During the north London derby on Sunday afternoon, you may have noticed Jan Vertonghen tug on the shirt of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka in the Tottenham penalty box as the ball came over from a corner. This time last year, we may not have thought too much about it afterwards, but thanks to a new start of season initiative to penalise shirt pulling in the box – and its application, most notably by Mike Dean, in the first few weeks of the campaign – you may have heard BT Sport’s commentators wonder what on Earth had happened to that new direction given to referees.
‘It seems to have died a death,’ remarked main commentator Darren Fletcher, whilst co-commentator Steve McManaman lamented, ‘I liked it when they gave penalties for those,’ as though pining for some far off erstwhile reality in which Mike Dean was a figure of reason and hope.
Whether or not you think that ‘grappling’ should be worthy of a penalty or not, we can probably all get behind the idea that two months ago, that Vertonghen shirt pull would have been penalised – or at the very least, been the catalyst for a moan about the consistency of refereeing.
So, what happened?
The new initiative was talked about at the start of the season, before it all kicked off in Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium on the second weekend of the season. That, at least, meant that players knew the risks they were taking before they did it.
The difference the application made – two penalties given in that City Stoke game – was drastic, and it seemed to make Mark Hughes change Stoke’s approach to dealing with set plays. They switched to marking zonally for a few games, presumably to prevent Ryan Shawcross from grabbing hold of a man he was supposed to be marking.
But recently that crack down does indeed seem to have ‘died a death’ since then. Stoke and champions Leicester City, who had been some of the most high profile offenders in that area last season are now starting to pick up more points than they did at the start of the season (that’s probably not solely due to the relaxation of the rule, but both sides did concede heavily from set-pieces at the start of the season, and perhaps the fact that penalties aren’t being given as readily means they are more confident at dealing with corners and free kicks as a result).
There’s no doubt that it was farcical at the start, but perhaps that’s the problem with making change when it comes to any of football’s ills. If you give red cards for diving, or if you give penalties for shirt pulling, what you’re trying to do is stamp out a side of the game no one wants to see. Cruel punishments in the short term to make the game kinder in the long run.
The problem isn’t with the theory, though. Remember that in England, referees don’t come out after the game to explain themselves, they come to referee the game and stay away from the spotlight. Only, any dodgy call thrusts them directly into the spotlight without any chance to defend themselves – and anger only breeds more anger.
We can’t stamp out the things we hate about the game until we give referees more respect, or until we stop fetishising their mistakes. It’s time to grow up. It is too easy for fans and media cheerleaders to blame their team’s defeat on a dodgy decision – referees are humans and make mistakes, just like footballers do in every game. When footballers make mistakes, we criticise them and that’s fair enough: but we don’t hang them out to dry in the same way as we do with referees, and we almost always try to explain why they did what they did, even if it doesn’t excuse them. We do not afford the same respect or understanding to referees when we criticise them
The media scrutiny and the pressure on referees to be robots and get every decision right without recourse to the technology that ‘rips the soul out of the game’ is why bad things happen to good initiatives. This is why we can’t have nice things.