Rich makes his debut @Whatsinaname81
Close to halfway through the first season of the new era – Post AW, AAW, whatever- at Arsenal. A period of great change. Some, myself included, hoped that change might just include both a new beginning with the officials who oversee our matches, and other influential parties. It’s still relatively early, but recent events suggest that on that front it is, alas, whatever the Spanish or English is for ‘plus ca change’.
Aggression against us has spiked in recent games and, on the whole, been rewarded. The teams using extra aggression and foul play have gained benefits from it, meaning a commensurate loss for us – in terms of the odds of a good result, and those of staying injury free- and none of the referees involved appear to have had the capacity to deal with this properly.
We have lost one key player to a 9 months to a year injury from a clear foul, unpunished, and seen another 3 leave the pitch injured, with one directly the result of a foul, and the other two of unknown origin. We saw our recently returned club captain left hobbling from what looked a nasty, late deliberate foul, unpunished.
Our emerging young French talent was fortunate to leave the field in one piece after an utterly wild and out of control smash on him which should have yielded red, but didn’t. For good measure, late in that game he was, well, an opponent stopped him by grabbing hold of his hair. Not quite one to make the blood boil, as it carried no injury threat, but all the same an offence recently judged worthy, in the cold, retrospective light of day, of a red, but here a free kick would do.
Then, of course, the rotational fouling, or just the fouling. A constant. So much so that it’s almost a surprise when an opponent doesn’t grab, push or kick when in position to do so. These for the most part, are viewed as nothing, free kicks given less than half the time, avoiding totting up procedure entirely. Given how unconcerned the refs are with them, you wonder why the opponents keep doing it, as presumably it confers no advantage. Silly them.
There is the argument- if you believe any of this is accurate- that the only solution is to reciprocate in kind – if you can’t beat ‘em…- but, judging by how it went when we tried joining in and seeking the benefits of the play-acting, unnatural fallin’ etc, that is rife in the league, that may not go so well.
In truth, I’ve tried a number of times to leave this thinking behind, to experiment with seeing it differently, up to taking the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind treatment if it comes on the market. To no avail. I tend to be doing alright- suspiciously- when the going is good and we are getting results. But the real killer for me is should a serious injury occur as a result of clear foul play. In that case, I’m off. With the new injury joining those that have come before, and all the old grievances, distrust and anger rising back up.
And so to Holding. Categorically not in the same league of foul play as the worst of the past, and when measured only by itself…a what? Yellow for me, given it was so late, was cynical, evidently did lead directly to plenty of harm, had to be deliberate, and the ball was nowhere near. But, no, clearly I would not have been angry about it as, for instance, I was Rojo’s foul, had it not led to a big injury. I wouldn’t have even known there had been a foul had I not seen the quick replay afterwards as they checked what had happened to Holding. Crucially, though, to my discontent, I would not have known it was a foul either- the fateful late kick around Holding’s shin, causing the knee to buckle, had I not spotted it myself, then recorded it and watched it back a number of times.
This was the chief cause of unhappiness for me in the days that followed : it was not described as a foul anywhere. Not by the commentary team, and not by anyone within the media. And yet, there it is in the video, a clear foul. So, why does that even matter?
It matters to me, a lot, because it allowed there to be no connection made between our opponents aggression on the night and our player picking up the bad injury. That’s aggravating on the justice front but far graver is how it fits into a pattern stretching back over a decade, which has done us serious harm as a club, and had a dramatically negative effect on at least three top international players of ours. That matters.
The pattern, in short, is of teams being allowed to push and break the rules in terms of aggression fair and foul, penalising us within games and leaving our players at far higher threat to injury than they should be. Crucial to this, aside from the input of referees, is how our games are covered and reported. It would not be possible, the approach to us, in my opinion, if we could only rely on fair, honest, accurate and reasonable reporting, the type which, among other things, draws attention to the connection between foul play against us and the statistic-busting (three horror injuries from horror fouls in 4 seasons at one point. Not normal) injuries we receive from foul play. The Holding incident fits perfectly into that pattern.
Imagine if it had simply been reported, without any particular vehemence nor condemnation, that Utd, in line with their manager’s battle cries beforehand, were extremely aggressive in the match; that the ref was highly lenient in a variety of ways (totting up, yellow threshold, red threshold); that one of the fouls led, unfortunately, to a very serious injury, although it was not an especially bad foul, the injury could not be predicted, etc (however you can imagine your imaginary commentators saying it, with any degree of conviction you like, that Rashford, although guilty of a foul, was not to blame in a serious sense for the injury, which was sheer rotten bad luck).
Still imagining, these commentators also note, calmly and without condemnation, that Rojo was surely lucky to escape a red, as he has done a number of times previously for wild, dangerous lunges, and that Guendouzi,too, was lucky not to get a bad injury, as he so easily could have.
They also, though this is stretching it now, note that the hair-pulling from Fellaini was- as well as great banter!- an offence an opponent of his was handed a retrospective three game bad for, so if the ref saw it, and he did give a free kick…who was wrong…the team who administered retrospective punishment- red offence- for the pull of Fellaini’s hair, or the ref who saw the same as a free kick only? Or, hell, muse on whether the rules have since changed, or if he did in fact actually see it. (or, later now, in the days after, whether this whole retrospective system is badly flawed, given the huge inconsistencies the ‘seen it, can’t re-referee it’ loophole insists upon). It was a Mcmanaman commentary so no one could claim there’s no time for such musings as other, better things are being said.
If we’ve imagined that far, we can try imagine what impact that commentary- including the plain acknowledgement of the long-term injury caused by a foul, and the narrow escape from a dangerous foul- would have on the post-match discourse, public opinion, Marriner’s performance review, Riley and Scudamore’s morning coffee (perhaps together in the offices they share)…and from there, rival premier league managers and players, including those about to play us.
Would it shape the next fixture, and the next? We’re deep in the realms of (imaginary) probability, but yes, absolutely, and in our favour. Reduced injury risk. More pressure on refs to punish foul play appropriately and discourage foul play. A narrative which recognises how teams look for an advantage through fouls, and the clear and obvious link between this, permissive refereeing of it, and serious injuries.
So there we have it, wild, wild impossible imaginings of what, simply, should be. A simple, neutral description of reality would have drawn attention to those things, the facts of the game, the reality of it. And yet it is, sadly, entirely unimaginable. So the cycle continues, endlessly rolling on until who knows when. The [my opinion all, of course] strangely bad refereeing, the simpatico coverage of it, essential to its continuation.
The year lost to the foul which was not a foul. The small yet real contribution that makes to the likelihood of more bad refereeing, increased injury risk, etc. On and on. Plus ca change, amigos. I think only years of intense, sustained, bone-deep cynicism, pitched at precisely the same level as the opposition, in all departments, on and off pitch, could alter the landscape. Hope not but I can’t imagine anything else doing the trick.