Paul Anderson’s broken leg and the Refereeing of low expectations

While not quiet having the effect of overshadowing the lack-energy display against Peterborough United at the weekend the injury to Paul Anderson and Phil Parkinson’s search for a replacement has taken some of the attention away.

As Parkinson started looking down his list of wingers available – seemingly not keen to give Dylan Motley-Henry a place in the team which his squad status demands – the club and community were in regret over Anderson. The BBC noted benignly that Anderson had broken his leg while City themselves bemoaned the bad luck involved.

Bad luck is if you slip on ice and break your leg.

If someone jumps at you with a studded boot without taking care for your safety, and of the referee who is supposed to be in charge of your safety ignores it and all the builds up to it, I think you are entitled to put it down to something other than misfortune.

Indeed Anderson did not break his leg. It was broken and it was broken by Michael Bostwick.

Let us not blame Michael Bostwick

That Bostwick made the challenge he did is not the bone of contention. He approached the prone Anderson a minute after breaking his fibula in two to acknowledge and perhaps apologise for it. Both were probably appreciated by Anderson and by the City players but neither were strictly necessary. Bostwick was not even spoken to by Referee Paul Tierney.

Tierney saw the tackle – we assume – and decided that the break was an accident (in that it was an unintentional outcome) rather than an intended outcome. He is probably right that Bostwick did not try to or want to break Anderson’s leg but one hopes Tierney is given pause to question the cause and effect of his application of the rules around the aggressive play that Peterborough used on Saturday.

The Posh battled and that battle resulted in any number of tackles which could have and did not injure players. They were not especially guilty of this over and above other teams (including, at times but not on Saturday, City) but they were guilty of it.

We enjoy seeing physical committed football and it is a way to win games. To fight for the ball is a good thing as long as it is done within the remit of the rules which – Tierney’s judgement is – Bostwick did.

By way of example

Consider – if you will – Anderson’s injury in the context of him playing a chess match with Bostwick. It is unthinkable that a Chess player would break another’s leg. Breaking limbs, indeed grazing hands as they reach for pieces, is just not done in Chess.

It is a ludicrously extreme example. Imagine a Badminton game where a leg was broken. A physical sport and one where players have been know to be physical with each other there is at least a convention in Badminton that if the ball is near your opponents head so that to hit it would be to hit him or her then one does not swing at it.

At the other side I’m sure there are sports in some dystopian future in which the aim is to inflict pain and that Anderson’s broken leg is a victory for Bostwick. Who knows? My point is that there is an ability within the sporting context to set what is considered acceptable force in pursuit of victory and what is not.

And I would suggest that Tierney has his calibration of that wrong and – so much as he represents the views of Referees and Authorities who agree with him – English football has that calibration wrong.

Low expectations

Tierney and his ilk convict themselves of having low expectations of the English lower league footballer.

A tackle like Bostwick’s – and again I do not blame him for playing within the rules as played every week – is considered acceptable in League One because of a low expectation of the players involved in the game. Who can expect more of a League One midfielder than that?

But to expect a player to deliver less because of a perceived lower ability is to ignore the evidence that emerges from growing leagues in football. Leagues like the Japanese Football League which for obvious reasons is less physical and has fewer technical skills in the tackle but is not more violent as a result. It is not that in the J-League tackles like Bostwick’s are sent off more, they are just not done.

The calibration of the football culture – more recently established than the third tier of the English game – has made recklessness in tackles inappropriate.

The opposite is true in the Australian League – eye wateringly brutal at times – coming as it does in the culture of Aussie Rules and Rugby League.

There is an ability to tune the calibration of what is acceptable in football which – at the moment and in the English game – is I would suggest – a little off towards the physical side of the game that left its mark on Paul Anderson’s leg.

But the crunch

None of which is to suggest that Michael Bostwick has to foul to be a good player. His opposite number Gary Liddle typifies the idea of a player who can be commanding and aggressive without being dirty. Liddle is forceful but in control of what he does.

Liddle is the modern type of central midfielder a far cry from some of the players who played that role for City. Players like Greg Abbott and Mick Kennedy spent entire games kicking player as much as ball. There is no comparison between those players of the 1980s and Bostwick, let alone Liddle, but the fact that thirty years ago those players could be popular in the game and are not now suggests that it is possible to change what is acceptable in the game.

Is watching Liddle worse than watching Abbott or Kennedy? I would argue that Liddle winning a ball firmly is better than Abbott’s hard but fair because of the skill that goes into the tackle.

There is nothing lost by forcing players at all levels to be better at tackling if they are going to tackle.

The strange case of Steve Davies as Peterborough win 2-0 at Valley Parade

The Team

Brad Jones | Steven Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Paul Anderson, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Mark Marshall | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Steve Davis, Billy Knott, Dylan Motley-Henry

When Graeme Westley was appointed manager of Peterborough United during the week he sent an e-mail to the club’s fans promising that The Posh would make 600 passes a game, leading to 25 shots, leading to victory.

He promised to win, of course, because all new managers promise to win football matches but the dressing that Westley – a manager with some qualification around the bottom of the Leagues – used was seductive. Not only would Peterborough win but they would pass there way to victory.

And passing equated to the beautiful game. Westley’s promise would be that he would have Peterborough United remoulded as the football good guys – the Barcelona of the Nene – but one game later a man had a broken leg and even the opposition manager felt free enough of sanction that he would directly state that the tiki-taka team were throwing themselves to the floor to cheat.

What City did wrong

Phil Parkinson had a lot to complain about after the game but little new to say.

The regret that goes towards Paul Anderson – who had his leg broken by a Michael Bostwick tackle in the first half which the Peterborough midfielder can share the blame with Referee Paul Tierney. Referees should not allow bad tackles to the point where players think that diving in as Bostwick did can ever be acceptable and when they do referees should punish them.

That Anderson will miss the rest of City’s season is a function of a Referee who feels that he does not have to take the duty of care that he has to players seriously. It should be made clear to players like Bostwick that when they make tackles with aggression and without care they will be sent off. They are not so they carry on doing it.

But tackles like that are a long way from the promise of beautiful football. Westley’s brand of football is steel tackles in a silken passing glove. For the entire match they showed the aggression normally associated with kick and rush football but married it with an attempt to play a passing game.

As a plan it could work, as could Parkinson’s more practical approach, but both require a level of commitment from players which was lacking from the City squad.

Anderson’s break adds to injury problems but more troubling has been the manager’s inability to get anything like a performance regularly from either Anderson or Mark Marshall on the other wing who slumped back down after a promising game last week.

Which is not to assign all the blame to two players – lethargy was common – but rather to say that just as shaping a team last season around Mark Yeates as playmaker failed because Yeates did not perform so this season stumbles because the angles of attack which glowed last week were absent this, and they were absent for the want of effort.

Players in teams that win games make it their business that the team plays well. This quality is lacking from the current City site some of the time, not all of it, but there is no one charged with maintaining that quality in the way that a Stuart McCall did, a Gary Jones did, or an Andrew Davies did.

Parkinson is battling the entropy of average performances and today he lost that battle all of which leaves the strange case of Steve Davies.

The strange case of Steve Davies

Replacing Paul Anderson midway through the first half it seemed unlikely that the entire game would hinge on substitute Steve Davies but it was the centre forward who played right wing who was ten years on the wrong side of the winger who raced forward for the first Peterborough United goal and his lack of positional sense to play in a position which is not his own that cost much.

However it was Davies’ header which hit defender then post a few minutes early which on a day with a dash more luck would have had the balance swung towards City.

Davies’ willingness to get involved was a contrast to his team mates but when a ball came to him in the box he swiped and missed, and another was stuck under his feet as he tried to get through, and nothing much went right for him.

Indeed he was left leaving Steven Darby with too much to do at right back as Westley’s side put in a second. As much as Davies tried he could get nothing right.

But try he did, even as things did not go right for him, and one can’t help but wish the rest of the player would follow his example.

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

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.

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