When the Football Association announced its “Respect” agenda to reduce abuse of referees, the biggest problem seemed to be getting fans to accept that match officials were anything other than killjoys. Yet ironically, the FA could hardly have contrived a situation more likely to win referees sympathy than the incident at the City of Manchester Stadium last Saturday.
The Chelsea and England captain John Terry, having been beaten by the Manchester City forward Jo, first attempted to trip him, and then perpetrated some kind of limp rugby tackle to haul the Brazilian down. Referee Mark Halsey immediately showed a red card, leading to protests from players that Ricardo Carvalho was returning to a covering position and therefore Terry had not prevented a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
The argument was irrelevant. Halsey had not sent him off for a professional foul, but for what he deemed serious foul play. Given the challenge was cynical in the extreme, one might have thought justice had been done, but no: the FA overturned the decision on appeal while temporarily demoting Halsey to League Two.
His suspension lifted, Terry will be available to face Manchester United in the Premier League tomorrow. Sir Alex Ferguson reacted with predictable fury, but for once the United manager seems to be echoing the views of most.
Various polls on television and websites indicated that about 80 per cent of the public think the red card was justified. Perhaps by the letter of the law Terry was slightly unfortunate, but by the spirit he was manifestly guilty.
The decision is troubling in two ways. Defenders now know that a rugby tackle is only a yellow card offence and can be used in extremis with relative immunity.
But worse is what the decision suggests of football’s disciplinary process as a whole. In March, Middlesbrough’s Jérémie Aliadière was sent off at Anfield for violent conduct so tame it was almost a caress; his red card not merely stood on appeal, but his suspension was extended for what the FA deemed Middlesbrough’s “frivolous” protest.
A week later, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard was shown a red card for a similar if still trivial offence. His was overturned.
That Terry has now had his red card rescinded will only strengthen fans’ notion that it is not just finances that skew things in favour of the big sides.
Adding to the overall confusion, the FA said the card would remain on Terry’s disciplinary record, even though it had been rescinded, and it remains on the Premier League’s own disciplinary table.
There is also the matter of the protest that followed the red card, with Halsey being surrounded by several Chelsea players as Terry showed a marked reluctance to leave the field. Javier Mascherano of Liverpool was given an additional match ban for similarly prolonging his exit after being sent off for Liverpool against Manchester United last season. Is this really any different?
So while there may be sympathy for Halsey, the Respect project finds itself tarnished by the perception that the disciplinary process is hopelessly capricious.
All of which rather detracts from the football story here, which is that if Chelsea win tomorrow, they will find themselves nine points clear of United.