Rooney escapes punishment, but who referees the referees?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase, literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Or, in the case of Wayne Rooney‘s elbow on James McCarthy – for which he escaped punishment yesterday – this could perhaps be paraphrased as “Who referees the referees?” Or, for that matter, the Football Association.

You will no doubt have seen the incident replayed on TV many times by now. Ten minutes into Manchester United’s match at Wigan – the game was goalless at the time – Rooney chases across the field and McCarthy appears to make a slight movement into his path. The England international’s response as he ran past was to throw an elbow into his opponent’s face – a clearly deliberate act.

As the incident happened off the ball, none of the officials had a clear view of the incident. After consulting with his assistant, referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Wigan a free kick, believing Rooney had merely impeded McCarthy, and took no further action. Replays quickly showed the extent of his mistake – a human but understandable error – with common consensus being that it was a clear red card offence. Reprieved, Rooney scored one goal and set up another as United won 4-0. If he had been dismissed, who knows how the result would have turned out?

Mistakes happen. But Clattenburg said yesterday he felt he had dealt with the incident in the correct fashion, meaning that no retrospective punishment can be applied against the player.

A mandatory minimum three-match ban for violent conduct would have seen Rooney miss critical, potentially season-defining games in the Premier League at Chelsea and Liverpool and the FA Cup quarter-final, potentially against Arsenal.

Is Clattenburg arrogant, blind or scared?

First of all, I must say that I appreciate a referee’s job is a very difficult one. The pace of the modern game, its participants’ liking for deception, and the inability to instantly access replays which are available to millions of TV viewers mean that mistakes will inevitably happen. Match officials are only human.

However, it is too easy for referees – particularly those, like Clattenburg, considered to be ‘elite’ officials – to escape accountability for their errors. They are not permitted under their own rules to discuss their decisions with the media – a convenient cloak of non-accountability – and too often they are too quick to defend their actions even when, as in this case, video evidence clearly proves them wrong.

Did Clattenburg review the replays? If not, he is arrogant. If he did and still believes he made the correct decision, he surely needs his vision – or at the very least – his judgement questioned. Or is he afraid of the consequences of admitting to a mistake?

If any of the above is true, then surely the PGMO (Professional Game Match Officials) needs to take corrective action, rather than immediately close ranks and leap to their member’s defence, as PGMO head man Mike Riley did yesterday:

Mark took the correct course of action with this incident. Match officials are trained to prioritise following the ball, as that’s where the greater majority of incidents are going to take place. However, we also do a lot of work around the area of peripheral vision to be aware of anything that might potentially happen off-the-ball.

In this incident Mark was following play but caught sight of two players coming together and he awarded a free kick because he believed one player had impeded the other. We should be clear that Mark did nothing wrong in officiating this incident as he acted on what he saw on the pitch.

Riley’s statement completely misses the point. Any sensible fan can accept that mistakes can be made, especially in off-the-ball incidents. The bigger issue occurs when the opportunity to rectify an obvious error is passed up.

My question to Clattenburg (and Riley) would be this. What do you think will damage the reputation of referees more? Admitting human error, and correcting it? Or brazening it out and hiding behind technicalities when anyone who has seen the incident can see the injustice?

We know referees have a difficult job. Players don’t make it easy for them. Fans don’t make it easy for them. But sometimes they don’t make it easy for themselves either.

The FA are also at fault

It is not just Clattenburg who is at fault, however. Not to put a fine point on it, if the FA’s rules prevent it from acting in such cases, the rules are an ass – and so are the people who make them.

Under its own disciplinary procedures, the FA can only act if the referee has not included the incident in his match report, or decides upon reviewing the video that he has made an error. As neither occurred here, it is powerless to act.


Let me provide an analogy by way of example. A policeman in a crowded town centre sees a group of boys having what appears to be a minor altercation. He stops briefly to warn them, then proceeds on with his beat. Later, CCTV footage shows that what he originally thought was just a scuffle was in fact a stabbing which has left one boy seriously wounded in hospital, with the offender clearly captured in the act on camera. However, the officer claims he took the appropriate action at the time, and as a result the police are unable to bring a case against the offender.

Should the authorities be rendered powerless in this case? Of course not. So why is this any different?

To go back to my opening quotation, the Greek philosopher Plato believed that in the perfect society the guards will guard themselves against themselves by believing in a ‘noble lie’. They would rule because they believe it to be the right thing to do, not because they desire power or privilege. Apparently the FA seems to think they are operating within a perfect society, where referees always make the right decision, and do not need support or protection against themselves.

In short, the FA is living in a dream-land and needs to review its disciplinary codes. If referees cannot correct obvious errors themselves, then existing rules should not prevent it from taking action. If the rules do not work, change them. Who referees the referees? How about English football’s governing body?

Of course, this is a body which also seems content to sit on its hands and refrain from comment when one of its own internationals, Ashley Cole, takes a powerful air gun into his club’s training ground and shoots a member of the backroom staff as some kind of jolly jape. I’m not saying the Rooney and Cole incidents should be directly correlated – or even that the FA should necessarily take any action in the latter case (although surely there is a case for ‘bringing the game into disrepute’?) but certainly both are indicative of the governing body’s tendency to do anything but govern the sport when confronted with major technical or moral issues. Instead it charges Ryan Babel with improper conduct and fines him for sending an inappropriate tweet. Well done for taking such a hard line against football’s most pressing issues.

I’m not asking the FA to take act as football’s moral guardians, any more than I blame the government for the rise of anti-social behaviour. But when a clear and punishable crime is committed on its patch, I would like them to take some kind of action other than a simple shrug of the shoulders. Otherwise what’s the point?


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to Rooney escapes punishment, but who referees the referees?

  1. jamestaylor11 says:

    The FA didn’t even upgrade Chris Morgan’s yellow card to red when he fractured Iain Hume’s Skull! I think that best illustrates how crazy the current system is.
    I agree with most of what you have said here although i blame the FA rules more than Clattenburg in this case.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the comment, James.

      I agree the lack of action over that incident was mad. Setting aside the severity of Hume’s injury, Morgan’s challenge was incredibly reckless and dangerous, and should have been punished as such.

      For me, the fault is about 50:50 between Clattenburg and the FA. I don’t understand why he just doesn’t hold his hands up in this case and admit that he didn’t get a clear view of the incident, which would be fair enough – I would think more, not less, of him for that. And the blazers at the FA are all too quick to hide behind their rules and do nothing. Other countries find a way to punish such incidents. Why can’t we?

      Managers often complain about favouritism towards the big clubs and towards England players. Ben Thatcher had the book thrown at him. Why shouldn’t Rooney, for what was basically common assault?

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