For the first time in English football history a refereeing error has led to a successful appeal for a match to be replayed, creating the possibility of a "complaint culture" where results do not necessarily stand at the final whistle.
The case, arising from a fixture last month between Edgware Town and Harefield United in the Spartan South Midlands League, is rapidly becoming the talk of the non-League game, but has wider implications for the professional game. Just as Jean-Marc Bosman was an unknown player with an obscure objection to the terms of his contract renewal before litigation led to a revolution in transfer laws, so this case could open the way for change.
One administrator said last night that the decision, in Edgware's favour, could "open a can of worms", while another senior figure said "it could signal the road to bedlam. Until now, the game has been predicated on the rule that the referee is always right. He no longer is."
The controversy began when Edgware hosted Harefield in a SSM League game on 5 September. Harefield were leading 1-0 when they conceded a second-half penalty, which Edgware scored. But the referee, Mark Tweed, disallowed it for infringement by an Edgware player. Under the laws of the game, Tweed should have ordered the kick to be retaken. Instead he awarded a free-kick to Harefield.
The match finished 1-0 to Harefield, and Edgware appealed to the SSM League for a replay. The League asked Tweed to confirm his actions in a report, and, satisfied he had made an error, ruled in Edgware's favour and ordered the replay.
The Football Association has now given tacit approval to the decision by taking disciplinary action against Tweed, who was handed a 14-day suspension for "not upholding the laws of the game." The FA accepted the SSM League's decision to order a replay because it is within the SSML's powers to do so, as indeed it would be within the Premier League's remit to make such a decision about a Premiership game. Similarly the Football League could order a replay in their three divisions while the FA itself could take action in an FA Cup match.
An FA spokesman said yesterday that there was no known previous case of a game at such a senior level in England ever being ordered to be replayed because of a refereeing error. The SSML is five steps below the Football League.
While administrators in the professional game are not anticipating a flood of appeals, and privately insists such claims would be ignored, there is concern that it will only take one persistent club to challenge them. The most likely theoretical candidate would be a team that loses, due to a refereeing error, in a game where a lucrative promotion or relegation issue is at stake. Edgware could be cited as precedent as grounds for appeal.
The implications are wide-ranging. Strictly speaking, any referee who does not officiate to the letter of the law could become the victim of a complaint, for example in failing to send off a player for aggressive and abusive language. The crux of the Edgware case was that the referee failed to uphold the laws, albeit in an extreme way by wrongly awarding a free-kick.
Edgware had confidence in their appeal because of an almost identical case in World Cup qualifying last year. In a game against Bahrain, Uzbekistan had a converted penalty chalked off for an infringement. The Japanese referee, Toshimitsu Yoshida, should have ordered a re-take, but instead awarded a free-kick to Bahrain. Fifa ordered a replay.
That decision backfired on Uzbekistan. They had actually won the disputed game 1-0 and only appealed because they wanted Fifa to award a bigger victory. But Fifa instead ordered the replay, which Uzbekistan could only draw.Reuse content