Webb’s words must be heeded for the sake of a footballer’s safety

Bolton Wanderer's Fabrice MuambaWhen Howard Webb speaks, you should listen. Firstly, he’s bigger than you. Second, he used to be a copper. Third of all, he has the widest breadth of knowledge and irrefutable authority over all matters relating to the regulation, implementation and monitoring of football’s moral and technical laws.

Besides being the finest referee to emerge from our shores in recent times, Webb in the past two years has also been involved in what can only be seen as career-defining moments which have shaped the man who has risen from the Northern Counties league to the very pinnacle of the game: the 2010 World Cup Final, and the FA Cup tie between Tottenham and Bolton on March 17th of this year.

Webb witnessed the most extreme variants of footballing conduct in these two games, from Holland’s martial demolition of Spanish limbs to the utter despair as grown men wept and paramedics fought for the stricken Fabrice Muamba at White Hart Lane. In both instances, Webb was adjudged to have handled the situation with impeccable dignity in unrelenting circumstances. In spite of only punishing Nigel De Jong’s reckless chest-level lunge on Xabi Alonso with a yellow, Webb was able to keep the world’s footballing spectacle respectable as all those around him did their best to do the opposite.

Similarly, Webb was infallible in his timing, execution and response to Muamba’s on-field cardiac arrest. Immediately stopping play to allow for medical aid as well as permitting spectator and cardiologist Andrew Deaner onto the field undoubtedly contributed to Muamba’s survival, whilst liaising with captains and managers ensured a noble, refined and safe abandonment of the game.

As such, nobody in football is more qualified to speak on matters of such importance as Howard Webb. Speaking to the BBC recently, Webb vented his concerns in relations to play-acting players endangering the safety of players in genuine trouble whilst on the field of play. Webb insisted that “one of our obligations as a referee is to try and observe fair play and keep the game flowing when we can. But, if players cry wolf too many times, then there is a possibility that maybe we will not react in the way we need to do”, not only emphasising the precocious job of referees in handling players with apparent injuries, but also indicating the need for players to begin taking greater responsibility for their own actions during play.

Referees are now given the scope to apply individual acumen to instances of apparently injured players, where once it was regulatory to halt proceedings. With the majority of power accorded to the referee’s judgement, it is paramount that footballers begin to recognise their obligation to be honest, ethical and sincere on the field. Seemingly, the ill-discipline which characterises many player’s off-field actions has been transposed onto the pitch, where gaining an advantage by any means necessary is of higher importance than maintaining integrity.

Not one to be generally known for histrionics, it was apparent from the outset that Fabrice Muamba was in disturbing difficulty. The cardiac problems encountered by Muamba could strike any player, at any time, without warning – witness Piermario Morosini’s tragic death in Serie B just a month later, or former Southend and Stevenage winger Mitchell Cole’s forced retirement from the game at the age of 25 due to a serious heart condition.

Consequently, it is of vital importance that referees are able to distinguish between playacting and genuine injury; the impetus here, though, is on the players themselves. Referees are not mind readers, nor do they have x-ray vision. Players need to countenance the danger they are putting themselves and their colleagues in. An undiagnosed heart condition may be lurking within any of the Premier League’s most reputable simulators; if, god forbid, Luis Suarez or Ashley Young were to collapse on the field of play, who would blame a referee for continuing with play?  Webb claimed that “if the game had not been stopped within 20 or 30 seconds, that might have made a difference to his chances of recovery.” Footballers are only jeapordising their own safety by feigning injury.

As one of the most credible and authoritative figure in British football, Webb’s words cannot go unheeded. The case of Fabrice Muamba should be a rousing awakening for any player looking to stay down ‘hurt’ in order to hold up play. Referees can only do so much: honesty on behalf of professional footballers is of fundamental importance in ensuring that a similar scenario does not end in tragedy.

Are players play-acting too much in the modern game? How can we stop this? Tweet me @acherrie1