As Premier League title holders Manchester City found a way to burst Southampton’s bubble at St Mary’s yesterday, as they eventually ran out convincing winners by three goals to nil, a side issue in the game was once more brought into sharp focus as Sergio Aguero was booked for (apparent) ‘simulation’. In the greater scheme of things it mattered little on the day as second-half goals from Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard and Gael Clichy clinched City’s victory for the ten men, as Eliaquim Mangala saw red for them late on.  

The game was interestingly poised and goalless at the time, when Aguero looked to have his legs taken from under him by Jose Fonte inside the penalty box. The referee, Mike Jones decided otherwise and immediately brandished a yellow card, to indicate that in his belief the Argentinian had exaggerated any contact he had felt in an attempt to gain a penalty unfairly. Replays were equally convincing in backing the striker’s claims that he had been fouled but one wonders if the booking will now be challenged and ultimately rescinded.

It does highlight a conundrum for referees, especially at the top level of Football, where the action is often non-stop and breathless. As the ball fizzes around the pitch at a speed akin to the top computer games, how can the referee be sure that his instant decision is always the right one, and how can he ensure that he makes the correct decision on a split second event that could determine the outcome of the game there and then? Luckily the decision made by Mr Jones was not match changing this time, but it seems that each week there is one (or more) game(s) where a contentious penalty decision is either given or not.

Earlier this season there was the alleged dive by Everton’s up and coming midfielder, Ross Barkley, in the game against West Ham, which replays suggested was a clear ‘simulation’ and has been highlighted by many footballing pundits as an example of something that they do not want to see creep into the game. His manager, Roberto Martinez defended the incident at the time as an example of a skillful player anticipating a strong challenge and avoiding contact. Clearly even the interpretation of such acts depends on the viewpoint of the observer.

Should referees be seen to be clear on their decision to make rapid decisions in such instances or should there be a way to somehow temporarily halt the game while he / she consults with a fourth official or one of the assistants on the touchline? Football’s ruling bodies seem opposed to the introduction of excessive usage of replays and extra ‘officialdom’ into the sport, as many other sports such as rugby and American football have embraced (sometimes over zealously), but surely they similarly do not want the main talking point after a big game to be the decision making by the referee.

The issue is not something totally unique to the last few years of course, although it often seems that players are often encouraged by their managers to look for contact in the box nowadays or to ensure that even the slightest touch by a defender is witnessed by the officials, through excessive theatrics and scenes that make the fans double check for ‘sniper fire’. There have even been interviews with managers after games where they have suggested that certain players have been “too honest” and sought to stay on their feet instead of falling over, surely an admirable trait and not something to be condoned. Neil Warnock, the Crystal Palace manager admitted as much after the game last month against Sunderland, when Fraizer Campbell went down inside the first minute but did not get the decision in his favour because he did not exaggerate the challenge from Santiago Vergini.

After yesterday’s events it seems that the murmurings will rumble on until a clearer guideline is issued and an approach is found to rule out the potential for human fallibility. Alternatively, maybe we just like to see something that we can discuss afterwards, so should leave it as it is? Another option would be to follow the example of Robbie Fowler back in 1997 in a game against Arsenal, where he initially seemed to have been fouled by David Seaman and the referee pointed to the spot. Fowler sprang to his feet to plead with the referee not to give the penalty and was warmly praised afterwards for his ‘sportsmanship’. Unfortunately, the plea fell on deaf ears, and although Fowler’s subsequent spot-kick was saved by Seaman, the rebound was scored by Liverpool teammate Jason McAteer and Liverpool went on to win the game. Fair play, but not perhaps a ‘fair’ outcome?
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