Sam Wallace: Rooney's moment of madness is indefensible – but referees are working with flawed system

The disciplinary system puts referees in a position where they are loath to be seen to change their minds for fear of how it might affect their future

Monday 28 February 2011 01:00

It was a good try from Sir Alex Ferguson but there are some things that not even the newspapers can be blamed for. Your best player elbowing an opponent in the middle of the pitch three days before one of the biggest games of the season is one of them.

Let's not make this any more complicated than it needs to be. Wayne Rooney should have been sent off for his elbow on James McCarthy on Saturday regardless of whether the Wigan player had moved to obstruct his opponent. In private, many at Old Trafford will be wondering what it is that possesses such an important player to commit such reckless, self-destructive acts.

In public, Ferguson went on the attack. "There's nothing in it [but] because it is Wayne the press will raise a campaign to get him hung [sic] or electrocuted, something like that." In the event, he did not have to wait for the dreaded press. Alan Hansen had condemned Rooney on Match of the Day before the first editions of the Sunday newspapers had landed.

Ferguson was careful to say that the referee Mark Clattenburg had told him he had seen the incident at the time and acted on it which, under the rules, means that he cannot change his decision. But Clattenburg cannot have seen the incident properly or he would have sent off Rooney. Now he has to decide if he has the courage to say so.

A three-match ban for Rooney would rule him out of tomorrow's game against Chelsea as well as those against Liverpool and Arsenal. He could launch an appeal that would delay the punishment but fundamentally Clattenburg is being asked to make the call on whether a key Manchester United player misses the crucial part of the Premier League title race.

Whichever way Clattenburg goes this morning, he will unleash hell, which is why so many referees regard this as a flawed system and wish it was changed.

The usual procedure in these kinds of cases is that, before the referee's report of a match is filed to the Football Association on the Monday, a call will be made from a member of the FA's disciplinary department to a referee asking him to look at a particular incident again.

That is important in this case. Although a free-kick was awarded, albeit patently inadequate for the offence, that could, under Fifa's guidelines that games should not be retrospectively refereed, be interpreted as having dealt with Rooney's offence. The FA might not even have got as far as calling Clattenburg to look at the Rooney incident yesterday.

If it did ask Clattenburg to look at the offence it would be nice to think that the only considerations he will bring to the decision are based on what he sees when he watches the footage. That may well be the case, but he is human and other factors could also be at play.

It is a matter of some anxiety to the referees that the marks given to them by managers for their performances affect whether they get their match bonus. That is a ludicrous situation. Equally, those marks feed into their overall score in the all-important referees' league table compiled by their assessors. Again, there is a disincentive to be honest about errors made in the match.

Then there are the other, less easily quantifiable punishments. Should Rooney be banned for three games, the fall-out will be significant. Barring a U-turn from Ferguson (not impossible but unlikely) the United manager is likely to be furious. And that could well affect Clattenburg being assigned a United game in the future by his bosses.

The referees' world is full of stories of colleagues who sent off players from United or one of the other big sides and found themselves going a year or longer without refereeing that club again. It is impossible to prove that their suspicions are right and the powers-that-be always claim coincidence but, well? You never know.

Which is why many people in the game feel it would be better for a panel of ex-referees to review these incidents rather than the match referees themselves, who can be swayed by questions of careers and salaries. The FA believes that system would be too complicated to administer. While it would not eliminate every row, at least those panels would have an independence that a working referee does not.

As for Rooney, he is not the victim of a press campaign. But if he does get a three-match ban then he is unlucky. The system has allowed many others through the net.

In no particular order a few notables have escaped with blatant elbows of their own over the last 12 months, including Steven Gerrard (on Michael Brown, of Portsmouth last March), Florent Malouda (on Portsmouth's Ricardo Rocha last March) and Tom Huddlestone (against FC Twente's Marc Janko in this season's Champions League).

If Rooney is punished, Ferguson would have a more valid argument pointing to those iniquities than claiming it is the fault of the press. No disciplinary system will ever be perfect but the current one in English football puts referees in a position where they are loath to be seen to change their minds for fear of how it might affect their future.

On the flip side, Howard Webb admitted to not having seen Mike Williamson elbow Johan Elmander in the Bolton game and the Newcastle defender was given a three-match ban. But do not bet on Clattenburg following suit.

My money is on Rooney being exonerated. Neither the FA nor Clattenburg has the stomach for this fight and the free-kick that was awarded at the time gives them a route out. And with every decision that goes that way on a technicality the system only becomes murkier and has yet another precedent to muddy the waters.

England should follow Arsenal and sign up Toral

Now that Arsenal have signed the 16-year-old Jon Miquel Toral Harper from the Barcelona academy, it would be a good idea if the Football Association finished the job and got working on him as a future England footballer – providing he is good enough.

The dual-nationality player is becoming ever more common in international football – Germany claimed the Mainz midfielder Lewis Holtby, who has an English father, earlier in the season. Jon Toral, as he is known in football, is the son of Sheila Harper, an Englishwoman. We do not have enough potential Xavis to let him slip through the net.

Best's burn-out highlights stunning 20 not out by Giggs

It will be 20 years as a Manchester United footballer for Ryan Giggs tomorrow, which is a stupendous achievement. He has fulfilled every ounce of that great potential he had as a 17-year-old debutant, something not every great talent has managed at United.

It is worth pointing out that, had the United career of George Best, another 17-year-old debutant, lasted as long as Giggs' he would have played in the club's 1983 FA Cup-winning team that beat Brighton and Hove Albion in the final. That gives a different perspective on just how long Giggs has lasted at the top. By 1983, Best was playing for Nuneaton Borough.

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