James Lawton: FA hides behind the fraudulent infallibility of referees

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The Independent Online

The moment Mike Riley waved his yellow card at Ashley Cole we knew that football had lost another battle against the sinister and largely unchecked growth of the kind of violent tackling which destroyed the season, and maybe the professional life, of Eduardo da Silva.

Cole's indifference to the potential result of his action, the implication that he was so far above official restraint he could turn his back on the hapless referee without the smallest shiver of concern, was inevitably most shocking to many observers. This is unlikely to have been dissipated too much by an official apology issued by him through his club yesterday.

But then we have known long enough about this player's contempt for loyalties a lot more basic than mere fidelity to the spirit and good manners of professional football. What should be of so much greater concern to the game is that an England international persuaded himself that he could behave so heedlessly, so dangerously with what appeared to be complete impunity.

Fate was a lot kinder to the Tottenham full-back Alan Hutton than Eduardo when Cole came in late with studs flying at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night. Yet if Birmingham City's Martin Taylor and the Chelsea defender are so different in their personal style they might be inhabiting separate planets, they are guilty of the same crime.

Yes, crime. Both committed themselves to crude tackles over which they exerted not even a hint of safety control.

Eduardo paid a sickening price. Hutton was merely shaken. But if the football authorities continue to draw a line between an offence and its consequences, the recent rant of Sir Alex Ferguson against the lack of protection for players like Eduardo, and his own Cristiano Ronaldo will quickly enough acquire more than a whiff of statesmanship.

No doubt the Manchester United manager sailed over the top, as did Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, when his immediate reaction to the Eduardo injury was to declare that Taylor should be banned for life. But then what is most disturbingly injurious? Violence of the lip or the boot?

Cole's offence was severely aggravated by his arrogance – and the strident reactions of his team-mates John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. However, if it was sickening to see Cole move seamlessly back into the England squad before he got round to his apology, we should not lose sight of the real problem.

It came yesterday when the Football Association reported that no further action would be taken. Why not? Because of the absurd rule that if a referee reacts, however inadequately , the incident cannot be re-opened.

It is another way of saying a referee is infallible. The purpose of this, we are told, is to preserve respect for the judgement of match officials. Only once has the FA broken its rule. It was when Manchester City's Ben Thatcher fouled Portsmouth's Pedro Mendes so horrendously two years ago the yellow card handed out by Dermot Gallagher could only be seen as a gross failure of natural justice. The point, which the likes of Ferguson return to with unanswerable force, is that the regulation places match officials uniquely above all judgements but their own, at least in the short-term.

However disagreeable it was to see, Cole's contempt is not the most pressing issue here. That status belongs to the unwillingess of the authorities to monitor all controversial incidents and intervene whenever necessary. An FA official said yesterday that matches cannot be "re-refereed". To do so would undermine the authority of the referee. But how much more damaging is the relentless evidence that in fact officials are human, they do make errors, but always in the understanding their decisions do not permit re-evaluation even with the clear need for such re-appraisal?

We saw the worst consequence this week when Cole was allowed to go about his business unrestrained by any significant penalty. That there was no serious injury means that the controversy will slip out of the consciousness of the public and the authorities in a way that the Eduardo incident never could. Indeed, the world governing body, Fifa, continues to press for a review of Taylor's automatic three-match suspension.

Wenger was maddened by the fact the the player who put Eduardo out, at the very least for the rest of the season, would be playing again so quickly. This is the point that mere distaste for the demeanour of Cole should not obscure.

Yes, Cole behaved appallingly and in the process delivered an almost instant knock-out blow to the FA's appeal for increased respect for match officials at every level of the game. Unfortunately, though, respect is something beyond any kind of legislation. All you can do is encourage it and attempt the most favourable circumstances for its growth. One way to start would be the charging of Ashley Cole with bringing the game into disrepute. In his case, though, it is alarming to imagine how many cases would have to be taken into consideration.

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