Controversy and talking points are never far from the fore when Manchester United and Chelsea meet. This Sunday’s Community Shield was no exception. With the score even at 1-1 Chelsea were beginning to turn the screw and get on top when Patrice Evra advanced down the left flank only to be blocked by Michael Ballack. It was no doubt a foul, but that is not the controversy.
United kept the ball for a couple more touches eventually losing it deep into Chelsea territory. Chelsea worked it quickly down their left side until the ball was cut across the box to a waiting Frank Lampard who slotted coolly past Ben Foster to put Chelsea 2-1 ahead. Sir Alex Ferguson was fuming at the manner by which his side went behind stating the following in the post match interview: “He’s elbowed him in the face and he’s clearly in line with the actual incident and I’m disappointed because he stopped the game twice before that for fouls, with players lying down.”
The fact there was no consistency across the board is where the issue arises. Twice prior to this incident players were down injured with the referee, Chris Foy, deeming it appropriate to stop the game to allow the injured player to get treatment. Indeed Michael Ballack was down just prior to this incident and as soon as Foy stopped the game he was immediately up. The issue here is to not point the finger at Ballack for what was just gamesmanship, but rather the FA for their lack of clarity over what should be a simple rule. Foy will not be the last referee this season to come under scrutiny for applying his individual interpretation to an unclear rule.
The word from the Chelsea camp is that even though it may have been a foul all Premier League footballers have been instructed to play to the whistle under the new ruling – indeed Chelsea’s Frank Lampard issued the following statement: “I think it was a foul looking back at it, it wasn’t an elbow or a body check like has been said. You play on until the ref blows the whistle. Man U have done it in the first half a couple of times when he didn’t blow. You play on – it’s cut and dried really.”
Most players are aware of the fact that they should play on until the referee blows his whistle, that has been the case for at least a couple of seasons now, the real complaint from the United camp is that similar instances in the same game had warranted the game being stopped. Sir Alex Ferguson has not issued any criticism toward the team from Stamford Bridge for playing to the whistle, he may have criticised Ballack for the two instances he has been involved in, but the direct criticism is lodged at Chris Foy and his employers.
Referee’s have to use some form of discretion as nothing is ever clear cut in a game played at such pace, but at what point did he decide that Evra’s injury did not warrant the game being stopped to enable him to receive treatment, when two previous cases it did. Indeed Ballack lead with his arm when blocking Evra, it may not have been all elbow but it was certainly a combination of elbow and shoulder. This considering the relative mis-match in height between the two players suggests that it struck Evra in the face. The first stoppage was for what turned out to be a dislocated shoulder for Nani, whilst the second was a blow to the ribs for Ballack.
It is exactly a year on from the introduction of the FA’s Respect campaign to stamp out the abuse of match officials. This has been eradicated for the most part from the top level of the game which will hopefully filter all the way down, but it is tough to expect many players to show respect and not challenge decisions when the decisions themselves do not follow a consistent line and ultimately end in the conceding of a goal. Both Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand approached Foy following the goal, with Ferdinand ushering the forward away to take on his captain’s duty, which is what is expected under the respect campaign. Ferguson will in no doubt face some kind of FA disciplinary action following his comments from the post-match press conference but what needs to be examined closely is what prompted the comments.
The sooner the FA clear up the confusion over rules such as this in the game, the sooner the referees can focus on implementing them rather than going through dilemmas for every separate incident before deciding to blow or not. The FA has shown that clearly defined guidelines have helped cut down on the number of unsavoury incidents involving referees and players at the highest level – it is time they sorted out a few of the other on-pitch guidelines to help maintain that respect.