The Football Association rejected Queens Park Rangers appeal of the red card handed down to Joey Barton against Norwich City, choosing rigid defence of their referee over a fair evaluation of the facts at hand.
The spectacle that unfolded at Loftus Road Monday was an demonstration of the worst kind of refereeing imaginable - a combustible mix of wanton fouls ignored, slight touches chastised and an unseen event that was heavily lobbied to get a player sent off. There is a human element to officiating that has and will always be part of the game, but the after-action review by the FA and its decision to uphold a phantom foul is a poor reflection on the body's ability to objectively judge contentious events in the game.
The incident that led to the sending off was fairly routine - throughout a testy match that was physical and fast-paced at both ends, Barton and Bradley Johnson had been shoving and elbowing one another for the better part of the opening half-hour. Lining up off the ball after a re-start, they began exchanging and jostling for position. As Barton turned to get into his face about it, Johnson leaned close and then theatrically lept back as if struck by a Zidane-style headbutt. Play continued for a moment before referee Neil Swarbrick whistled play dead and consulted his assistant on the touchline.
A scrum of arguing and solicitation followed, as Norwich players shoved QPR men out of shouting distance and harangued the ref to avenge their man's supposed injury. Shortly thereafter a card was produced, Barton was off, and the tide began to turn against QPR. Their own part in the resulting loss is a separate matter, but the removal of a key player factored in greatly and contributed to turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss for the Super Hoops. Whether his absence was the sole result is debatable - QPR made some noise later in the game and had the opportunity to carve a point or more out of this match, but also mixed their usually porous defending in to keep the game open. Norwich equalised before the half and the stoop in the R's shoulders said enough - the momentum had swung against them. After a spirited start to the second half, Paul Lambert took the unusual step of bringing three new faces on at once, a tactical move that would pay off late as Steve Morrison scored late to put the game away. The R's faded down the stretch and dropped a crucial three points in their fight for Premier League survival.
QPR's decision to argue the call post-match was the right one. Certainly as a blogger focused on the club, I will be accused of biased view and to a degree that's fair. But looking at the tape objectively, there appears to be no contact, and certainly no "intent to headbutt," the laughable offence Barton was officially charged with. Had he reared back, thrust is noggin forward and just missed contact like another of his wayward free kicks, I'd be lambasting him in this space and calling for the ban to be enforced. Rather, he was merely in Johnson's face as tends to happen in a game where the ref fails to acknowledge or do anything about flagrant fouls and niggling elbows and shin-kicks. The angle is bad and the quality poor, but you can see daylight between the two players throughout the incident, as Barton approaches him and then as Johnson emphatically jerks away, playing the poor pitiable victim. An innocent bystander, minding his own business when this rampaging beast of a footballer marched up and head thwacked him in broad daylight. And to think, the referee initially let play go on.
Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of Barton complaining about such a flagrant embellishment, after he did virtually the same thing to get Gervinho sent off on opening day while he was still at Newcastle. Karma seems to have exacted its revenge here, and I would say that in that case, the ref got it wrong and Barton should have been carded for diving. But as the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right, and the ref getting cajoled and talked into sending him away by the Norwich players is an atrocious miscarriage of his position. I don't envy them their work - standing in front of 20,000 screamers and telling them their man did the dirt is no easy thing and I respect the majority of refs who do a fine job. The system failed here though, and with the passage of time and ability to review the actual event, the FA should have reversed what appears to have been a very bad call. Instead they backed their man, upholding the on field decision which will cost the QPR midfielder three games.
Warnock's commentary on the state of officiating was spot on - a qualified and respected referee like Phil Dowd standing on the touchline as fourth official is a waste, when moments like these affect the outcome of important games. There are no guarantees QPR would have kept their lead, but there was a definite change when they went to ten men and the outcome was not a shock with the way things unfolded. Officials have a hard job, but the expectations that they call a game consistently are legitimate, and they failed at that task on this day. Hopefully the long term implications of the errors put forth here will be nil, but there is a real concern that the points dropped by QPR Monday will be costly going forward.
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