If the Premier League was the Wild West, referee Mike Dean would be the sheriff
Grappling, holding, dissent and diving are all being closely watched early in the season, with penalties and cards flowing in a bid to keep the game clean
Imagine, if you will, referee Mike Dean cast in the role of Seth Bullock, the fearless sheriff who brought law and order to the Wild West hit TV show, Deadwood.
Dean is tasked to bring to heel the Premier League’s lawless penalty boxes – territories rife in all manner of skulduggery.
Into the anarchy he rides, armed with a couple of (red and yellow) cards, the letter of the law and the full backing of the townsfolk, aka the supporters.
Such was the plot during last weekend’s clashes in the must-watch 2016-17 English Premier League series.
Dean tenaciously fought the destabilising forces that ruin football – the grappling and holding, the boorish and spoilt-brat dissent, and the pathetic diving.
During the showdown between Manchester City and Stoke, he awarded penalties to both teams for grappling in the area.
Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross’ main tactic is to pay more attention to the player than the ball, restricting his opponents with more flaying limbs than the entire Hindu deity. This time, he nearly clawed the shirt off the back of City’s Nicolás Otamendi.
Some suggest penalising Raheem Sterling for the same offence – ironically against Shawcross – was harsh. True, Sterling was not wrestling Shawcross to the ground.
But he wasn’t looking at the ball, either – just at the man. His malicious intent was evident to all, especially to on-the-spot Dean.
Holding and grappling went unpunished by refs last season and rendered many games almost unwatchable.
Misguided libertarians such as pundit and ex-defender Philip Neville and Stoke striker Peter Crouch believe the manhandling is just part of the game.
But grappling makes a mockery of their “contact sport” defence. Blatant obstruction has ruined the spirit of competition.
It prevents goals from being scored and insults the intelligence of supporters; it rips them off.
The minority voices also claim the clampdown will turn the game into a farce because penalties will be awarded on every other attack. This misses the point and exposes their blinkered views.
Physical contact will always be an integral part of the game. Defenders will just have to learn to jump higher and move faster. They must use their arms less. It’s called football for a good reason, after all.
There’s clearly a new hardline approach from officials this season, a concerted effort to clamp down on the practice by awarding penalties and yellow cards.
Referee Craig Pawson marshalled the game between West Ham and Bournemouth and also showed true grit when he instantly produced the yellow card for Harry Arter for dissent.
It was not the worst example of thuggish dissidence that has become the norm – Arter did not even appear to swear when he sarcastically applauded the linesman for awarding handball.
Yet noble lawman Pawson let the rule book do the talking. The booking later helped reduce Bournemouth to 10 men because Arter got booked again for pulling back Cheikhou Kouyaté.
His dismissal cost the visitors the match – but that’s not poetic justice. It’s simple law enforcement.
Dissent has also gone unpunished for too long. With multiple cameras catching every moment, the sight of someone spitting obscenities in an official’s face sets the worst possible example to impressionable youngsters.
Such behaviour demands an instant red. No ifs, no buts.
Quite how Chelsea’s Diego Costa remained on the pitch when he gave referee John Moss a mouthful of spittle and expletives after Watford’s goal remains a mystery; he should have seen another yellow and subsequent red later on after diving theatrically on the edge of the box.
Costa also escaped a red card in Chelsea’s season opener at home to West Ham when he tackled goalkeeper Adrian in the area after earlier being booked for dissent.
In both games the striker went on to score the winning goal for the Blues.
This refreshing enforcement blitz is much welcomed and necessary – but consistency is vital if players are to dispense with the so-called dark arts.
Year after year in pre-season briefings, players are warned that cheating will not be tolerated. Clearly, the words go in one ear and straight out the other.
And we have seen many times before the good intentions of officials evaporate once the season’s grind begins proper.
Managers must play a bigger role by threatening fines or dropping players if they answer officials back, grab opponents and simulate a foul.
But it is the officials who must stick to their guns. The lawmen must not be deterred this time.
Last weekend the card-slinging sheriffs sent out a clear message to every player. High Noon has cometh, and for the sake of the game the players must be made to blink first.