Refereeing Vincent Kompany And Glen Johnson: Consistency Or Common Sense?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 08: Referee Chris Foy sends off Vincent Kompany of Manchester City during the FA Cup Third Round match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium on January 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Two two footed tackles with two different outcomes show the unavoidable individuality of the Premier League's officials.

Who was/is your favourite teacher at school? Obviously I have no idea, except that it is considerably more likely to be the sexy music teacher, the flamboyant drama teacher or the English teacher who wept while reading ‘the Dane’ than the mathematical demagogue who preached with perfect adherence to the syllabus. If I’m right, then I would suggest that you like your teachers with a dollop of individuality and that, probably, if you had to articulate your rationale it would be based on personality: I liked teachers who personalized the material, or something.

Though somewhat tenuously, (a result of my unconscious recollection earlier of the divine Miss Maitland, music teacher) the above rationale is analogous to that which would be applied to the question of choosing your favourite referee. This is true, in all likelihood, of players and fans alike; I like Phil Dowd because he laughs at players who appeal for bookings and players tend to cite communication as a referee’s most desirable attribute.

Managers would seem to disagree. These continually cite ‘consistency’ as the one thing they want to see from referees. Consistency is like the boring maths teacher above, reading always from the rulebook. Consistency requires that Vincent Kompany be sent off (it also needs Glen Johnson to be dismissed, which is in fairness the point Mancini tried to make after Manchester City lost to Liverpool in midweek) because it demands that the rules be applied as written to every situation. Two footed tackle? Red card. Lunge? Red card. Managers seem to want this (or the inverse, two footed lunge? Yellow card) applied across the board. That is fair enough too, managers are the ones who have to react to (and to an extent plan for) referees’ decisions – they are, counter-intuitively, the individuals most affected by their decisions – parents (to further flog the horse) probably prefer the disciple of the exam board too.

There is no problem with any of this; either you prefer your referees human or robotic. The problem comes when the pundits are considered. These notoriously fickle individuals seem to want a hybrid referee capable of consistently applying common sense. That sounds reasonable except that ‘common sense’ is a complete misnomer (if it weren’t people wouldn’t do this, or this, or this); in actual fact what is sensible to one person is anathema to another.

Common sense cannot be consistently applied by different individuals in different situations.

What is common, though (and what draws out my point), is the pundit’s related complaint that referees, ‘never having played the game’, are under qualified for their role. This implies that any and every situation has a correct interpretation and that players have a direct insight into it; this is clearly not true. In fact, former players would make particularly disparate refs, biased in accordance with their heritage and with the needs of their particular positions: a tackle for which David Ginola would brandish a red is likely one which Gary Pallister would applaud. This is because there is an essentially and irreducibly relative element to the interpretation of any footballing incident.

The so-called leg breaking tackle illustrates this further. Is it necessary for a leg to actually break for it to earn this moniker? If Nani hadn’t jumped out of Vincent Kompany’s way at the weekend, would that have been a leg-breaker? If so, isn’t it a leg-breaker anyway? This brings up the notoriously thorny issue of ‘intent’. The pundit, when he calls for the application of ‘common sense’ is, in fact, asking for the evaluation of intent. But this is impossible to evaluate on any sort of consistent basis.

The only sort of consistency that could be plausibly applied is the unthinking adherence to the rules of the game. Such adherence outlaws common sense both in its non-existent and actual form. But players, and probably pundits (certainly those, like Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen, who laments the death of art of tackling), do not want this kind of consistency; here’s Vincent Kompany (from his 'A Moment of Reflection): ‘Hopefully common sense will prevail again in the future and I for one hope not to see consistency in sending offs and suspensions’.

The truth is, as Lee Mason’s leniency towards Glen Johnson showed, consistency of the type Kompany fears and for which Mancini called will not arise. Whether based purely on the rulebook or on precedents set by their peers, referees cannot unthinkingly apply a consistent rationale to all situations.

Referees have to make decisions based on a complex network of factors in which the rules of the game are given heavy predominance, but which also includes intangible concerns pertaining to the player’s intent, the associated risk and the overall context of the game. Some referees, like Howard ‘let the game flow’ Webb will be criticized for leniency while others (especially, it seems, youngsters like Stuart Attwell) will gain reputations as jobsworths and some referees will be better at negotiating the web than others. This, ultimately, is unavoidable while referees have, effectively single-handedly, to deal with the competing desires of two factions of eleven spitting, shouting and occasionally crying men. What appears to be an inconsistent application of common sense is, in fact, an exposure of the inconsistency of common sense itself. Just as players are individuals, and football is the better for it, so too must be referees.

What actually needs to happen, really, is for everyone to accept this. Players, managers and fans continually adjust their expectations when switching focus from one player or team to another: Theo Walcott is fast, John Terry is slow; Arsenal ‘don’t like it up ‘em’, Everton don’t shoot. They/we should do the same for referees: Foy’s a wild card, we should be careful; Webb likes to let things go, kick their playmaker in the chest Nigel.

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