It started as a simple question on Saturday night; “If your club had a player shown two yellow cards, but no red, would you expect them to do the right thing and walk?”
The responses I received were very interesting and once you put aside those comments driven by football rivalries i.e. applying it to the case in hand rather than, as I asked, if it was their club’s player, they showed a lack of belief in fairness and sportsmanship in football. The general tone being; If officials don’t do their jobs properly then why shouldn’t players/teams exploit it? On Saturday, gamesmanship took over from sportsmanship, a majority of fans who responded seemed happy with that precedence.
For me, it doesn’t sit right, but I can see where they are coming from. Taking Saturday’s incidents at the John Smith’s Stadium as the example, Sheffield Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan received his second yellow card after 20 minutes. In effect, Huddersfield Town should have had a man advantage it what proved to be a tight Derby tussle for around 70 minutes. You could argue that the referee’s failure had a significant influence on the potential outcome of the game and Huddersfield’s anger was understandable.
However, I guess there are incidents like that in every game, where the outcome changes on one decision. Be it an incorrect offside call, a handball that is missed, or the Stuart Atwell goal incident at Watford, the official are potentially culpable in determining the outcome of game. Many of the responses on Saturday night, including several from Terriers supporters took this view. The referee has made a mistake, by all means complain, but if he refuses to reverse his decision or acknowledge his mistake, move on and get on with the game.
What makes Saturday’s situation even worse was that there was a fourth official and two assistant referees who witnessed the decisions. The fourth official in particular was the recipient of Simon Grayson’s ire and that of his coaching staff. What stopped him realising the mistake. For one official to get a decision wrong is one thing, for it to be compounded by the failure of three others is something quite unbelievable.
So Saturday and the response of fans afterwards tells me that we are quite happy to accept gamesmanship when the officials fail in their duties. That we are content to watch players shuffle away with a wry grin, for benefiting managers to pass it off post match in interviews. The very same manager who for the last couple of months has done nothing but complain about unfair refereeing decisions as his side went on a long and fruitless winless run.
That end of the last paragraph isn’t meant as a dig at the manager involved on Saturday. I can think of many managers who would have done the same, including those who have stood on the Bramall Lane touchline.
Maybe I am foolishly hoping for a utopian footballing world where sportsmanship actually wins over. Where the player voluntarily walks off to the tunnel, knowing the incorrect decision has been made. Where his manager wouldn’t condemn him for his action, but acknowledge the claims of opposition manager and fans and tells his player to come off. But hey, as someone pointed out on Saturday night, it’s just not cricket. Or Snooker. Or Rugby. Or other sports where you see sporting acknowledgement of incorrect decisions of those that the referee/umpire misses. Not always, I grant you, but it is still a more frequent event than at a football match.
I can think of few occasions when sportsmanship has stood out over gamesmanship in football; Di Canio catching the ball as Everton goalkeeper lay injured and the empty goal was beckoning in December 2000, some may suggest the Arsenal offer of a replay to the Blades following Marc Overmars’ controversial goal in the 1999 cup tie, but I beg to differ. Arsenal could have let United equalise and then play on the rest of the match with the scores level, as they were prior to the goal. The offer of a replay benefited Arsenal as much with home advantage, gate receipts etc.
More recent examples show that when advantage has been gained, the benefiting team rarely recognise their advantageous stretching of fair play and there is little the officials could do. Ask Nordsjaelland or even Sheffield Wednesday themselves. The fact that so few stand up for fair play, seems to make it less and less likely other teams will set the example, particularly when they have suffered an injustice previously.
Maybe football could try and set new standards. Maybe Reading players should have admitted to Stuart Attwell that the “ghost goal” he awarded them in 2008 was nowhere near the Watford goal. Maybe the Shakhtar Donetsk players and management together should have acknowledged that Luiz Adriano’s goal was out of order and properly stood aside for Nordsjaelland to score from the kick off, instead of being split on what they should do. Maybe the Yeovil players last season should have stood aside to allow Wednesday to score; their player manager was on the pitch and could have instigated it. Maybe Jeremy Helan should have walked off the pitch on Saturday. Instead he lingered, saw the red card hadn’t followed and sheepishly shrugged and walked back into position. Maybe his manager should have hauled him off, or supported Simon Grayson’s claims to the fourth official.
And maybe football won’t. In fact I know it won’t. Football over the last 20 years has been corrupted by money, to a greater extent than any other sport. Money places enormous pressure on managers and players. Pressure to win, pressure to succeed whatever the cost, every point and every place has a huge financial reward. Morals are marginalised and a generation of fans see the boundaries of acceptable behaviour stretched, more so if the officials and authorities are inept at dealing with those incidents when they occur.
Do you know what? In a year of depressing incidents in football, that makes me a little sadder and a little more disillusioned with the game. I doubt 2013 will do much to change my view.