It was ironic that at the very moment the other Saturday that the part-time footballer Stephen Breach and I were putting the finishing touches to our account, in these pages last week, of how he almost lost his liberty and reputation owing to a random playing accident – he was recently cleared of actual bodily harm at Croydon Crown Court – news of professionals behaving badly was emerging from Bramall Lane. Referee Eddie Wolstenholme had been obliged to abandon the Sheffield United v West Bromwich match after 82 minutes, with Albion leading 3-0 after three United players had been sent off and two had left the pitch injured.
I wrote last week that the game could never claim to be above the law and it was in not seeking to place it there that Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, and I negotiated an agreement with the chief constables' association in the 1980s which allowed football itself to deal with its miscreants rather than run the risk of the police stepping in and hauling them before the criminal courts.
That deal has stood the test of time. It was always encapsulated in the pre-match briefing between the match commander and the referee: anything on the pitch the referee had responsibility for, and, outside the boundaries, the police usually managed. Eric Cantona notoriously stepped over that line and ended up in court.
Through no fault of the referee, it seemed for a while as though the events of Bramall Lane had veered so far out of control that the criminal justice system would be invoked again and the resources of the police would be diverted away from catching murderers and child molesters.
There was widespread agreement throughout football with the decision of the Football League board that the score at the time of the abandonment should count as the final result and that Albion should be awarded the three points.
Clearly, Sheffield United should be held responsible by the Football Association under its disciplinary procedures for causing the abandonment by the misbehaviour of their employees. I say employees because the manager Neil Warnock found himself, fairly or otherwise, at the eye of a swirling storm, and it may simply be that his habit of winding up all and sundry may have come home to roost.
Be that as it may, as manager he takes primary responsibility for his team placing the referee in the position of having to abandon the match, even if his own behaviour did not cause the fourth official to signal for any action to be taken against him.
In the confused and emotional aftermath of the situation it would have been helpful if there had been a simple system in place to ensure that the media knew at some point who was being reported to the FA. This would have gone some way to avoiding the speculation, the escalation of hostilities between the opposing managers and the damage limitation exercise mounted by Sheffield United.
Was the abandonment really necessary? There is no referee in history who would have defied Fifa's recommendation that a match should not continue if a team falls below seven in number. Wolstenholme owed a duty of care to the six players and to the rest of the First Division. Albion had already scored a somewhat easy third goal against eight men. Besides, the referee comes from Blackburn, where the fans aren't too keen on Burnley, who are the play-off rivals of West Bromwich Albion. These are implications Premiership pundits are supposed to grasp.
It was a horrible episode, which only began to be redeemed when Albion's captain Derek McInnes – who scored such a wonderful goal, let's remember – assured the South Yorkshire Police that, despite their belief that tensions in the crowd had been inflamed by player behaviour, he did not wish to complain officially of any injury which might lead to criminal investigations.
Wolstenholme might prefer to look back on the more human side of Nationwide First Division to the match between Crystal Palace and Wolves on 7 February, when he re-started play after a head injury with a dropped ball that the Wolves striker Dean Sturridge played 35 yards to the Palace goalkeeper Alex Kolinko, who fumbled it over the line for a corner. Sturridge then took pains to ensure the ball went out of play for a goal-kick.
The Blades' Michael Brown, the penultimate player to leave the field, later said he had been prepared to try to play on, but had been told by his manager not to aggravate his injury. Maybe, if indeed he had been encouraged to exhibit a little of the sportsmanship shown by Sturridge by soldiering on for a few more minutes so that the match might have been completed properly, all the recriminations could have been avoided.Reuse content