Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

James Lawton: Fifteen penalties a game is a price worth paying to end a crime everyone commits

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 17:  David Luiz of Chelsea (L) in action with Jonathan Douglas of Brentford during the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay between Chelsea and Brentford at Stamford Bridge on February 17, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 17: David Luiz of Chelsea (L) in action with Jonathan Douglas of Brentford during the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay between Chelsea and Brentford at Stamford Bridge on February 17, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

It was painted as Survival Sunday – or not – for the beleaguered Roberto Mancini and Rafael Benitez. But then the pressure on both the managers and the players of Manchester City and Chelsea to begin to justify the huge discrepancy between their rewards and resources and those of Leeds United and Brentford always made that billing look more than faintly ludicrous.

 

Survival Sunday, did somebody say? It was more likely to be a shooting-alley Sabbath and so of course it was.

Brentford, who in the first half at Stamford Bridge played quite as splendidly as they had at their own Griffin Park before ceding a late draw, argued not altogether illegitimately that things might have been at least a little different if referee Neil Swarbrick had granted them the briefest advantage and allowed the goal of Marcello Trotta.

Brentford should have got the goal and the lead shortly before half-time but would that have staunched the goals and creativity of Oscar and Juan Mata and the late thrusts of that obdurate old guard formed by Frank Lampard and John Terry?

It is not likely, no more than that a different decision by Mark Clattenburg, when he granted Sergio Aguero the penalty that so inflamed Leeds, might have postponed significantly the dismemberment of the Championship team.

In the end Survival Sunday became the last word in the predictable enforcement of football power and wealth.

Where the really significant debate needs to start is this Monday morning.

It needs to be engaged not in the inner sanctums of Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium but the one which passes for the heart of football authority. There should be two items at the top of the agenda, both key to a much needed reappraisal of vital issues.

One concerns the enshrined lunacy that because the referee at Stamford Bridge acted upon the gut-wrenching brutality of David Luiz's foul on the young Brentford player Jake Reeves, and awarded a wholly inadequate yellow card, there is no reason for further action.

This is quite appalling. Luiz, who was seen grinning as the Brentford player was led from the field as a precaution against concussion, had slammed his shoulder into the face of the unsuspecting Reeves. You hardly needed the reruns to confirm that this was a piece of gratuitous and extremely dangerous violence. Luiz made no attempt to play the ball.

The TV analyst, and former Brentford manager, Martin Allen was – he made clear – as incensed as he had ever been in a long career in football. His colleague Ian Wright, who admitted to his own "naughtiness" on the field, agreed that in any league table of sly and dangerous conduct this surely ranked very high.

There will, of course, be the usual platitudes and evasions from within the game, depending on where anyone happened to be standing at the time, but the essential point is surely as evident as the consequences of a broken jaw.

It is that the need for retrospective justice, underpinned by explicit TV evidence and unclouded by any dreamy, time-expired notion that the authority of a referee found to be in error cannot be compromised, has never been required more urgently. If cheating and other forms of malpractice are considered to be no more than aspects of professionalism, there is surely no place for benefits of the doubt.

Issue number two rose up inexorably barely an hour later when Clattenburg unhesitatingly pointed to the spot when Leeds defender Tom Lees threw a hand in the direction of Aguero's face, then draped his arm across the Argentine's body.

Leeds were appalled and the resident TV analysts, Craig Burley and Martin Keown, apparently understood their anger. Keown, the former Arsenal defender, agreed that Aguero had been impeded but added that such penalties are rarely given. Burley compared, extremely favourably, Lees' offence with the full-scale wrestling match imposed by Juventus on Celtic in last week's Champions League game at Parkhead.

What we are invariably told on these occasions is that the sickening progression of law-breaking in the penalty area has to be treated as a matter of degree. You know the football argument well enough now. Everybody breaks the laws of the game so what would be the result of a penalty award each time it happened? On balance it would be roughly 15 penalties a game – and why, in the short and correcting term, not?

There was a lot of distress in Glasgow when Juve so blatantly grappled and grabbed and pushed at every set piece but how easily can you bleed for victims of a crime which everyone commits and against which no one in the game stands with a hint of consistency or indignation.

Aguero was judged by many to have indulged in a little sharp practice when he simply stopped running. He didn't dive, he didn't produce the nauseating performance of Ashley Cole at Stamford Bridge when he reacted so theatrically to a non-existent contact, he just stopped and left the referee to make his decision. The player as usual, performed with superb professional commitment and scored two fine goals.

He will no doubt hit the net many more times but rarely will he make a better contribution to the health of football than in that moment when he said that it was time, at last, to observe the laws of the game.

It is, anyway, something to hope – and quite fervently.

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