By Andi Thomas and Alex Netherton
For Manchester United fans, the game was possibly the most hilarious moment of schadenfreude since Wayne Rooney requested a transfer and ended up being injured by Paul Scholes in training a couple of days later. For Chelsea fans, it was the most infuriating moment they’ve had since finding that captain, leader, legend, John Terry, is not permitted to call Anton Ferdinand anything he damn well pleases (that, at least, is the implication behind the booing). The ensuing hysteria was clearly inevitable, given that This Is England. When there’s refereeing controversy, it’s simply impossible to review the game in any reasonable fashion. If you can’t believe that’s the case, then just check out the precis of Sky Sports website report of the game:
‘Controversy controversy controversy. Controversy controversy controversy controversy, controversy controversy controversy controversy. “Controversy controversy controversy controversy, controversy controversy – controversy controversy controversy controversy – controversy controversy controversy controversy.” Controversy controversy controversy controversy. Controversy controversy controversy controversy controversy controversy, “Controversy controversy controversy controversy? Controversy controversy. Controversy controversy!”
And the first reader comment underneath sums it up:
Really, though, it wasn’t an unbelievable series of events. Walking step-by-step through the decisions shows that Mark Clattenburg made a few silly decisions, but that things could have been much worse for Chelsea, and possibly Manchester United. This was not the result of some grand conspiracy, it was essentially a demonstrable balls up that got out of hand not because of its severity, but because everybody is shouting so loudly. First, the Branislav Ivanovic sending off. Ashley Young was through on goal, and Ivanovic probably took the right decision. By running across him, he was able to trip Young (feel free to disagree, it’s not impossible to see it the other way) while Young was, crucially, outside the penalty box. He prevented a one-on-one and penalty in the process. It’s called a professional foul for this very reason. Playing the percentages, it was the right decision by Ivanovic, and then in due course Clattenburg to send him off. Any shouting about this is tish and fipsy.
Next, Fernando Torres. In first half-stoppage time, the sad-eyed blond with the elvish tattoos and the lingering aura of decay introduced his foot, recklessly, into the chest of Tom Cleverley. At the last World Cup, nobody could understand why Nigel de Jong hadn’t been sent off for the same challenge in the final, but because Torres has no reputation, everybody was reasonably happy to accept that Torres was soundly treated with a yellow card. He probably should—and certainly could—have seen red.
Half an hour or so later, Torres finds himself scooting past Johnny ‘Jonny’ Evans, and overhits the ball in the process. Evans slides in, foolishly, and catches Torres’ ankle/lower leg. A trip, or attempt to trip a player is a foul. Evans deserved a yellow card and Chelsea would have had a free kick. However, simulation is defined as, ‘any simulating action anywhere on the field, which is intended to deceive the referee, must be sanctioned as unsporting behaviour,’ which should itself be punished by a yellow card. Torres, upon feeling Evans’s boot on his leg, exaggerated the contact to the extent that he was attempting to deceive the referee into thinking that he had been sufficiently impeded that he had to fall to the ground. He could have continued running, but he didn’t, and for a further flourish went down holding his untouched knee. This is simulation, and for that, Clattenburg was correct to book Torres and send him off. Finally, Hernandez was definitely offside when he scored; this was a straight-up wrong decision by the linesman. It was, though, a difficult one from the linesman’s perspective, and also probably not that important. We can’t know for sure, but if it hadn’t stood, United wouldn’t have reverted to possession football to close out the match. Had they continued to press for the winner, they would likely have found it, since Chelsea were largely terrible at defending even with eleven men. The four dodgyish decisions, all in context, at worst mark a poor officiating performance, but not one out of the realm of possibility (or into the realm of corruption).
Now. If everybody could stop shouting for a moment, we might be able to concentrate on the far more serious report that Mark Clattenburg is alleged to have used racially abusive language towards John Obi Mikel (who incidentally could/should have been sent off for a challenge on Antonio Valencia). Whatever happens next, we are set fair for another soul-sapping saga of claim and counter-claim, and a reprise of the deeply miserable lessons regarding racism and moral relativism within football. (Even before the allegation was made, the booing of Rio Ferdinand sank the heart.) This is where English football is, now: either you get pointlessly furious about the irrelevant, or you get thoroughly depressed about the sinister. We do hope that next weekend’s racism and corruption finds time for a little football.
Alternatively, if you really want to complain about poor decision by officials, then hie thee to Goodison Park, for the decision to rule out Luis Suarez’s late, late winner for offside was probably the worst of the day. Offside’s a tricky business, what with one poor sod armed with a flag having to watch at least two defensive players, any number of attacking players, and the ball, which can at times be an inconsiderate distance away. But here, as the ball came off Sebastian Coates’s head, everything was in its right place: defenders lined-up, attackers neatly behind them. It’s the kind of decision that referees’ assistants must dream of being able to assist the referee with, yet up went the flag anyway.
Fortunately, the decision to scratch the goal meant that this picture of Steven Gerrard went from nauseating to hilarious, so the greater good was ultimately served.