Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

Premier League forwards serve up wonderful entertainment, and Suarez is pick of the bunch

The Premier League has been lavishly gifted this season with the array of talented forwards that its top clubs have put together. On any given weekend, fans can marvel at the sight of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck causing spontaneous combustion at Manchester United. Fernando Torres may be struggling to remember what a great striker he was, but that hasn’t made seeing the slick interplay of Chelsea’s talented triumvirate behind him any less compelling. Olivier Giroud is beginning to find his feet at Arsenal, his demonstration of quick thinking allied to remarkable strength in the manic 3-3 draw with Fulham hopefully the first of many to come, and who cannot fail to feel fortunate to be watching the Premier League when two of the best Argentine forwards in the world are strutting their breathtaking stuff in every match for Man City?

However, even in that daunting cast, there is one man who is rising head and shoulders above every one with his exhilarating mix of sheer brilliance and individual fortitude and he is Luis Suarez of Liverpool. The hat-trick against Norwich was the first sign that a player who could score thirty goals a season if he took more of his chances was finally becoming more clinical, but in then single-handedly hauling Liverpool from defeat to the brink of victory against Newcastle, Everton and Chelsea with five goals across all three matches he proved that his talent knows no bounds. It is launched from the springboard of a strong-willed, indivualistic personality with fire in his belly, as proven by his wonderfully cheeky dive in front of David Moyes after scoring a goal, in response to criticism of his antics from the Everton manager, and by the plays he attempts on the pitch. When faced with a defender, he without fail turns to improvisation and attempts a trick that re-creates the childlike joy of football from the street or playground – and which is recognisable to every fan – in the professional theatre of the Premier League. It is a delight to see him mug a well-honed defender who has been prepped with tactical knowledge with a trick that has been invented on the spot and strips the sport back to its basics, just as it is a delight to see how often he looks to bring his teammates into play with inch-perfect passes that are every bit as good as his runs and skills. He radiates brilliance just as he hustles with grit and determination, and this effort is endearing to fans who recognise that his inimitable talent nevertheless draws upon his insatiable work ethic and proud, wilful determination to give everything in service of the cause. It is not just Liverpool who are indebted to him, but every single viewer who is in love with football and recognises the wider zest for life and activity in his play that holds the key to mobilising one’s talent and creativity.

There was an altogether different thrill associated with watching Robin van Persie materialise in Arsenal’s penalty box as if out of thin air to poke home a lofted ball from Patrice Evra in Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat of them two weekends ago. Van Persie failed on that occasion, but the movement was so ghostlike, so sudden, as to be barely believable. Premier League fans should celebrate the variety on display between a van Persie, with his invisible, wraith-like movement and a Suarez or Aguero, who combine outstanding talent with the endearing hustling qualities from the streets of the continent they come from. At this moment in time, Suarez occupies the number one place in many fans’ affections, and perhaps this has something to do with his multi-layered, compelling personality as well as the way his character shines so clearly through his football (much like an Andrei Arshavin as well). One writer imagined the damage Suarez could wreak playing for a Chelsea or a Manchester United, but there is a more tempting hypothesis. What if Barcelona had not bought the faltering Alexis Sanches for the purpose of running at defenders and creating havoc alongside Lionel Messi and Pedro, but Suarez instead? With his intelligence and box of tricks, Suarez would have taken to the task like a box to water, benefitted enormously from the service of Xavi and Iniesta and the glow cast by playing with Messi, and Barcelona would have found the key to unlocking stubborn defences that sit back as most obviously displayed by Celtic a few weeks ago. A player of Suarez’s heroism and talent deserves the stage and acclaim of a club like Barcelona, but Liverpool’s struggles and the way it perhaps elevates his efforts, mean that he is certainly not under-appreciated in the Premier League. Sergio Aguero may be snapping at his heels, and Fernando Torres may be a sad warning sign of how many twists and turns a player can take throughout the course of his career, but right now Luis Suarez is playing at a level and with a determination that will even cause those who claim he is a curse upon the game to reluctantly admit there is something special and likeable about this boy.

Racism is just one small component of Premier League football’s greater sickness

As the latest racism saga to engulf football continues to swirl uncomfortably around the upcoming matchday, from which Mark Clattenburg will again stand down, the sport’s participants could do with taking a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The litany of soul-searching extends from entitled players to their overprotective clubs, from a sensationalist media to fans with a taste for abuse that makes them get their three-year old sons involved (as was seen by the heinous video of a three-year Arsenal fan singing obscene songs about Robin van Persie at the apparent behest of his father). All who have been guilty of the above crimes have inflamed delicate situations, and turned football’s reliance on its pantomime element and heady narrative-building into a weapon that is causing serious damage to people, their careers and their personalities.

It is difficult to pick a first culprit for the mess football finds itself in when there are so many, but Chelsea’s behaviour in the aftermath of the acrimonious 3-2 defeat to Manchester United seems a good place to start. How could they rush to damn Mark Clattenburg as a racist just two hours after the match had finished, in full knowledge that a rapacious media would seize on their embryonic statement and leave a stain on his character that will not be fully wiped off for the rest of his life? There was no way Chelsea could have collected enough evidence to substantiate their claim in 120 minutes, and jumping to a conclusion before thoroughly examining all the necessary evidence was reckless and unprofessional. What little evidence eventually trickled through in the following days was centred around a witness who barely does the term justice: John Obi Mikel never heard the abusive word said to have been directed against him by Clattenburg (“monkey”), but nonetheless made a witness statement using Ramires’s – a player with fledgling command of the English language – account of what he had heard. A Chelsea player also claimed that Clattenburg had further called Juan Mata a “Spanish twat”, although that too was never heard by the apparent target and was eventually dropped. How Mikel’s complaint stuck on the back of evidence that was no greater than the Mata one is something that might be explained by the inquiry in the coming weeks, but complaints over black players have always carried greater weight in of themselves courtesy of the attention drawn to this particular form of racism by the media and that might have emboldened Mikel and Chelsea to persist regardless of the scant evidence.

Are the media’s current intentions in training their sights on racism in the game noble, or have they inflamed an otherwise domiciled issue for commercial purposes to the point where everyone – including black players – has lost touch with the ground reality? Before Patrice Evra started the first of a trio of racist cases that has soured the Premier League, it was difficult to remember football’s most exciting league having a serious problem with racism. Compared to the frequent monkey chanting in Spain, or organised humiliation of black players in Italy, the Premier League had become a theatre where black players were regarded first for their ability, with their nationality being a secondary, general point of interest. Didier Drogba is remembered at Chelsea for the goals he scored and the leadership he provided; Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were one of the best-loved striking duo’s in Premier League history; Emmanuel Adebayor took his chance to shine at Arsenal and put Togo on the footballing map; Demba Ba recalled Alan Shearer at his best for one season at Newcastle. From London to Manchester to Newcastle, all the country’s Premier League clubs have been a proud racial melting pot that has now been upturned and spilt by the claims of the past two seasons.

It is against this history of progress and integration that the claims of Evra, Ferdinand and especially Mikel should be considered, rather than by relying on evidence of witnesses from Chelsea who have been shown to be open to peer pressure, persuasion and constructing clear falsehoods in the face of their legal obligations. If Chelsea’s Ashley Cole created John Terry’s evidence at the prompting of club secretary David Barnard, and never actually heard what he claimed to have heard, then how can the FA possibly take the word of Ramires – a representative of the same club and with an uncertain grasp of English to boot – at face value in determining the fate of Clattenburg? Rather, the FA should consider that the undeniable racial content of the first two cases came in the context of a fierce slanging match that went back and forth between opponents and encompassed insults no less heinous because of their non-racial nature. Patrice Evra brought up Luis Suarez’s sister’s pussy before the latter rebutted by calling him black in an aggressive manner. Anton Ferdinand cruelly reminded John Terry that he “shagged his mate’s missus”, provoking the much-maligned Chelsea captain to unleash that notorious line of racist abuse. In Ferdinand’s estimation, that brought it “to another level” but what is the difference between one expensively remunerated star sexually slurring another’s family, the other remarking on his skin colour, or the first hitting back on the way he looks? The hurt felt is mutual, the sense of players losing their heads in the heat of battle shared. Suarez’s wife has wryly observed how she “doesn’t like or recognise the Luis that plays football on the pitch”, the man transformed into a competitive snarling beast who was once driven to bite an opponent on a football pitch in Holland. Arsene Wenger and Robin van Persie received the brunt of the worst abuse from the last matchday weekend when Arsenal played Manchester United. Wenger was jeered as a paedophile, while allusions were made to Robin van Persie as a rapist and a “Dutch Jimmy Savile” (referencing the deceased British celebrity who has recently been exposed as a serial child abuser). As recently as last week, a Facebook friend saw fit to mockingly describe Wenger as a “paedophile” in his Facebook status, displaying the kind of detached cruelty that is all too often euphemistically passed by as “banter” in masochistic English society. Some of the chants I have heard directed against Wenger by Stoke’s male, female and very young fans through the television set turned the ears blue at a family hour while a group of friends returned from a Chelsea-Barcelona match in 2006 numbed by the ninety minutes of sexist, vitriolic abuse they had heard directed at the away side. As usual, Wenger caught the gist of it when he described the abuse he faces, such as calling him a paedophile, as just as “racist” as that received by Evra or Ferdinand. Rather than segregating the abuse received by them as somehow worthy of greater attention and action, black Premier League stars must accept that they are part of a slightly different problem and one which the evidence of the Evra and Terry cases suggests they have in part contributed to. It is a problem that antagonistic managers like Jose Mourinho must also acknowledge contributing to in the past, by stirring up hatred and bile between opponents to an extent that loosens the restraint and better civil tendencies of those in the stands.

For black Premier League stars to instead claim that racial abuse of them in a competitive theatre is removed from the vicious abuse of all types that is regularly traded on the pitch by players (including them) and between fans is a false distinction that recklessly sabotages the good work that has been done in the Premier League over the last fifteen years and remains to be done at the grassroots level and in lower leagues. It is in these areas, far away from the spotlight of the national press, where black players are not so protected by their fame or their worth to their clubs, that racism remains a tangible issue. The young black teenager who is racially abused by a white opponent on the field of play is subjected to a form of psychological bullying that can leave long-term scarring and should be warded away from every growing child. It is in the lower leagues, where comments are not picked up by the newspapers or television cameras, and ethnic diversity perhaps not so prevalent, that a culture of systematic racial abuse and targeting of black players without the means to resort to expensive legal vindication available to an Evra or a Ferdinand may persist from the stands and from white players. Yet by presenting an exaggerated picture of the state of racism in the Premier League, and developing a dangerous precedent of crying wolf every time an insult is pointed in their direction, black players in the Premier League have stirred up old hostilities and diverted attentions from the battlegrounds of racism truly in need of help. Just last week, a Chelsea fan taunted Dany Welbeck by brandishing a monkey gesture at him and it was difficult not to imagine that Evra, Ferdinand and Mikel had brought this about by feeding the beast.

Even more culpable than the players, however, are a lascivious media who have recognised the potential inherent in the racist saga to sell papers and abused their prerogative to the hilt in doing so. Racism is now first and foremost in everyone’s minds as a result of their incendiary coverage, and this has led to an increase of hatred, deepening divisions and hardening of positions.  One feels for those black players in the lower leagues now, as a result of how the media has knowingly precipitated a backlash against all black players by egging their Premier League counterparts on to report players and officials for the smallest of crimes and thus making them appear as troublemakers. This reputation will attach itself to black players in the lower leagues who have to put up with far worse, as the papers that cover the Premier League in such misleading fashion are also read by fans of lower-league teams. As with the Chelsea fan who taunted Welbeck, it will be hard to escape the feeling that any increase in racial hostility in the lower leagues resulted from the media’s mischief-making and was evidence of irresponsible behaviour by black Premier League stars to their quietly suffering lower-league counterparts. Better the media train their sights on racism in the darker corners of the footballing hierarchy that are more in need of their strong public voice, and stop devoting pages and pages of coverage to the travails of stars such as Terry and Ferdinand in an insidious way that engenders greater hatred.

The football media has always been aware of their need for narrative to burnish the weekly match reports, while calmer heads have always been able to keep sight of the real issues behind their need to script stories and talking points. The hyperbolic flashpoints this season have already swung between diving – again, an issue inflated to unbelievable heights – and now racism. Yet this one has the power to generate real racism where there previously was none, across all England’s leagues and footballing pitches, and for consciously creating these conditions they perhaps deserve the strongest rebuke of all. Meanwhile Mark Clattenburg is said to be lurching from bewilderment to the point of serious breakdown, and psychological counselling has been cited as something that may be needed before he is fit to resume his job. He also faces a police investigation by the Met prompted by the Society of Black Lawyers that is based on evidence provided by footballers who have been shown to be willing to lie in court, making it ludicrous to imagine that a man could be criminally convicted on the back of their word – or that of a headstrong player still learning English who might have heard wrong. This is what the worst tendencies in football’s culture – ranging from a self-serving, misleading media who have encouraged black players to believe they are being wronged, to clubs willing to lie in courts to protect their own interests, to leading players who have forgotten that the real struggle for racism could be affected by their eagerness to see others fall, to fans willing to use this crisis as a free pass to take their abuse even further than before – have led to: the picking apart of a potentially innocent man, publically doomed to be judged before any verdict is found, and the breaking out of real hostility and enmity across the sport and the vast cross-sections of society it affects.

Stoke’s whipping up of anti-diving fervour deflects real issues

It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when Stoke manager Tony Pulis called for Luis Suarez to be retrospectively banned for diving, and then another when one of his players – Michael Kightly – took up the baton of painting a gloomy picture of how divers were ruining the game. As far as bringing corrosive influences into the Premier League is concerned, Stoke rank up there with the best of them in how they have successfully managed to gain acceptance for a brand of play that pushes some of football’s most important laws to breaking-point. For every time Suarez tries to con the referee with one of his fairly hopeless dives, there will be at least five occasions on which one or more Stoke players are successfully pulling off a cynical foul either in full view of the officials or behind their back. If these are full-blooded enough to rough up the player, so much the better as it will knock them off their stride and lead them to fear holding onto the ball with quite so much confidence later on in the match. Such are the bully-tactics that Tony Pulis has instructed his team to go out and play with – and on at least two occasions, it has resulted in one of his players breaking an opponent’s leg and perhaps irreversibly altering their career paths for the worse (Francis Jeffers in 2007 and Aaron Ramsey in 2010 – both by Ryan Shawcross’s boot).

For a club who have steadfastly refused to take any blame for the hurt and trauma their style of play has inflicted on other players, it is galling that they should now seek to lecture the Premier League on the framework in which the game should be played. It may be to Pulis’s advantage to ride the anti-diving wave that deflects attention from the kind of on-the-limit tackles that his team routinely make, and perhaps even loosens the protection that referees are prepared to grant players on the receiving end of them. It is noticeable that Michael Owen, now a Stoke player, also chimed in with his own take on the issue and carelessly added a xenophobic element to the discussion by accusing foreign players of bringing it to English shores. However, if Stoke see themselves and the kind of football they peddle as quintessentially English, and worthy of protection against divers, then English football has hopelessly distorted the notion of a ‘contact sport’ and muddled up its morals. Diving will always pale in comparison to the importance of keeping a tight leash on the kind of tackles regularly dished out by Stoke players that carry the brutal power to cause permanent physical and psychological damage. The theatrics of Suarez and co may affect the outcome of matches, but English football seems to have forgotten amidst the current furore that this is a small crime when compared to what the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Dan Smith have wrought on their fellow players in recent years. Some perspective would be gladly appreciated – especially as referees are doing a better job than ever of hauling up divers in matches – and a refocusing of scrutiny on eradicating tackles that result in broken legs (which are still made on a regular basis on weekends in the Premier League) would not go amiss.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.