Anyone who was at the Chelsea v Burnley game yesterday afternoon, or watched the highlights on TV, may have come away thinking, like me, that there is something seriously wrong with the way football is being run in this country. Let me start by saying I am not personally a Chelsea supporter. But I am a fan of football, and what happened at Chelsea, and to Nemanja Matic in particular, disgusted me.
The two tackles by Burnley thug Ashley Barnes on Ivanovich and Matic are supposed to be the kind the authorities have pledged to root out of the game. They were cowardly, sly, to all appearances pre-meditated and could have seriously injured both players. Particularly Matic, who was lucky not to have had his leg snapped in two.
Chris Waddle described the tackle on Matic as ‘horrific’. While Jose Mourinho, when interviewed on Sky’s ‘Goals on Sunday’ this morning described it as “criminal”, and I can’t disagree with either description. “Matic is a lucky guy,” said Mourinho, “this was a career ending tackle… I can’t find words to describe what the guy did. The consequences for Matic could have been the end of his career”.
Barnes first ‘assault’ on Ivanovich (I hesitate to distinguish it with the word ‘tackle’) was little better than a flying kung-fu kick of the kind Eric Cantona received a lengthy ban for back in the day. At least Cantona had an excuse, as he was reacting to a thoroughly abusive fan in the crowd. But the way Barnes deliberately tried to hurt Ivanovich was criminal. Ivanovich was in mid-air, trying to head the ball, and couldn’t defend himself when Barnes jumped into him, ramming his studs down into the back of Ivanovich’s leg. It was a malicious lunge, clearly intended to injure the Chelsea player, and but for the grace of god could have done serious damage.
The worst thing about this kind of thuggery, as anyone who has ever played the game will know, is when it’s done in such a cowardly way. Barnes is clearly no hard man like a Norman Hunter or Nobby Stiles, not man enough to go into an honest fifty fifty with the likes of Ivanovich or Matic. His lunges yesterday were done from behind or the side, studs-up, trying to injure players while they weren’t looking. In short, the kind of player football would be better off without.
Even the way Barnes threw himself to the deck when pushed from behind by an incensed Matic was clearly calculated to get the Chelsea player sent off. Barnes wasn’t punched, kicked, or even grabbed round the throat (any one of which would have been a justifiable reaction from a player who had almost had his leg broken) yet he hit the deck like he’d been steam-rollered. And such are the farcical FA rules that Atkinson had no choice but to send Matic off for ‘raising his hand’ to an opponent. To compound this miscarriage of justice, Matic will now miss next week’s Capital One Cup Final, while the real villain of the piece (a journeyman thug who would grace a few of the pub teams I played against in my amateur days) has so far gotten off completely scot free. So laughable are the FA rules (which are frankly turning English football into a laughing stock), that if Martin Atkinson claims he saw both tackles but thought they didn’t merit punishment, then Barnes may well escape any punishment whatsoever, despite video replays clearly demonstrating to millions of viewers that he deserved not just one red card, but two.
The fact that Barnes remained on the pitch after his assault on Ivanovich clearly affected the result of the game, doubling the injustice to Chelsea. Paul Merson summed it up perfectly on Soccer Saturday, when he refused to fall for the ‘plucky Burnley deserved something from the game’ crap that was being trotted out by some.
“They had a go but they were absolutely dominated. And they get by with the sending off. I can’t give credit for that… I’m not giving them credit for a geezer who could have broken the lad’s leg and they get a result through that. That’s how they get a result, because 11 v 11 they wouldn’t have scored a goal in a month of Sundays.”
The fact is, Barnes deserved a straight red for his flying stamp on the back of Ivanovich’s leg, plain and simple. That would have reduced Burnley to 10 men and Chelsea would have been out of sight by half time. More importantly they’d have finished with 11 men, three points, and Matic wouldn’t have been robbed of his Wembley cup final appearance next week. Shame on Barnes, Atkinson, and the F.A.
This brings me to the equally farcical spectacle of an intelligent man like Mourinho having to resort to ever inventive linguistic charades in his after-match press conferences, to speak the truth without falling foul of the FA’s totalitarian dictat against any criticism of match officials. With almost childish petulance they punish any such ‘infractions’ under the blanket crime of ‘bringing the game into disrepute’. Stop to think about that for a moment. What brings the game into disrepute more? A manager being able to criticise an abysmal performance by a referee, or bunch of faceless football mandarins who sit in judgement behind a wall of anonymity, whose pronouncements often fly in the face of common sense and justice? Who are these dictators to hand out harsh fines to a manager for merely exercising his right to free speech in a so-called liberal democracy, while protecting their own sycophants from any criticism whatsoever? Are we living in North Korea? It would seem the FA have styled themselves on Sepp Blatter’s joke regime at FIFA, where a self-appointed clique wield totalitarian power, are beyond rebuke and accountable to no-one but themselves. They might do well to remember that the mistakes they and their officials make can have disastrous consequences for football clubs, and cost many a manager their job.
I’ve often wondered, if video evidence can be cited retrospectively to award or rescind player punishments, why couldn’t it also be used retrospectively to judge whether a manager’s comments were fair, before condemning them out of hand? If a manager lambasts a referee without justification, fine him. But if the evidence supports his case, why punish him for merely pointing out to the F.A. the errors of their officials? If football were a court of law, the F.A. would be laughed out of it.
On the subject of using technology, I still can’t for the life of me understand why the football authorities don’t put more of it at the referee’s disposal. Refs are only human. They get things wrong, just like you and I. They see things at normal speed, without the benefit of slow-mo replays. There are a hundred and one things they have to keep an eye on all over the pitch. It would be a miracle if they WERE able to see every tackle in real time, with a kind of superman-like freeze-frame infallibility. They never have and they never will. So why not help them out?
To my mind it’s simply daft that more than half a century after we put a man on the moon referees are being denied simple technology that would enable them to make the correct decision on practically every major incident in a game. I’m talking goals, penalties, sendings off, critical offsides, and so on. Bring in tech and overnight you’d rid the game of the majority of refereeing blunders which cause so much controversy and bad blood. They may even, dare I say it, lead to MORE respect for officials, not less, reversing the current downward spiral.
When asked about it on ‘Goals on Sunday’ today, Mourinho was unequivocal. Technology would actually help “protect the integrity and honesty of referees… if I was a referee I would welcome it.”
I know the issue of video technology splits fans and pundits down the middle, but I believe a majority of fans are now in favour of it. And but for the clown Blatter repeatedly blocking it over the years, it should have been implemented many seasons ago. However, it’s depressing to think that the even more Luddite Michel Platini, President of EUFA, seems determined to bury this particular head even deeper in the sand, ensuring football becomes a technological dinosaur among sports for many years to come. You only have to look at the way rugby, cricket, tennis and American football have all been enhanced by their early adoption of technology, to see how mistaken that view is.
To those who argue technology would slow the game down I would say this: look at the amount of time lost when players surround the officials when they get a decision wrong, often for several minutes at a time, many times during a game. With tech at their disposal referees could have the correct call relayed to them within seconds from the fourth official, who would have seen each incident from every beneficial angle. Players would know that, the managers would know it, so they’d have to respect the decision there and then. It’s been proven by the one small concession to tech that’s been (reluctantly) brought into the game, goal-line technology. It’s made a massive difference. Gone are the days when players chased the referee all over the pitch claiming the ball had or hadn’t crossed the line. They know the technology has got it right now, so they no longer question the decision. If technology were utilised more widely in football there’d be less dissent and more respect shown to officials across the board. Plus fairer decisions and game results. Isn’t that supposed to be the end goal all along? I hope you’re listening, Mr Blatter and Mr Platini.
I’d like finally to return to the incidents at Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon, and say this. If Barnes doesn’t receive a retrospective ban of the harshest possible length, following his grievous assault on the two Chelsea players (which, had it occurred outside a football pitch, would have resulted in a prison sentence) it will be beyond a travesty. Beyond farce. It will be a sick joke. And that is what the F.A. will have turned themselves into, and our beautiful game with it.
Personally, I’d be happy never to see that nasty piece of work on an English football pitch again. I don’t mind hard tacklers per se. Football is a contact sport. And players get hurt. But there’s a world of difference between a reckless or miss-timed tackle from an honest player (like the Ryan Shawcross one on Aaron Ramsay) and a malicious one trying to deliberately hurt a player. Players like Charlie Adam drive me nuts for the same reason. So much talent, yet when I see him accidentally-on-purpose raking a player’s Achilles, treading on ankles or going over the top in studs-up tackles, for me it cancels out all his good points.
And lest anyone think I’m a closet Chelsea fan, Diego Costa definitely needs to cut that side out of his game too. I’m not referring to the ‘no-nonsense, I’ll give as good as I get’ attitude which has endeared him to fans up and down the country, but using a player as a stepping mat when they’re underneath you isn’t part of the game. However, there’s a clear distinction between Costa’s lightweight treading on a Liverpool player’s calf in a previous game (which had more naughtiness about it than a serious attempt to cause injury) and Barnes’ pre-meditated thuggery yesterday.
On that note, and returning finally to the theme of ‘plucky Burnley’, I confess that before yesterday I had a bit of a soft spot for them. I warmed to their indefatigably cheery manager Sean Dyche who seemed a breath of fresh air. After the events of Saturday, I’m not so sure. What I am sure of is this. For me, either Barnes was sent out with instructions to get about the Chelsea players, take someone out of the game or get someone sent off. Or, he did it of his own volition. Whichever is true, when their manager tries to defend that kind of thuggery, Burnley Football Club are tarnished, in my eyes. And if that’s what it takes for them to achieve Premiership survival this season, personally I’d rather they got relegated.
As for Mr Dyche’s post match comedy routine, it was frankly beneath contempt. “Barnes was involved in something earlier in what sense? Playing football? A charge in the back? Is there anything else? The grass was too short?” Sorry Sean, but you’ve gone from amusing nice guy to sarcastic dick.
I’ll leave the last word to Paul Merson, who summed up his feelings to Geoff Stelling on Sky’s ‘Soccer Saturday’: “For me Geoff it’s a bad tackle, and that’s not the way to play football, I just don’t like it.”
I couldn’t agree more Merse, absolutely spot on.
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