James Lawton: Gallagher falls foul of robot mentality

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The Independent Football

Sometimes you can only cringe at the crudity of football authority. The decision to demote Premiership referee Dermot Gallagher for his Solomonesque decision to hand yellow cards to David Beckham and Robbie Keane, rather than a red one to Keane, is a classic case in point.

Certainly it is for once no hardship sharing the outrage of the refererees' representative, Keith Cooper. Rightly, he says that it is scandalous to punish an official so severely for one mistake made at a flashpoint in a game of huge importance to both sides. Even that assessment includes the presumption that Gallagher made a mistake. I don't happen to agree. Keane showed no instinct to hit Beckham. He pushed him, vigorously no doubt, but under the provocation of a terrible tackle from the Manchester United man, one that contained an element of the petulance which we hoped had been expunged by his rise to the captaincy of England.

Under the black-and-white dictum of Gallagher's options, he could have sent off one or both of the players. Instead he achieved a compromise which benefited everyone concerned; both players were cautioned, neither team lost a key player, the balance of a superb match was preserved and the affair was closed with a handshake. It is tragic that the climate of the game does not permit more such examples of a grace of thought at the cutting edge of decision.

But such a prospect is impossible as long as referees are required to act as robots or face the consequences now experienced by the humiliated Gallagher. He is the victim of the god of consistency. But whose consistency? It is that of authorities who shift from one priority to another. Certainly it is not of the managers who so often are attacked by acute myopia the moment one of their players stretches the authority of an official. The trouble is that so much of football is not about true consistency. The referees reject the help of technology and are supported by authority, but suffer instead the judgement not of an all-seeing eye but rule-makers who do not trust an experienced official to operate on his own instinct for fairness and common-sense.

So what do we have? Referees who are half-gods, half-lackeys and a game in apparently unending tumult. Under the current rules of engagement, it can never be otherwise.