There was never any doubt that the FA would be strong in their punishment of Javier Mascherano for his reaction to his red card at Old Trafford, because the incident was related to the hot topic of the time. If referee Steve Bennett and his boss Keith Hackett can put their hands on their hearts and say that Bennett handled the game impeccably then it’s time for a fresh look at how referees are recruited, trained and retained.
Liverpool say they are considering an appeal against the punishment – a two game suspension and a £15,000 fine – but it may be a futile act. Futile unless it’s an appeal aimed at delaying the start of the extra two-game suspension and so in turn allowing the player to line up for the Arsenal league game this weekend.
A Reds spokesman said: “Although we received a fair hearing we must now decide whether to appeal on the basis of inconsistency of sentencing for Javier based on past precedents.” One example cited – not by Liverpool – was Emmanuel Adebayor’s punishment for a similar incident in the Carling Cup final last season. His ban and fine were literally half of Mascherano’s – one match plus £7,500 – but there was one difference: His offence wasn’t in a league game.
In the snappily-titled FA Document, Guidance to Players in The Premier League, The Football League and The Football Conference (National Division) on Disciplinary Matters Season 2007/08, certain key FA rules (not Laws) are discussed. One of those is players outstaying their welcome post-red.
“Players not leaving the Field of Play immediately when they are sent off
A player who is reported to have failed to leave the field IMMEDIATELY on being informed by the Referee and/or shown the Red Card will be considered to be in breach of FA Rule E3. This is by virtue of his actions being considered improper conduct for which he will be liable to a minimum sanction of a suspension of 2 matches and a fine equivalent to one week’s net salary. This sanction will apply notwithstanding the outcome of any appeal by the player under the wrongful dismissal procedure.”
So, according to that official piece of virtual paper from the FA, Mascherano couldn’t expect anything more lenient than the 2-match ban, and should also have been fined a week’s net wages. Perhaps his net wages are £15,000 a week, but are Adebayor’s as low as his fine suggested? And why did Adebayor get a one-game ban only?
If it was because it was a league game in Mascherano’s case and a cup game Adebayor’s case then it isn’t exactly a sign of consistency. Certainly the suspension component should be the same, even if the fine is amended to relate to any payment made for that game rather than wages. Would it have been different had it been the FA Cup rather than the League Cup? The FA still dish out the punishment, so why should it differ from one competition to the next?
Very quick searches for past incidents on the FA’s website show anything from ten game bans for “improper conduct” which also included pushing the referee as part of the failure to leave the field promptly, to players merely being “warned as to their future conduct”. To be fair, both of those incidents pre-dated this FA document, so perhaps there’s at least an argument that the punishment hadn’t been set back then. In fact Lee Hendrie was charged in November 2004, David Prutton in the same season, with Hendrie the player getting away with a slapped wrist. According to the document, this is the fourth season that the warning over not leaving the field of play is one that has been issued:
“In each of the last three seasons clubs have been reminded about the following three issues which have been and remains a cause for concern:- Players not leaving the Field of Play immediately when they are sent off, Players seeking to intimidate or harass match officials and Players in mass confrontations with other players.”
If a player admits to a charge such as a failure to leave the field of play, he knows that as long as he gets no more than a two-match ban and loses no more than a week’s pay then he’s got the minimum punishment. Regardless of the circumstances that resulted in a red card, the referee’s decision is always final, no matter how poor.
This is how it really has to be. The time to review if the sending-off was fair or not is after the game.
If the FA want to have mandatory punishments for offences such as Mascherano’s, then few would complain if applied consistently. In fact why not announce such mandatory punishments at the time of charging the player? If a player is being charged for a failure to leave the field, without any additional actions such as pushing the ref or dropping his shorts to the opposition fans, why waste time with hearings? The player and his club can still dispute the charge, but if the FA and the player agree the incident happened and that the minimum punishment is adequate then why waste so much time and money? Straight reds are only officially turned into suspensions after the referee’s report is received, but it’s done automatically, with the player and his club allowed to appeal.
If however the FA want to continue their mixed policy and inconsistent approach, then they need to include the events that brought the red card about before deciding on the punishment. Most professionals on getting a red card will trudge off head bowed, annoyed more with themselves than with the referee. Team mates and managers may plead for his innocence, but more often than not the offender himself just accepts his fate. When a player questions the referee in this way it usually suggests an injustice.
If we are to review each incident on its own merits then we need to see if there was an injustice, if the player in question was just disappointed in what he’d done to his team mates, or perhaps if the player was just a nasty piece of work who was shocked his usual bullying tactics hadn’t paid off for once.
On balance a standard punishment needs to be implemented, before an incident happens that throws more weight behind accusations of bias at the FA. Rather than bias, it does seem that certain clubs are more capable of getting their own way than others, perhaps through stronger representation behind the scenes. Alex Ferguson and his assistant are waiting to hear their punishment for an improper conduct charge; will their punishment be on a par with Mascherano’s, perhaps increased for being a repeat offence? And what happens if, say, Manchester United’s Ronaldo is involved in a scenario similar to Mascherano’s, but in his case the extra two-game ban would mean him missing title deciders, perhaps the last two games of the season with the top two sides being level on points. Would he get a ban for those last two games, or a slapped wrist? It’s not difficult to guess.
The FA have a get-out clause ready just in case. Their guidelines begin with this useful, emboldened, underlined, cop-out:
“These guidelines are intended solely to provide helpful guidance to clubs over the disciplinary procedures for the 2007/08 season. They in no way affect, supersede or replace the actual FA Rules and Regulations in force from time to time. Reference should always be made to the actual FA Rules and Regulations for the full regulatory provisions dealing with the disciplinary procedures.”
In other words, there is no set rule. There are guidelines, suggestions, recommendations, but no set rules on what should happen. And so once again interpretation leads to controversy. There will be an incident before long which mirrors this one and the punishment will not match this one.
The injustice of the actual sending off itself is another issue that requires looking at. Mascherano apologised in writing to Bennett for not leaving the field, but Bennett is unlikely to look back at his performance again. Alex Ferguson’s regular complaints about referees recently included some observation or other about how they never got Bennett at Old Trafford, grumbling about the ones they did get. Straight away Bennett was put in charge of this match, the expected candidate Howard Webb given what Keith Hacket described as much-needed time off to spend with his family rather than being away from home refereeing a match. Except that’s exactly what he was doing the day before. Bennett was given a telling off in the national press that morning by Hackett, and Mascherano got the full force of all this interference.
For once it would nice if Steve Bennett, he who once sent a Liverpool player off for slipping behind his back, could just explain why he did what he did or didn’t do, and issue an apology if he sees he was wrong.
Mascherano also apologised to the official site today: “I apologise to everyone. I made a mistake and I regret this mistake. It was my fault.
“I am not a dirty player, I do not make a habit of showing disrespect towards referees, I don’t like this and I can only think the high intensity of the fixture, against Manchester United, affected my behaviour that day. It was out of character, but I do not use that as an excuse.
“It is a bad thing when you let down your team-mates and leave them to play with 10 men, especially against Manchester United. They have been supportive and so have the Liverpool fans, but it didn’t take away the pain. Looking back at that game, I was wrong to approach the referee. I approached him to talk to him, but I understand this was not a good idea.
“I reacted badly to the red card because I could not believe what was happening to me.
“I must learn my lesson, but move on from this and forget what has happened. I hope people know that I try to be fair and that I have no intention to be aggressive.
“I have to concentrate on the matches I can play in and stay focused on the Champions League. We have enjoyed a very good result against Arsenal and I am very much looking forward to the second leg.
“It is time for me to move forward, but not to forget the lessons from the past and the match at Manchester United.
“Off the field it has been a difficult time for me. My disciplinary record has been good until now, but I have to show that again. I always try to respect decisions by the referee and this is important.”
Referees would get more respect if they could look their victims in the eye and explain their reasons, and apologise aftewards if they got it wrong. And that includes their boss.