The rules of the game of football are subjective. Make that, almost always subjective. Saturday at Carrow Road, the spirit of fair play trumped the rulebook, costing Norwich City three points. 'Fer' play was denied, with Fair Play ruling the day.
The least appealing match of the weekend on paper turned out to be the fixture with the darkest cloud hanging over. Norwich City and Cardiff City went 90 minutes without a goal. Cue the controversy.
In stoppage time with a 0-0 score-line, Cardiff played the ball out of bounds for an injured Norwich player down on the field: a signal of true sportsmanship allowing the injured player to receive treatment. It's customary for the gesture to be extended in return, with the ball being played back to the opposition. When one team concedes possession to allow for an injured player to be seen, the favour need be repaid immediately. Or so convention says.
Norwich City didn't oblige. Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall showed for the ball on the throw, completely out of goal and out of position. Ricky van Wolfswinkel decided instead to throw the ball to his Norwich teammate, Leroy Fer. With little hesitation, Fer passed the ball into the wide-open net. 1-0, Norwich City.
Or so it should have been. Chaos ensued with Cardiff players confronting Fer, the teams pushing back and forth and confusion, en masse. Fer broke a cardinal rule. He didn't repay the gesture. Cardiff City players had every right to be incensed. But Fer did not break a rule of the game.
With the scoreboard showing 1-0 and hostility raging, referee Mike Jones took matters in his own hands, calling back the goal and ordering the throw to be re-taken. The reason for the goal being disallowed, as described by Fer? Jones told the midfielder he didn't blow his whistle. But a referee doesn't have to blow his whistle to restart play. Jones clearly signaled for play to carry on so wherever the ball is thrown, the play is live and teams are free to carry on with proceedings. Fer was in his every right to do with the ball as he pleased. The laws of the game were not broken. Yet Jones, overseeing the proceedings made a moral decision, standing up for the unwritten rules of the game.
Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay called Jones' decision to disallow the goal, "common sense for football". Norwich manager Chris Houghton agrees, hitting out at his own player and backing the match official. Fer doesn't see things the same way.
"Would I do it again? If it was a zero-zero game then yes, because I just want to win."
Norwich City currently sits in the relegation zone. They need all the points they can get. If the Canaries are in a similar situation on the final match day of the season, you don't think the players would bypass an unwritten rule to fight for their Premier League lives? Of course they would. Yet, on this day in October, a referee made a moral decision and not a judgment based on the rules of the game. And these dropped points based on this disallowed goal could come back and haunt them.
Showing a lack of sportsmanship, but not breaking a rule, cannot be deemed worthy of taking back a goal. We see a lack of sportsmanship on a weekly basis with players diving, trying to earn penalties, all in the name of winning the game. Referees cannot be relied upon to use 'common sense' in every call that's made on the field. Handballs in the box, challenges as a last man back, a player taken down in the box – many of these calls are deemed black-and-white, despite being harsh. The laws of the game dictate the call being made. But if Saturday at Carrow Road is the precedent, the referee seemingly has much greater level of interpretation as moral arbiter of the contest.
We have seen it done before when a player/team SHOULD give back possession of the ball in the name of sportsmanship. But in times of desperation, where wins and losses matter, the 'code' has been ignored. We saw a similar goal count in Capital One Cup play earlier this season, with Yeovil not giving the ball back after Birmingham City goalkeeper Colin Doyle played the ball out of bounds for one of his injured defenders. The match official allowed the goal to stand, despite protestations and the poor form. We've seen similar in top competitions, like the Champions League and World Cup, when teams put sportsmanship to the side in favour of their own fortunes.
There is no arguing, common sense dictates van Wolfswinkel and Fer should have played the ball straight back to Marshall or another Cardiff player. But the point is once the play happened, the goal should have never been called back. Fer may have acted like a jerk. His actions don't reflect well on he or the club. But the goal should have counted.
It is a not referee's job to manage fair play in this context. His or her job is to call the rules of the game. It's up to the players to play how they see best reflect on themselves and their club.
Common sense didn't win out at Carrow Road. Wrong decisions did. Fer made the first wrong decision. Jones followed that up with a wrong decision of his own. Two wrongs don't make a right.
- The unreliability of Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart has already been discussed at length in this space. Was his gaffe at Stamford Bridge the last straw?
Late in a 1-1 game against Chelsea, Hart inexplicably charged out of his goal for a long-ball defender Matija Nastasic was in control of. With Fernando Torres closing in, Nastasic made the right decision to head back to his goalkeeper. Never mind the poor communication, Hart came charging out of his box like a madman, leaving his defender on the lurch, gifting Torres the match winner.
Hart was out of his box and out of position even before Nastastic touched the ball. All the City goalkeeper had to do was keep his composure and stay in a balanced, reactive position inside his own box, something he failed to do at Villa Park as well. The sheer disappointment and negative body language of the City players and manager after the calamitous goal tells the story. They have lost faith in their goalkeeper.
Being a top goalkeeper is more than just being a shot stopper. Hart is that. A communicator, thinker and leader from the back, he is not.
Now we're left with pundits proclaiming a resurrection of the goal scorer Torres. Only if scoring every goal were as easy.
Costel Pantilimon was handed the start in the Capital One Cup Wednesday. He should get a look as the short-term number one until reinforcements can be found in January. Manuel Pellegrini needs reliability at the back. Someone who does not make massive mistakes is all that's required at present time for a team good enough to win the title.
- Pellegrini snubbed Jose Mourinho's handshake after the 2-1 loss, heading down the tunnel without acknowledging his counterpart. Mourinho made a fool of himself, jumping into the crowd to celebrate after being gifted the winning goal. You would have thought Torres goal would be a wonder-strike by the way Mourinho reacted. The celebration was a slap in the face to Pellegrini. Such an egregious goal and mockery of a celebration shouldn't sit well with anyone. Earn the goal, then fine, celebrate as you will. But the shocking way the goal went down, Mourinho should feel fortunate to go in the lead. Mourinho should be embarrassed by his reaction. Need more reason why Mourinho didn't get his dream job as manager of Manchester United?
- SAS is on fire. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez have scored 14 of Liverpool's 17 Premier League goals. Enjoy it while it lasts. The unpredictable Suarez is perpetually unsettled and could be tempted to move away from Anfield at any time. Suarez' summer of discontent and posturing has been forgotten for the time being. Let the good times roll. How long does that last? It is of concern for Liverpool where they will find goals if injury or suspension hits the tandem. For the meantime, they deserve all the accolades they are receiving. The goals have been special and the play has been top quality.
- Time for a formation change at Old Trafford? David Moyes team has started to show some of the bite accustomed to Manchester United. Yet the team hasn't yet hit top gear. The players available for selection seem to dictate United play a more narrow formation. The wing play has been poor, and with Moyes not yet trusting Wilfried Zaha, perhaps he's best off relying on wing production from Patrice Evra and Rafael from the back rather than the attacking wing positions. A 4-2-3-1 makes more sense, with Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, and Adnan Januzaj taking up the attacking midfield positions. Kagawa is wasted playing outside left, with a preference to come in field. And Januzaj was the top player midweek in the Capital One Cup, playing in the middle of the park with freedom to roam and create.