Another high-profile match between two of English football's most powerful clubs on Wednesday night and another tackle that has become the narrative of the game. Glen Johnson's challenge on Joleon Lescott at the end of Manchester City's 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool in the first leg of their Carling Cup semi-final has demonstrated, once again, the difficulty of implementing a law that is consistent on all occasions.
Fellow referees were united yesterday in sympathy for Lee Mason, the official in charge at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday who failed to recognise that Johnson had committed a textbook red-card offence. Ignore, for a moment, the off-the-cuff wisdom of the pundits from the never-a-red-card-in-my-day school and examine the actual letter of the law.
It is Law 12 of the game dealing with serious foul play. There is no mention in the rules of a player's intent and it is immaterial as to whether he plays the ball first before connecting with an opponent. The key criteria in deciding whether a player is guilty of serious foul play – and therefore dismissed – is if he "lunges" at an opponent with one or both legs with "excessive force" and is guilty of "endangering the safety" of the opponent in question.
The former Premier League referee Alan Wiley, who officiated in the top-flight for 11 years, told The Independent yesterday that Johnson's lunge at Lescott in added time on Wednesday was, under the current rules, a red-card offence. "I would imagine the only reason he [Mason] hasn't sent him off was because he hasn't had the view of it that we had on television," he said. That may not come as a consolation to City manager Roberto Mancini who felt most aggrieved that the challenge was similar to the one for which his captain Vincent Kompany was sent off by Chris Foy in the FA Cup third-round tie against Manchester United on Sunday. But Wiley made the point that it is impossible for referees to ensure they always see every challenge during a game from the most revealing angle.
"When you see a challenge slowed down it is very easy to spot [the nature of it]," Wiley said. "If you break it down bit-by-bit in replay you see that Johnson takes off from a distance and both feet come off the ground, like Kompany [on Nani in the game against Manchester United] . All the Premier League teams have a visit [from a referee at the start of the season when they are explained the rules and shown video clips of examples of different challenges]. They know that if they 'launch' like that they do run the risk of being sent off.
"If you look at the Johnson challenge from a normal angle it just looks like a normal challenge. I cannot speak for Lee but I think the option [to send off Johnson] would have been there.
"When a player does first 'take off' in a tackle he has no idea where he is going to land. I know that sometimes they take the ball but at times the other player has to jump out the way. The big argument is 'Should a player have to stand there and suffer an injury for it to be a sending off?'"
In the split second of a challenge, referees are asked to apply seven key criteria to their decision, including whether there is malice intended, the speed and intensity of the challenge, the distance travelled, the direction of the tackler's feet and whether he uses his studs. All these are regarded as a means to arriving at a decision as to whether excessive force was used and a red card is necessary.
It is an argument that comes back to the old question of consistency. Why, for example, have fouls by Nenad Milijas (against Arsenal) and Jay Spearing (against Fulham) resulted in those players' dismissal while the likes of Johnson on Wednesday, Yohan Cabaye (against Liverpool) and Frank Lampard (against Wolves) have escaped punishment having committed fouls that look as bad if not worse?
Wiley said: "There is only one thing that changes in every incident and that is the human element. I think managers and players should expect consistency in the 90 minutes of a game because it is the same referee in charge for all of it. But to try to get consistency week after week with different referees is impossible. You have different opinions. A referee stood in one place sees a challenge one way to a referee who sees it from another angle."