Gary Lineker is right. There seems no point even appealing against a red card any more because unless you have evidence to prove mistaken identity or something similar the Football Association’s independent regulatory commission is simply going to back the referee’s decision.
“Utterly pointless,” Lineker tweeted after Leicester’s Jamie Vardy was told he must serve a three-match ban. Going into the appeal, the striker appeared to have a strong case. The tackle on Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf was not especially bone-jarring and the ball was clearly won first. That no longer matters if the challenge itself is out of control and dangerous – touching leather before flesh is rightly no longer allowed to legitimise a reckless follow-through into an opponent – though none of that applied to the incident at the Bet365 Stadium.
Vardy might have been guilty of an ugly body shape at the start of his challenge; it looked for a moment as if he was going to make a wild, two-footed, studs-up lunge of exactly the type that Craig Pawson let go when he was refereeing Manchester United the week before. Yet a) there was a suggestion that Vardy had been knocked off balance by accidental contact from Glen Johnson, and b) the challenge was no longer two-footed by the moment of impact.
The last is perhaps the most important consideration. Vardy had managed to exert some level of control as he attempted to win the ball. He had pulled back to an extent, tidied up his lunge, and had one foot on the floor as the other struck the ball. It was not the prettiest challenge you will ever see – Vardy is a centre forward after all (unlike Marcos Rojo) and it was the epitome of a forward’s tackle – but there was no reason to believe the Leicester player was going for the man rather than the ball and by definition, because Vardy succeeded in checking himself, he could not be deemed to be out of control.
“Maybe a yellow,” was Claudio Ranieri’s verdict, and that seemed reasonable. Although it would be easy to argue, given that Ross Barkley’s challenge on Jordan Henderson in the Merseyside derby was rated a yellow, that what Vardy did should have warranted only a free-kick. Or, if Barkley had been shown the red card his foul deserved, Vardy’s lesser offence could have been punished with a yellow and no one would have had too much cause for complaint.
Except football does not work like that. Referees have a difficult enough job applying the rules consistently in the game under their noses, without the added complication of comparing and contrasting similar incidents from matches involving different decisions by other officials. If Pawson thought he saw a dangerous challenge at Stoke then he was perfectly within his rights to produce a red card. Even if the referee was overreacting to the criticism he received for ignoring the Rojo challenge on Wilfried Zaha a few days earlier, the same applies.
He had only one view of the Vardy incident and had to make up his mind quickly without the benefit of slowed-down replays. People said at the time that Vardy’s dismissal was harsh, but that’s where the FA’s appeals procedure comes in, or ought to come in. Referees do not always make the right decision on the spot, and sometimes they make the wrong decision for the right reasons. But with time, hindsight and replays, the disciplinary commission should be capable of sorting all that out. If it is simply going to decide the referee was right all along then Leicester have every reason to feel aggrieved.
Theirs was not a frivolous appeal, most neutrals felt there was some merit in Vardy’s argument, and if the commission is not going to budge when presented with a reasonable case there seems little point in having an appeals procedure. Too little flexibility appears to be built into the system. In an ideal world an appeals committee ought to be able to uphold the referee’s original decision but mitigate the sentence.
Perhaps Leicester deserved no favours from the FA after a bad-tempered game in which they were fined for the number of players cautioned or dismissed, and perhaps Vardy should have thought twice about the need for such an incautious challenge so early in the match.
Yet especially when set next to other incidents and fouls in recent games his action hardly constituted violent conduct, and a three-match suspension is a disproportionate punishment for what took place. The appeals commission never looks for compromise solutions – Vardy was not able to contest the ban, just the referee’s decision on the day. He argued the referee had been wrong to send him off, the commission found the official had sufficient reason. End of appeal, end of story.
So Leicester face three games without one of their key players, and although Everton, West Ham and Middlesbrough may not be the biggest challenges on the fixture list, in the context of their season they are important matches with points needing to be won. Everton are up next, and one hopes that Barkley, scot-free after even being publicly forgiven by Henderson, does not play too influential a role at the King Power and so deepen Leicester’s sense of rough justice.
Barkley was a lucky boy to stay on the pitch against Liverpool; both Ronald Koeman and Jürgen Klopp said so. Vardy was unlucky to be ordered off against Stoke and can consider himself even more unfortunate to be forced to sit out three matches.
That’s football – it can never be perfectly consistent and often the best plan is to simply shrug and accept its ups and downs. But after the past couple of weeks surely someone within the FA ought to be at least reflecting on what really constitutes a reckless challenge, violent conduct and dangerous play.
The Guardian Sport