Date: 15th October 2009 at 11:22pm
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For a long time now, there has been a perception the FA treats the so-called Top 4 clubs (or Sky 4 clubs as they have become known) differently in terms of disciplinary matters than other clubs.

You know the feeling; your player has just got carded for something you know one of their players won’t. The feeling the FA is not fit for purpose in terms of ensuring fairness across the national game.

That’s how I’ve felt for some time, probably like many others. Now as a Manchester City fan with over 40 years in, I should be used to such disappointments, if only for the experience I’ve had of it over the years. But the events of Saturday 12 September 2009 brought things to a head. I’d just watched our game against Arsenal which to my surprise we’d won 4-2; however instead of feeling elated I was full of indignant outrage.

As everyone knows, the match was somewhat overshadowed by the events surrounding Emmanuel Adebayor. The media frenzy was at its height and it seemed nothing was going to stop this world-class display of righteous anger short of Adebayor’s immediate deportation from these shores. Gary Lineker led the charge on Match Of The Day later that night and one couldn’t fail to be impressed at his Churchillian call to rid us all of this thoroughly evil man and in doing so give our national game some overdue colonic therapy.

Lineker’s call for a public flogging on the steps of Wembley Stadium was backed up in his own way by the FA Chief Executive, Ian Watmore, who despite obvious conflicts of interest went on to make public pronouncements about an incident involving and affecting the club he supported on a matter which was always likely to result in disciplinary procedures being issued by his underlings at the FA.

Is it appropriate for the Chief Executive to publicly comment and pre-judge a case before the disciplinary process has started, never mind the player being charged? Not according to Lord Triesman, the chairman of the FA, who only this week sidestepped an opportunity to comment on a matter where his Disciplinary Commission might become involved.

Watmore should have been experienced enough to show similar restraint and remained impartial, rather than allowing his emotions get the better of him. Instead he was perceived by many to have prejudiced proceedings against Adebayor. This alone raises serious question marks about Watmore’s suitability and ability to head up the FA.

In any event it wasn’t as simple as Gary Lineker would have us believe, and rarely ever is. The media always excels at double standards and this case was no exception.

The avoidance of any doubt I want to make it clear I do not condone Adebayor’s actions in stamping on Robin Van Persie. But given the rush to both condemn and convict Adebayor is it unreasonable to expect that other similar incidents of violent conduct are dealt with equally robustly?

The problem is this doesn’t always happen; as we know the one discipline in which the FA always leads the field is inconsistency. And very often the one’s who ‘get away with it’ are players of the Sky 4 clubs. Do I have examples to give you – you bet I have!

On the second Saturday of the current season, Wigan played Manchester United. The Wigan striker Hugo Rodallega had just received a yellow card for sliding in on the United goalkeeper Ben Foster. Retribution soon followed, when out of the eyesight of the officials, Nemanja Vidic gave Rodallega a hefty swipe in the face which put the Wigan man on the deck.

No action was taken, as the incident had gone unseen by the officials and Rodallega was so incensed he nearly ended getting himself sent off. But that was the end of the matter until the Match of The Day panellists discussed the incident later that night. The ‘offence’ was highlighted and the boys chuckled away that Vidic was lucky Howard Webb hadn’t seen the incident.

Considering how quickly they moved over Adebayor, one would have thought the FA would have moved swiftly after receiving confirmation from the officials they had not seen the incident, and charged Vidic with violent conduct. Instead we hear Webb, having reviewed the same footage millions had seen before, had reached a conclusion that the footage was inconclusive. I ask you.

It doesn’t stop there of course. Many will recall two incidents at the Britannia Stadium on Boxing Day 2008 when Stoke played Manchester United. Wayne Rooney and Abdoulaye Faye went for the ball near the touchline, literally a few yards away from the assistant referee. For no apparent reason, Rooney elbowed Faye. The BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce remarked how lucky Rooney had been that the referee hadn`t seen the incident.

Later in the game, the novice Stoke right back Andy Wilkinson made a clean challenge on Ronaldo, whose response was to stamp on the Stoke man. To be fair, this incident was more difficult for the officials to see, although as before it did not escape the eagle-eyed Mr Pearce. Both incidents were later reviewed on Match of The Day and once more the lads chuckled away about how lucky both players had been that the incidents had not been seen by officials. Presumably nobody from the FA saw any TV or read any papers that weekend, as no charges against Rooney or Ronaldo were brought.

Contrast that with an incident at the Britannia just a month later when Rory Delap was shown a straight red for clattering Shaun Wright-Phillips, who flicked out a leg at the Stoke player in much the same way as Beckham did in World Cup 98. The incident was replayed on Match of The Day that night and Wright-Phillips was duly charged with violent conduct, for which he received a three match ban.

Compare what happened to Shaun Wright-Phillips with what happened to both Rooney and Ronaldo and tell me something untoward is not going on. What’s happening here is good old fashioned bias, pure and simple – special treatment reserved for special players who play for special clubs.

And it’s not just United though, as is demonstrated by the next example. Who can forget Jose Bosingwa’s mad lunge on Yossi Benayoun last year, when for bizarre reasons known only to him he kicked the Liverpool man in the middle of the back, right in front of the assistant referee. To everyone’s general amazement, the referee didn’t card Bosingwa and the FA didn’t bring a violent conduct charge against him.

Liverpool have also been beneficiaries of the so-called Sky 4 policy. It is hard to forget the outrageous assault by Martin Skrtel on Jo last season, once more at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Skrtel’s punishment went far beyond what the referee or any Disciplinary Commission could hand out, as he injured himself in the process and missed most of the season that followed. But the fact the referee missed his ‘tackle’ was in itself amazing, considering how close he was to the incident. One does wonder whether Specsavers should sponsor the Referee’s Association sometime.

But the fact the FA took no action over the ‘tackle’ just added to the sense of injustice felt by City fans at the time. One rule for the Sky 4 clubs, one rule for everyone else it seemed.

And in the interests of fairness, we mustn’t forget Arsenal. In the recent game at the City of Manchester Stadium, a two-footed challenge by Van Persie, which arguably provoked Adebayor’s ‘stamp’, went unpunished. It was a real leg breaker of a tackle, and it is Adebayor`s good fortune he saw it coming and took avoiding action. Ahem.

Referees are given clear instructions regarding this type of challenge – show a red card. However Mark Clattenburg didn’t even give a free kick! Why not? Did he think it was a fair tackle, or did he miss it altogether, just as he allegedly missed Adebayor’s ‘stamp’ moments later, despite being only a matter of feet away from the incident of which he seemingly had a clear view? Did the FA review the tackle and subsequently deal with Van Persie by charging him with violent conduct? Of course not!

The FA didn’t even take action when Van Persie left the field of play to celebrate after scoring his equaliser, other than writing to remind him of his future conduct! This after Van Persie had left the pitch and ran to the City fans (allegedly screaming foul and abusive comments) rather than to the Arsenal fans behind the same goal. Left the field of play you cry? Yes, but no booking followed! Why the double standards; after all match officials are told to book players in these circumstances.

Back to Adebayor’s celebration. ‘Throw the book at him, ban him some more’ cried the media. But had a precedent not been set in 2006 when Gary Neville performed a very individual goal celebration in front of incensed Liverpool fans after Rio Ferdinand headed a last minute winner, for which he received a £5,000 fine.

Not according to the media. The fact that Neville went in for a repeat in the Manchester derby the following weekend didn’t create too much excitement, and the FA only saw fit to remind him of his responsibilities, despite the previous incident.

Contrast Neville’s actions with those of Adebayor – were they really that different? Perhaps the only difference was that United and Arsenal have people of influence at the helm of the FA and that Arsenal fans almost rioted, whereas City fans didn’t. What kind of message did this send out to the men with shaved heads – no doubt we’ll find out in due course, but when it happens, let’s remember to hold the FA to account for their role in the disturbances.

But hang on a minute – wasn’t Adebayor booked for his celebration by referee Clattenburg? That’s what everyone thought, but no – apparently Adebayor was booked for time wasting, which allowed the FA to charge him separately for Improper Conduct for his goal celebration.

The lack of a transparent process enabled the FA to come up with an outcome where they could claim Adebayor was booked for time wasting, rather than goal celebrations, thus enabling them to charge him later with improper conduct, despite previously announcing that Adebayor HAD been booked for his goal celebrations. If Adebayor had been booked for time wasting for his goal celebrations then by rights so should most players every week. View the footage if in doubt and watch the time counter.

In this single act the FA’s credibility was stretched beyond breaking point. The term ‘stitch up’ never seemed more apt and all of a sudden the Watergate cover up seemed classy by comparison.

One of the aims of ‘FA Watch’ therefore is to ensure the FA does become a more transparent organisation. Perhaps the only way they will be trusted is if they make reports of match officials available online immediately after each game. Otherwise the feeling the FA simply connives with its officials behind closed doors will not go away.

So what is the point of ‘FA Watch’?

In a sentence it is about independent monitoring of the performance of match officials and the FA’s Disciplinary Commission, by fans of all clubs. But in saying this we have to be clear about what is achievable in terms of holding the FA accountable and answerable to their rule book, and set our goals accordingly.

For example, there are many areas where the officials have to make subjective judgments and for that reason I always intended to stay clear of such issues as:
Deliberate handballs
Added time

Instead my wish was to concentrate on black and white issues such as violent conduct and improper conduct, where referees were not seemingly acting in accordance with their instructions. I felt there was less ‘wriggle room’ for officials to make subjective judgments in these areas and that it was reasonable to expect some degree of consistency from them in terms of decision making.

But the perception of many fans in relation to these so-called ‘black and white’ issues is that whilst non-Sky 4 club players tend to be dealt with by the letter of the law, players from the Sky 4 clubs often ‘get away` with similar offences.

With ‘FA Watch’ we have the opportunity to make a difference.

I hope fans from all clubs identify with the vision of ‘FA Watch’ and come together across the various divides to join with us on this campaign, as we share a common purpose in trying to achieve fairness for all.

We don’t want special treatment for our team – we just want to be treated the same as everyone else. That`s something we can all hopefully agree upon.

Mark Tipton
6 October 2009

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