Confused by the referee's leniency

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The manner in which Gerald Ashby chose to referee the FA Cup final was a good example of one thing leading back to another - back to before the crackdown on foul and cynical play introduced controversially by the game's governing body, Fifa, at last year's World Cup and applied with quite alarming inconsistency in English football this season.

If players are no longer clear about interpretations of football law that have resulted in a ludicrous plethora of yellow and red cards, unfair suspensions and frequent disputes between referees and managers, Ashby's policy on Saturday will have further confused them.

Interviewed for the Cup final programme, Ashby said: " and large the players have coped and responded well to the new Fifa mandates." For the first 20 minutes of a typically competitive but largely graceless game, one that did not promise much for either club in European competition next season, Ashby appeared to lose sight of them. Indeed, had the players not reacted with uncommon good sense to his tolerance of spitefuly late lunges and assaults upon the Achilles tendon there might well have been something rather more grave to report than Neville Southall's critical heroics when Manchester looked most likely to rescue their season.

Ashby's performance (two bookings late in the game were for offences mild by comparison with a number that went unpunished in the early stages) contained numerous lapses of the sort that help to explain why British football lags behind the rest of Europe in artistry and technical merit. Presumably, on the assumption that it was desirable to keep the game moving as opposed to flowing and encourage characteristic tenacity, he chose to ignore infringements that carried a risk of serious injury and possibly explosions of temperament.

Significantly, the excitement and sense of purpose generated by Saturday's contest could not persuade supporters of both teams that Ashby's policy was beyond recrimination. Bemused by a contradiction of what is now considered to be refereeing procedure, they demurred accordingly.

This applied equally to a number of coaches and former internationals. "Trouble is that since the World Cup players can no longer be sure of what is expected of them," one said. "Looking back over the season I've seen some sent off for far less then the the referee allowed today. That there wasn't a punch up in the early stages was entirely to the credit of both teams."

It would be putting it mildly to say that Saturday's proceedings, in common with the majority of FA Cup finals, did not live up to expectations. In keeping with present criteria there was little if anything to suggest improvements in guile and imagination.

The most significant contributions were made by men who are either not available to the England coach, Terry Venables, or beyond the age of consideration. Southall and Ryan Giggs of Wales, Anders Limpar of Sweden who had a purple patch in the first half, and Everton's veteran centre-back, Dave Watson.

The qualities required to succeed, or in Everton's case, survive in the Premiership, were there in abundance. But a permanent memory of the occasion will be Manchester United's lack of initiative. No wonder they eagerly await the return of Eric Cantona and hope that Andrei Kanchelskis can be pacified.

The maladies afflicting British football appeared to be lost on the audience generally. An astonishing passion for the game blinds spectators to poor touch, careless passing. The Cup final proved it. A pageant in name alone, little but the result mattered to them. Watched worldwide, it was a match rich only with rustic entertainment. "It was exactly what the public want," somebody said. On the evidence of leniency, that is precisely what Ashby had in mind.