Everyone likes to see a referee in the wrong, especially one who wears boots with lime green soles and pops his eyes like Jasper Carrott as he theatrically waves his red card and gestures towards the tunnel, but you can't help feeling Mike Dean deserved a little more support from his employers over his interpretation of Vincent Kompany's tackle on Jack Wilshere and that a can of worms has been opened by the overturning of the dismissal by an independent FA commission.
Fair enough. Kompany did seem harshly treated at the time and it is probably true to say that had Dean overlooked the incident and allowed play to continue there would have been no howls of protest. The ball was won, after all, the Arsenal player was not injured, so maybe in one sense an injustice has been corrected. If the referee overreacted, he has now been brought back into line.
But did Dean overreact? More to the point, did he make "an obvious error", which is considered the only grounds on which the commission could overturn his decision? If so, what was this obvious error?
The groundswell of opinion is that Dean thought Kompany guilty of a two-footed lunge, and punished him accordingly, whereas replays were able to prove that the Manchester City captain had lunged with only one foot and was therefore on solid ground.
That suggests the law says one foot good, two feet bad, when it says no such thing. The law actually says that lunges are the problem, not the number of feet in the air, and suggests that players who leave the ground are taking a risk. So you can see Dean's dilemma.
Despite the chorus of defenders bemoaning the fact that the art of tackling is dead and ball winning is being legislated out of the game, Kompany's was not the sort of tackle to be held up to youngsters as an example of how to challenge for the ball. He failed to stay on his feet, for a start, he definitely lunged, and although on this occasion he won the ball cleanly, a defender of that size flying through the air with studs raised is bound to make the referee wonder whether he is fully in control or guilty of using excessive force. All it would take is for Kompany to mistime that tackle by a few inches, or Wilshere to shift his standing foot at the last moment, and you are looking at a potential leg-breaker.
Here is what the rule book actually says, the guideline referees must try and remember in the heat of the moment: "Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind, using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play."
Here is the real conundrum. No one actually thinks Kompany was guilty of serious foul play. There was no intention to injure an opponent, every care was taken to play the ball and not the man, and practically everyone in the world agrees it would have been a travesty had he been forced to miss three matches for a challenge that was basically hard but fair. Yet reading the law as set out above, can it really be said that Dean got it completely wrong? Did he make an obvious error? At least you can see where the referee was coming from, and though Kompany's case was strengthened by the fact that he caused no injury, burly defenders leaving the ground with their full weight behind their raised studs have snapped ankles and led to overheated debates on the safety of the game in the past.
Here's another question. Supposing Kompany had made the same tackle and caught Wilshere on the ankle, perhaps due to the latter moving the ball or his foot at the last second, as sometimes happens. Wilshere is only just back from injury, and if he had departed on a stretcher with the prospect of being out for another few months, with Arsène Wenger muttering in the background about dangerous play and not getting enough protection from referees, would City have bothered to appeal the official's decision to send him off? Of course they wouldn't.
They would have held up their hands and said sorry. But if referees are going to give players protection from flying studs and dangerously overcommitted challenges, they have to assess the tackle itself, not wait and check on the outcome. Certain types of tackle are potentially dangerous, and they don't all look like the classic, two-footed, long-jump-landing lunge of beloved memory. There are all sorts of shades in between, and referees are supposed to take into account the amount of force used, which often comes down to the size and weight of the player, and the amount of control exerted.
If Dean was in the wrong, so was Kompany, who has picked up a few cautions in this manner and probably needs to stay on his feet for longer. It may be regrettable that full-blooded commitment as well as contact is being forced out of the game, but there was no real need for Kompany to dive in as he did, and you don't see Barcelona defenders doing it. The game moves on, refereeing interpretations change, and clever defenders adapt.
This observer thought a yellow card and a warning would have covered the situation adequately, but this observer happened to think the same thing about the Laurent Koscielny incident earlier in the same match. This observer is not a referee. If he were, he would have deemed a penalty and a booking sufficient punishment for that amount of stupidity.
The letter of the law might have deemed it a clear goalscoring opportunity, though as Edin Dzeko went on to miss that other clear goalscoring opportunity – the penalty – it seems a moot point, to say the least.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald