Sam Wallace: 'Battle of Bridge' report highlights inflexibility of FA's disciplinary system

There is no distinction made between a tackle that might end a career and a silly fight
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The Independent Football

Please do take the time to read the full written judgement of the "Battle of Stamford Bridge" hearing involving Patrice Evra, that Chelsea groundsman and a cast of, well, literally scores of footballers, stewards, fitness coaches and men who may or may not have been holding pitchforks in a threatening manner. It is a fascinating tale.

In parts it reads like the average fight outside a kebab shop on a Friday night in a provincial town, only told through the eyes of P G Wodehouse writing on commission for Nuts magazine. "In the well-understood phrase, Mr Bethell 'lost it'," Nicholas Stewart QC, head of the Football Association's independent commission, explains solemnly at one point. From all this chaos, Mr Stewart QC has to make some sense.

On Saturday, Gary Neville described the FA disciplinary process that gave Evra a four-match ban and £15,000 fine as "erratic", but before he, or anyone else, rushes to judgement, they should take a look at the evidence. The FA's new desire for transparency means that the full 22 pages of Stewart's judgement are available on the governing body's website and the report gives an extraordinary insight into the problems of dispensing justice in these situations.

Stewart's analysis of the evidence was not erratic, it was balanced, thoughtful and well-argued. Evra was involved in three incidents – one where he barged the Chelsea head groundsman Jason Griffin; another where he landed a punch on Sam Bethell, the groundsman cleared of making a racist remark; and a third where he returned to confront Bethell again. Evra never claimed to have heard the alleged racist remark so he cannot claim that as provocation. Violent conduct is a straight red card and a three-match ban and by anyone's standards, Evra fulfilled those criteria by landing what the commission called "a clip" to the side of Bethell's head.

The other two incidents combined earned him another game on top of that. One of the key mitigating factors pleaded by United's lawyers in defence was that Evra's actions had taken place beyond the parameters of the match itself but given the public nature of them – in the middle of the pitch with cameras still rolling – it was a forlorn hope.

With all that taken into consideration, a four-match ban is the least Evra could expect in the circumstances. Where United have a legitimate grievance is how Evra's punishment stacks up against other offenders. The horrendous tackle by Julio Arca on Andy Johnson when Fulham played Middlesbrough on Saturday had far greater potential to do damage to a player's career than anything Evra did on 26 April. The problem for the FA and Mr Stewart QC is that the punishments available are simply not flexible enough.

Last month, Didier Drogba threw a coin back into a crowd of Burnley supporters; an act that was reckless and had much greater potential to injure an innocent person than fighting a bloke on a lawnmower ever did.

Like Evra, Drogba's punishment fell under the all-encompassing umbrella of the offence known as violent conduct. Drogba had committed no other transgression – apart from giving the Burnley fans the finger – and was given a three-match ban, one less than Evra. Danny Guthrie's three-match ban for breaking Craig Fagan's leg in Newcastle's game against Hull City in September fell into the category of violent conduct.

Even Bethell had to admit he endured only a little "redness" around the afflicted area from Evra's punch. Fagan expects to miss three months after Guthrie's tackle.

Guthrie's offence was far worse but – because of Fifa guidelines – the FA is powerless to extend the automatic three-match ban that came with his red card. The flaw in the FA disciplinary system is not the people who administrate it – or as Neville accuses them of being, "non-football people with no understanding of the game". If anything, United should think about hiring Stewart to work for them the next time they find themselves in trouble. Rather it is the rigidity of a system that is the problem, a system which cannot distinguish between a tackle that might end a career and a silly fight where the worst thing that happens is someone ends up with a sore ear.

Publishing the details of the judgement demonstrated just how complicated these affairs can be.

Read the FA commission's account and you will see that Stewart had the tricky task of piecing together the complex details of a fast-moving incident that took place in the space of a few seconds from the contrasting testimonies of two very entrenched sides.

As with all these kind of quarrels the good guys and the bad guys do not fall conveniently into two separate camps. Judgements this complicated demand a system with a little more subtlety than the basic rule that everything from a weak punch to a leg-breaking tackle equals violent conduct.

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