They never are, are they?
October 3rd, 2010, City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester City vs Newcastle
Exciting, young French attacker Hatem Ben Arfa made only his third start in English football. Fifteen days earlier his screamer of a goal helped Newcastle to a 1-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park -- a memorable footballing moment for Newcastle fans.
This game against Manchester City is remembered even more vividly, but for the wrong reason. In the opening exchanges of the game, Nigel De Jong flew into a tackle that left Ben Arfa on the floor with his leg in three pieces and on the verge of passing out. Incredibly, referee Martin Atkinson waved play on only stopping the game a couple of moments later to award a free kick to City for a mild shoulder challenge. Atkinson judged that De Jong had won the ball fairly -- the same De Jong who escaped with a yellow card for a five-foot high-flying kick in the World Cup final only three months earlier. A yellow card was awarded by yet another English referee, Howard Webb.
"He won the ball!" Screamed a host of national sports radio presenters and some written journalists. Right, so what you're saying is that if you play the ball first then you can do whatever you like in the follow through? Preposterous. Can you imagine a footballing world in which this was the case? I guarantee you we would not see the likes of Lionel Messi as he'd have been maimed before he even got going.
Although the incident fortunately didn't hinder Ben Arfa's skills, he has barely managed to string a long run of games together since. I wrote about the Manchester City incident at the time:
Years later it looks like nothing has changed.
A couple of years later the same referee sent off Cheick Tiote in the derby game at Sunderland. Did Tiote deserve his red? Possibly. Was his tackle as reckless and dangerous as De Jong's? No chance. And there we have issue number one -- pathetic refereeing inconsistency.
February 9th 2013, White Hart Lane, Tottenham vs Newcastle
Between the Ben Arfa incident and this one there were several comparable incidents including two red cards for Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany (vs Manchester United and Arsenal) and a red for Newcastle Captain Fabriccio Coloccini (vs Liverpool). In each of these incidents the players were sent off for intent, the players they challenged uninjured. Call me whacky, but I'd far rather have a player make no contact with me then smashing my leg with an 'honest' challenge.
At White Hart Lane in February, Newcastle had another young Frenchman who left the field on a stretcher in agony -- Yoan Gouffran this time.
Throughout the game Gouffran was on the receiving end of some rough treatment from the opposition -- often time after the ball had gone. He was so frustrated by this that he spoke to the referee who totally dismissed his complaints. Not too long afterwards Kyle Walker caught him with another one of those 'accidents' and Gouffran left the game which then turned in Tottenham's favour.
When Gouffran went down, former Sunderland footballer and chairman Niall Quinn, summarising in the commentary box, said Gouffran ought to be embarrassed with himself. Once he saw the replay he couldn't backtrack quickly enough -- something that commentator Martin Tyler was quick to point out.
Fortunately for Gouffran and Newcastle his injury was 'only' a serious bruising and he was back playing again a few weeks later.
March 17th 2013, DW Stadium, Wigan vs Newcastle
Guess what? You got it. Another new, young, French Newcastle player has suffered a serious, potentially career-threatening injury at the hands of an 'enthusiastic' tackle. Three of them now with only six Premier League starts between them before they were kicked out of the game, literally. And guess what else? That's right -- the referee completely missed it again and didn't even award a free kick to the player who was stretchered away.
Poor Massaido Haidara was the victim. Wigan's Calum McManaman the aggressor. His above the knee, over the ball challenge could have finished a career just as it is about to really start.
Enter Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. He's a man I had a great deal of respect for before Sunday. Not anymore. This alleged lover of 'proper' football claimed not to have seen the incident properly and proceeded to defend the indefensible.
Wigan owner Dave Whelan got in on the act too.
"The ball was there and McManaman went in for the ball and got the ball, as clean as a whistle"
- Whelan stands by McManaman over tackle
So after Martinez defending the indefensible, the football club's owner comes out with a line contradicting what everyone has already seen with their own eyes. He reminds me of the Iraqi regime character 'Comical Ali' who denied the US were close to taking Baghdad on TV as a US tank rolled behind him in the background.
This is another big, big problem -- not being able to see what is in front of you because of blind club loyalty. We see this all too often.
Martinez and Whelan are in agreement that McManaman is 'not that type of lad' (they never are). Apparently he "doesn't have a bad bone in his body"
What he does have is 'previous', as brilliantly spotted and tweeted by @mcintoshpaul:
To cripple one player is bad. To cripple two by the time you are in your early twenties suggests something far more sinister.
So what should happen? The FA should grow a spine and punish these players properly. If McManaman was banned for 15-plus games (and every other player who does this type of thing), then I guarantee you players would think twice before flying in to reckless 'enthusiastic' foot-high tackles.
Referees should be held more accountable, too. This 'can't ban a player if the ref saw it' nonsense is stupid. We can all see the referees arrogantly strutting about football pitches week in week out; we all know which ones love the attention. Can we really expect these to admit to such big mistakes? One or two might but we have no chance with the rest.
Clubs need to take responsibility, too. If a Newcastle player committed a challenge like McManaman's and Alan Pardew trotted out the nonsense that Martinez did, I would be absolutely furious. The same goes for the fans -- the Wigan lot gave McManaman an ovation as he was subbed yesterday.
This piece is Newcastle-centric. That's because they are the team I watch and write about hundreds of times a year, but this applies to each and every team, player and supporter. We all know the other high profile terrible injuries that players at other clubs have suffered.
Eduardo, Ramsey, Haaland, Ben Arfa -- the list goes on. Wigan have even been a victim of it themselves recently. Martinez held a different view that day, though. Surprise, surprise.
I wonder if we will reach a day when players opt to swerve the Premier League and it's 'enthusiastic' challenges altogether?
They never are, are they?