09 Apr 2018 20:50:00
Did Stephens deserve to be sent off yesterday? Well, in my view no, and that's not because I'm a Saints fan. As black and white as many people seem to think the laws of the game are on this type of incident, it quite simply isn't that clear cut. The laws of the game are open to interpretation and referees duly have a degree of discretion on how to sanction certain actions during a match, but whilst some refs take time to think, speak to assistants and review their options, others seem to act more swiftly and with little consideration beyond a black and white view of what is and what is not acceptable.

The Stephens sending off was arguably harsh and could well have been avoided had the referee taken control of the situation sooner. He may have been playing advantage but if he was paying attention, he would've seen that Wilshere (who played like a drunkard when he came on and grew increasingly frustrated with himself) had given the ball away for the umpteenth time and had lost his cool as he charged after Jack Stephens who intercepted his through ball. He may also have seen the vigorous tugging of Stephens' shirt, not for a second but for several paces and that deliberately impeding Stephens was Wilshere's only intention. No effort to win the ball, he was just tugging on Stephens like a petulant child, determined to stop the man who had the audacity to intercept his poorly played through ball. The ref may then have finally seen that after Stephens had played the ball away, Wilshere still had hold of his shirt and as Stephens tried to push him off and run freely, Wilshere planted his feet and made one final tug at Stephens' shirt, so forcefully that it ripped and spun Stephens around. Then Stephens turns to see Wilshere jogging away and giving him some verbal abuse, so Stephens pushes him. Stephens is then pushed in the back by Kolasinac and Wilshere gets up and knees him, albeit with little force.

When this sort of thing happens, the people we call pundits are quick to say 'you can't raise your hands' which in and of itself is nonsense as otherwise, footballers would all run around like Michael Flatley; very funny but not required by the laws of the game. In fact, FIFA's laws of the game are quite broad as they list offences that can be penalised by red or yellow cards, but do not define them. So 'violent conduct' for example is listed as that and that alone, presumably then allowing each national FA to develop their own interpretation of that law. If we look at the FA's definition of violent conduct it states:

'Violent conduct is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball, or against a team-mate, team official, match official, spectator or any other person, regardless of whether contact is made.

In addition, a player who, when not challenging for the ball, deliberately strikes an opponent or any other person on the head or face with the hand or arm, is guilty of violent conduct unless the force used was negligible. '
Source - www. thefa. com/ football-rules-governance/ lawsandrules/ laws/ football-11-11/ law-12---fouls-and-misconduct

Note that it doesn't say a player must be sent off if he raises his hands. Can you imagine the game with underarm throw-ins? Keepers leaping like salmon to head balls away from the top corner. Anyway, back to the point. Even the FA definition is open to interpretation, and therefore discretion on the part of the referee. Whenever Dermot Gallagher pops up on Sky Sports news, he discusses how he can understand why the referee made a certain call, so that too implies that refs use their discretion. What is unclear is how each referee comes to his own decision on how to deal with this. Surely there must be some difference between a punch or elbow thrown intentionally and a shove, shouldn't there?

Looking again at Stephens' actions, there are some mitigating factors that the ref could have considered. Stephens was provoked not only by the deliberate foul but also the lack of referee intervention and the verbal abuse he received when all he was trying to do was play football. A simple shirt pull often leads to a player putting their arms out and asking for the ref to do something but here Stephens tries to play on and no doubt assumes, when the ball is gone, Wilshere will let go. But he doesn't, he deliberately holds on and then adds insult to injury by yanking the player back as hard as he does. Did the referee ask himself why this was different if he hadn't seen the build up and if he had seen it, did he consider this when determining whether the reaction was excessive.

Stephens reacts angrily by pushing. He doesn't 'strike' Wilshere on the head or face. I doubt anyone would label it 'brutal' so perhaps it could be 'excessive force'. I'm not sure what is considered reasonable force to be used when not challenging for the ball, but its fair to say pushing someone over forcefully may be excessive. But are Wilshere's actions not excessive by the same assessment? Wilshere is not trying to win the ball, and his actions go beyond a bit of shirt pulling. He is reacting angrily to giving the ball away and then to Stephens holding him off. So is, after the ball has long gone, dragging a player back by the shirt so hard that the player not only stops but spins round, and could arguably have been hauled to the ground, with his shirt torn excessive force? Or is that just a part of the game? It's a physical sport after all. Why was a push deemed worse than a pull?

It is right that referees do allow a certain low level of irritation and reaction to things in a game as this is high stakes competitive sport, but if a player crosses the line and risks injuring another player than he must be punished. Fine. That's perfectly sensible, but was either player really at risk of injuring the other on Sunday? Were the players about to start fighting? No. It all cooled down pretty quickly as after the push, despite Wilshere getting up and giving Stephens an earful, they did the usual squaring up but no punches were thrown and the other players and referee broke things up. It was handbags.

The push shouldn't be condoned but nor should harrying and deliberately fouling a player, beyond the usual boundaries of cynical, just because you're cross with yourself. We have seen referees deal with these sorts of situations with far more common sense. Give them a talking to, acknowledge the importance of the game, the stage of the game and what is at stake, the provocation and, as grappling and pushing has ensued, card them both and give them a clear warning. Don't send one off and leave the instigator to play on with only a yellow. That only risks causing more retribution or ill feeling in a game that before then had been placid.

Whilst I disagree with the sending off, I don't see Saints appealing. MH accepted Stephens was wrong to react as he did, but nobody will sanction Wilshere for his reaction which was the catalyst.

1.) 10 Apr 2018
10 Apr 2018 05:32:36
Whiltshire is a wind up merchant and there were niggles
Being gifted around as soon as he come on
Will be a blow for the team but we have to just settle for ithe decision and keep going
Can’t understand why he never got a red either wired decision.

2.) 10 Apr 2018
10 Apr 2018 14:52:30
I don't think we can have too many complaints about the red. You're right about the rules, but Stephens knows how the rules are interpreted and that these days, for better or for worse, that kind of thing is going to get you sent off. I wish that wasn't the case, but it is.

I do agree though, why on earth was wilshere not sent off for that. Yellow card for the initial cynical shirt tug, and then ripping the shirt off him at the end was at least a yellow in itself as well. I thought the ref had a really poor game all things considered; lots of smaller decisions going the wrong way (for and against us) . Although I suppose there's a case to be made that he handled the situation at the end by the book, I don't think it's too much to ask that the best referees in the nation apply a bit of common sense to these situations. What Wilshere did was unbelievably cynical, aggressive and the sort of thing we need out of our game. What Stephens did was nothing more than a little hotheaded.