Football: Lodge's honesty the best policy for all

Coventry City 2 Arsenal 2
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The Independent Online
Phil Shaw

Coventry City 2

Arsenal 2

The post-match furore at Highfield Road generated enough hot air, in the form of selective indignation and sweeping allegations, to take Richard Branson around the world twice. But today, the only opinion that matters will ease its way silently into the Football Association's in-tray.

The contents of a fax from a South Yorkshire council clerk could, conceivably, lead to the best and probably highest-paid player in the Premiership being labelled a cheat. In his referee's report on a combustible encounter, Stephen Lodge, must effectively rule whether Dennis Bergkamp sought to con him by diving and in so doing brought about the sending-off of Coventry's Paul Williams.

Mr Lodge, whose record of brandishing only 22 yellow cards and no reds in 11 matches made him the Premiership's most lenient official until Saturday, has already taken the decision once. With 10 minutes remaining and Arsenal down to 10 men following Patrick Vieira's dismissal, he adjudged that Williams tripped Bergkamp as he bore down on goal.

Williams, the top division's most cautioned player, departed almost as reluctantly as Vieira, who had to be virtually dragged off 15 minutes earlier. A seething Gordon Strachan said his defender had assured him there was no contact. As a result, Coventry asked Mr Lodge to take the match video home.

After a preliminary viewing at the ground, the referee admitted: "I think there is a doubt. From one angle it looks as if it [Bergkamp's heel] has been clipped. From another it doesn't. I'd like to have a look at in more detail. I'll make my recommendation to the FA when I've studied the tape."

He added: "You have to referee events as you see them. The speed of the game today makes it more and more difficult to give an instant honest opinion. We get most things right, but we do make mistakes from time to time."

Were he to own up to an error, Williams could be spared a one-match suspension for "denying a scoring opportunity by physical means". Yet that, in turn, would beg the question as to whether Bergkamp was guilty of cynical behaviour towards a fellow professional.

Far from advancing the cause of cameras to resolve such disputes, the incident highlighted a potential minefield. Radio Five's reporter was told by colleagues watching the television "feed" in London that Williams had not touched Bergkamp. On Sky, Frank McLintock perused the replays and came to the opposite conclusion.

Later, in thinly-veiled criticism of the Dutchman, the BBC's Alan Hansen suggested that while Williams made accidental contact, Bergkamp could have stayed on his feet.

Williams had to go because the laws no longer require referees to interpret intent. However, as the game's moral overseers the FA also has a responsibility to assess whether Bergkamp attempted to gain an unfair advantage.

Mr Lodge's dignity contrasted starkly with the outburst by Strachan, who established his credentials as a future Wimbledon manager by alleging a referees' conspiracy against Coventry, dating back to a confrontation with David Elleray at Derby in November.

The Barnsley official had given his team nothing, he raged. This overlooked the fact that Arsenal's Ray Parlour had a legitimate penalty appeal rejected at 0-0; that Coventry were awarded a spot-kick for a handball which Vieira disputed so abusively he was ordered off; that Darren Huckerby received the benefit of slender doubt on several offsides; and that Huckerby arguably got Gilles Grimandi booked after minimal contact.

By calling Mr Lodge "a disgrace", Strachan knew he was inviting an FA disrepute charge. Hard as it is to see how his comments discredit the game, they do reflect badly on an intelligent and articulate individual, just as Match of the Day's decision to make him "man of the day" raised doubts about the judgement of Des Lynam and Co.

Strachan was right in saying Coventry deserved to win. Their first-half display, fast and incisive, was as good as any by the Sky Blues since Wembley '87. They then gifted Arsenal two goals - scarcely Mr Lodge's fault.

Arsene Wenger put his finger on what the Scot neglected to mention: the players' responsibility for the various flashpoints. Arsenal, in their manager's give-away phrase, had needed "to become more physical or lose the game".

Wenger, incidentally, should not be fooled by Arsenal's six-match unbeaten run. They remain a team in transition, over-dependent on Bergkamp and, in this instance, David Seaman. The former, on his way to the team bus, expressed incredulity at the idea that he could be accused of gamesmanship, saying: "I'm not that kind of player." The trouble is, they all say that. A little more of the honesty shown by Stephen Lodge and the game would be a far better place.

Goals: Whelan (21) 1-0; Bergkamp (50) 1-1; Anelka (58) 1-2; Dublin pen (66) 2-2.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Breen, Williams, Burrows; Telfer, Boateng, Soltvedt, Whelan; Dublin, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Shaw, Salako, Moldovan, Gavin Strachan, Ogrizovic (gk).

Arsenal (3-5-2): Seaman; Keown (Grimandi, 43), Bould, Upson; Dixon, Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Winterburn; Begkamp, Anelka (Boa Morte, 83). Substitutes not used: Wreh, Hughes, Manninger (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Sendings-off: Coventry: Williams. Arsenal: Vieira.Bookings: Coventry: Whelan, Telfer. Arsenal: Vieira, Grimandi, Parlour.

Man of the match: Seaman.

Attendance: 22,864.

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