The Rational Ref

Pandora's Box to remain ajar without consistency

Recent ruling by FA's regulatory committee to overturn red card decision creates doubt and confusion both on and off the field

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 3:13am

Unforeseen troubles for referees lie ahead because of the FA's decision to rescind Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany's red card for what match referee Mike Dean deemed to be serious foul play. In undermining his interpretation, the FA has opened Pandora's Box.

The laws of the game demand three key traits in their interpretation: consistency, consistency and consistency. The present regulatory system does not embrace this. It is hardly surprising that an independent FA regulatory commission - especially one comprising a three-person panel selected and chopped and changed from a pool of FA councillors, former players and the Professional Footballers' Association - may differ from referees in its analysis of serious foul play.

Match officials know the importance of consistency because it gives credibility and confidence to its practitioners. Referees strive for consistency knowing they are under huge stress, pressure from time limits in games and intense public scrutiny. Realistically, they acknowledge that errors of judgment sometimes occur and to offset this officials practice, prepare and then perform to the best of their abilities. Referees do not have the same luxury afforded to three-person panels that sit in comfort, take time to deliberate and reconsider and then make decisions behind closed doors.

These appeals panels comprise individuals who have little or no refereeing knowledge, which inherently lends itself to differences of opinion.

This is the real reason why there is potential for inconsistency in interpretation and why the whole regulatory appeals process needs to be revised. At the very least, because these panels review the laws as interpreted by referees, members should be made to complete an accredited referees' course and perhaps experience what it is like to officiate games. They need to seriously consider the referees' perspective when making their judgments.

The laws have a caveat that states: "The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play … are final."

This means that the interpretations of the laws by players, coaches, pundits or supporters are inferior compared with the interpretations made by match officials. This is in no way a slight on other stakeholders' passion and love for the game, but a referee's interpretation is what's relevant here.

Here is the piece of law that referees take into account for serious foul play.

"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."

Kompany lunged at Arsenal's Jack Wilshere and landed on his backside. He also appeared to injure his left hamstring, such was the force used. Kompany does a lot of this type of tackling where he lands on his backside, which means he has little or no control of his body.

The red card Kompany received this time last season from referee Chris Foy was for the same type of tackle where he lunged at Manchester United's Nani and ended up on his backside. Again, this was serious foul play and last season the FA commission - presumably composed of a different three-person panel of nonrefereeing individuals - upheld the red card.

Match officials are trained to understand and apply the laws without fear or favour. In grey areas where there are diverse views, match officials take time off the pitch to discuss and deliberate so that their interpretations on the pitch are, and are seen to be, consistent. The professional referees group in England exemplified this last season when, in response to Kompany's upheld red card, they made a DVD and explained to all EPL clubs what constitutes serious foul play. It is evident that referees Dean and Foy are consistent in their interpretation. It is unclear why the appeals panel thought otherwise.

Kompany has stated he will not change his approach to tackling. But all good players adapt. For instance Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney adapted, and no longer tackle wildly. At 21 years old, Jack Wilshere needs time to amend his no-holds-barred tackling but he too will adapt.

This is why it is funny to hear some players, coaches, pundits and supporters lamenting the "death of the tackle". Again, this is from the players' perspective - old timers like Alan Hansen and Matt le Tissier. What matters is not how players interpret the law, but referees. The modern game has moved on and so should all stakeholders.

Hence referees, and the game itself, will continue to be shortchanged if the appeals system remains nonprogressive. Until we are all on the same page in interpreting the laws, we will never achieve consistency.