Issue #65 The refereeing of “So What?” as City beat MK Dons 2-1

As told by Michael Wood

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates

As Sky TV pushed a camera into his face at the end of Bradford City’s 2-1 victory over Milton Keynes Dons Jon Stead was challenged by the presenter as to if he had committed a handball in the build up to the winning goal and answer succinctly “It hit my hand, but so what?

“So what” indeed?

As he did MK Dons Karl Robinson manager was fuming. Robinson watched the game from the stands for most of it self-imposing another game to a punishment the FA gave him for abusing Christopher Routis. Routis would have been seated not ten yards away and so Robinson remained in the stands.

When charged by the FA Robinson had used the Matthew Simmons defence when accused of mild xenophobia. When attacked by Eric Cantona at a game in 1995 Matthew Simmons had insisted he had incurred the wrath of The Frenchman with the words “Off, Off, Off! Its an early bath for you Cantona!”. The FA heard the defence and dealt with it in absentia of anyone from City. Indeed it seems that no one including Routis seemed to care about Robinson’s offence or punishment.

Robinson was furious about something Routis did that night, and was furious about Referee Paul Tierney‘s decision not to give a handball decision against Stead in the build up to the winning goal in this entertaining 2-1 encounter. The defeat at the boggy Valley Parade cost MK Dons the top position in League One but Robinson was smart enough to admit that – handball or not – his side were second best all game. Handball? Well, so what? MK Dons were not going to win anyway.

That Referee Tierney had not given the decision was typical of the sense of confusion which swirls around football in relation to a subset of the Laws of the Game including those around handball which the authorities seem uninterested in solving. If Tierney was pressed now he would say – no doubt – that Stead’s handball was not a deliberate handball and because the word “deliberate” features so heavily in the Laws of the Game it thus was not a handball offence even if the ball did hit Stead’s hand.

In return the MK Dons defenders might ask if they is supposed to pay the same attention to the hands of opposition players as they do the feet or head if those appendages can be used to control the ball, albeit inadvertently. We might all ask that if the Stead offence was on the goal line (either) then would it be considered to have not been an offence?

The Laws of the Game have created a margins for errors to creep in that is significant, and the game’s attitude to those errors seems to be “so what?” and that mistakes happen and are a part of the rich fabric of football to be debated.

Those debates will probably not have even been at the back of the mind as Stead played a low ball to James Hanson who kept a cool head to slot in a winner completing City’s comeback from a goal down. Stead’s form has given Hanson a new role in Phil Parkinson’s City team and the striker plays wit the relief of not being the only target. The ambition of Hanson slotting between the legs of the keeper suggested a player, and a team, who believed that they could create chances in the game. No need to snap at the first one that comes along and all.

Returning to offences that were not offences, and saying “so what”

Elsewhere Filipe Morais is given offside when walking away from the ball when Referees (and Assistant Referees) are instructed to only give a free kick when a player interferes with play and as such Morais – who had not turned to the ball and so was not interfering with play although certain had the potential to do so – should not have been called offside.

This offence (which is an ill-fitting word) happened in the corner of the field and had virtually (or perhaps actually) no impact on the game. It was the wrong decision but it was an unimportant decision and so the reaction is “so what?”

Players have got used to wrong decisions. Phil Parkinson has said that he has told his City players to not try claim penalties any longer because of the infrequency of their awarding some of which must be justified. A few moments after MK Dons took the lead Billy Clarke slipped through the well organised backline to control a Gary Liddle pass and slot in to equalise. Before he celebrated he looked over his shoulder at the linesman, ready for the wrong decision to be made, and to be told that yes he had scored, but so what? It would not count.

No flag came, and the first of three important home games for The Bantams turned to City’s direction.

Alarmingly frequent

Dele Aili will be joining Spurs for £5m in the Summer and scored when Jordan Pickford and Andrew Davies got in all sorts of trouble as for a moment neither seemed to understand that the least of all mistakes was to clear the ball for an opposition throw in. Later in the game he kicked the ball at Jon Stead while Stead was on the floor.

He did not kick the ball hard, nor did anyone really complain about it, and he accepted his booking with the shrug of the shoulders which suggested that all this would soon be someone else’s problem but everyone saw someone deliberately kick the ball at another player who was on the floor.

The Laws of the game say that this is violent conduct but there is enough grey area that a Referee like Mr Tierney can make up his own rules, if he wants to, and perhaps he is right to want to but should football games be Refereed on the question of “so what? So what if I don’t do what it says in the Laws of the game, I’m doing what I think it is right.”

The regularity of these “so what?” moments is alarmingly frequent.

Pick a random five minutes of a random game and you’ll see a few instances where they grey area of the laws of the game is interpreted by the officials. Some offences will be ignored while some non-offences will be given and the judgement on these will be given to a Referee who – with the best will in the world – is being asked to do impossible things.

Was Jon Stead’s handball deliberate? Tierney is not able to read Stead’s mind, just guess it. Was Morais interfering with play? Tierney is not able to look at a future of the game where he did not blow the whistle, just guess at it. Was Aili trying to hurt a player when he kicked the ball at him and accidentally kicked it too softly or was he trying to kick it to land short and hit the ball to hard?

When faced with questions like this the football authorities seem to believe that getting the decision wrong is not important if it happens in situations which are not important. Most Referees mistakes are not important. Is it bad for Bradford City that Aili has not been suspended? Not especially. Is it bad that Morais’ offside was given? Not even slightly. Is it bad that Stead’s handball was not given as a handball?

For Karl Robinson and Milton Keynes Dons it would seem so, for the player himself his response said much more than the two words he uttered.