55 p.m.

    I can appreciate the passion Bob, but just as there are an emormous spectrum of players and their respective skill levels, there is always going to be varying interpretation that the laws of the game itself do not specifically prohibit, and how that is reflected in coaching philosophy. Throughout my experience I never once heard a coach equate "aggression" with violent conduct, or coach a conscious refusal to use skill, replaced with instead "aggression"(?), when the moment is best suited for the former. Instead the coaching quotes you mention were understood by the players as the encouragement to go forward and force the defenders into conviction. In other words, force them to make decisions and be ON the defensive up to and including the committing of fouls against your attackers. I am always amazed at the "style" arguments that people employ in these forums. I truly enjoy all soccer/football/futbol and its many degrees and variety! In regards to the laws of the game, referees are empowered to decide whether fouls need to be called, or if the desired effect can be obtained through what some call "a talking to". Many people want it both ways when it supports their desires, or their team's agenda. Example, they want referees to not effect the "flow of the game" through trifling calls, but they also want the letter of the law when it serves their position, be it an argument or a desired result. Can't have it both ways folks. I, for one, do not want to hear a whistle for every jersey tug, arm away from body, incidental contact, or other questionable challenge that does not afford one side or the other a meaningful advantage.

  6. Jack vrankovic, December 18, 2012 at 9:43 p.m.

    @Bob:LOL. Perhaps everyone should wear a skintight jersey like Robben. I find it odd that Shawcross can break a leg and get a three match suspension and Fellaini will get the same punishment for infringements that did not lead to injury. Right or wrong Fellaini and Jelavic gave Shawcross and Co. a taste of their own medicine during that game.

  7. Mike Maurer, December 18, 2012 at 10:48 p.m.

    He is definitely onto something as GKs being a protected entity on the field. Honestly, how many times have you you seen a GK take out another player to have the foul called on the attacking player? He is also right about the British philosophy of the game. It is funny how they parade around the world exuding the style of the game when the game in England itself continues to grow more universal and thus anti english.

  8. beautiful game, December 19, 2012 at 11:35 a.m.

    FIFA has been delinquent about addressing the muggings in the box for years. It has been delinquent in permitting players to pick up the ball (delay of game infraction)after the whistle, and letting refs approximate the 10 yard free kick rule, or letting the wall encroach without punishment. Time for FIFA to crack down and enforce the laws of the game. Time for FIFA to look forward and declare the off-side rule only if there is total separation between players.

  9. Amos Annan, December 19, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.

    NO! English soccer is the best. We don't need more cards.

  10. Brian Something, December 19, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.

    The problem English refs face is that they’re in a no win situation. If they actually call fouls, you know... if they actually do their jobs, they are accused of “being the star of the show” and “trying to hog the spotlight”. So they err on the side of letting players do whatever they want. This is more in line with the English mentality of “getting stuck in” being more important than any, you know, actually ball skill. They are praised for “letting the game flow” and any player who goes to ground for any reason is immediately suspected of diving (a crime punishable by death in the English media, even when contact is clear.

  11. Mike Maurer, December 20, 2012 at 12:01 a.m.

    yup. they are morons. the refs have been consistently inconsistent. It would take a season of retraining coaches, players, and fans to get it right.

  12. Kent James, December 20, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.

    While PG is clearly correct about the mugging that goes on before the ball is kicked on corner kicks & free kicks, others are correct that if the referees simply enforced the rules (even calling PKs when necessary), that would be cut down (and they should). If the referee calls it before the ball is in play, he can card the infraction without calling a PK (and he can card them both, if they're both doing it), which I would prefer to see (more cards would send the message with less damage than more PKs). But on another point, that I am incredulous that PG is making, is the idea the GKs getting freedom from interference while punting or from challenge while in possession is somehow a bad thing. If you want games to degenerate into physical contests (if not brawls), let the other team interfere with a keeper while he punts, or try to knock the ball loose while the keeper's in possession. Yes, they're treated differently than field players, but with regards to those two situations, for good reason. I do think GK's take advantage of the referee "protecting" the GK by giving them the benefit of the doubt; GKs can get away with murder when going for a ball. The benefit of the doubt should go to the GK, but just on the 50/50 balls; if the GK fouls someone, they should be held accountable like everyone else.

  13. James Madison, December 20, 2012 at 10:57 p.m.

    Gardner gives away the difference between the Lions-Michu collision and Schumacher nailing Battiston when he says that, in the more recent EPL match,"both players had their eyes on the ball." Schumacher knew he was going to be beaten and had eyes only for Battiston.

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