The Football Association is frustrated that Wayne Rooney will be free to play the most critical stage of Manchester United's season, beginning with the league game at Chelsea tonight, but insisted yesterday that only Fifa could alter the system to ban the striker for three games after his blatant attack on Wigan's James McCarthy on Saturday.
As expected, the referee Mark Clattenburg insisted yesterday that he had seen the incident between Rooney and McCarthy at the DW Stadium and did not concede that he had missed what appeared to be a clear elbowing of the 20-year-old Irish midfielder. The FA knows that supporters of United's title rivals will claim that Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to exert his influence, resulting in Clattenburg delivering what seems to be a crass decision which has potential to affect the title outcome.
But the FA is powerless to change the decision because Fifa guidelines aimed at avoiding the "re-refereeing" of matches generally prevent the FA from taking disciplinary action on incidents which are seen and dealt with at the time by the match officials. Only in the most extreme cases have referees admitted errors like Saturday's, with Ben Thatcher's eight-game ban in 2006, for an elbow-led challenge on Pedro Mendes which left the Portsmouth player needing oxygen, one of very few cases in recent years of a ban being introduced after the event.
The FA had anticipated a furious response to Clattenburg standing by his decision, though accusations of bias in favour of the leading sides are unfair. Rooney was handed a ban in 2006 when charged with violent conduct for pushing Bolton's Tal Ben Haim in the face, an incident which the referee Dermot Gallagher missed. Rio Ferdinand was also banned for three games for an initially undetected lash out at Hull City's Craig Fagan in January last year, with an additional one-game ban for denying the charge. Only if the referee has not seen the incident can the FA dish out a retrospective punishment.
Fifa also dismisses the idea that referees could go into a game believing they have a "get-out" of trial by video, as is the case in both codes of rugby, where Rooney would almost certainly have been cited given the severity of the incident. The FA acknowledges that this would undermine officials.
The Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti, was unwilling to respond to Clattenburg's decision ahead of a game which the reigning champions enter 15 points adrift of United. "If these are the rules, and the FA decided this, I am happy to play against Rooney," he said. Ancelotti had disciplinary issues of his own to deal with – the Surrey Police investigation into how Ashley Cole allegedly came to accidentally shoot a work placement student at the club's Cobham training ground last Sunday. Chelsea have said "appropriate action" is being taken against Cole, who wounded 21-year-old Tom Cowan with a .22 air rifle but the manager insisted Cole will play tonight.
It is alleged Cole did not seem to know the rifle was loaded when he fired at Cowan. Though Ancelotti refused to reveal the nature of the sanction yesterday, a fine looks most likely. It was pointed out to Ancelotti that just bringing a weapon to work is a sackable offence in many jobs, never mind brandishing it. But he was adamant such action was not warranted in Cole's case, stating the incident was totally out of character and denying suggestions it shows certain senior players are now beyond his control. "He's always put in very good behaviour here," Ancelotti said of Cole. "He made a mistake and knows this. Now we have to move on. When a player says 'sorry, I made a mistake', it's difficult to do different. We take our decision. There are rules here. Players have to respect the rules. We're not out of control. If players step over the line, we take a decision."
Ferdinand stoked the fires ahead of the game by casting doubt on whether Ancelotti's big-money January signings would have an impact in deciding the destination of this season's Premier League trophy. Ferdinand told his club's official magazine, Inside United: "The Torres deal did make me think 'Wow, they've really gone for it.' But will those transfers really improve Chelsea this season? I don't know. Next season, I would say yeah, they will. But it's hard to settle in quickly in January."
On the Rooney incident, Professional Game Match Officials General Manager, Mike Riley, said Clattenburg had acted on what he saw. "In this incident Mark was following play but caught sight of two players coming together and he awarded a free-kick because he believed one player had impeded the other. He acted on what he saw on the pitch."