As Premier League title holders Manchester City found away to burst Southampton’s bubble at St Mary’s yesterday, as they eventually ranout convincing winners by three goals to nil, a side issue in the game was oncemore 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 goalsfrom Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard and Gael Clichy clinched City’s victory for theten men, as Eliaquim Mangala saw red for them late on.  

The game was interestingly poised and goalless at thetime, when Aguero looked to have his legs taken from under him by Jose Fonte insidethe penalty box.

The referee, Mike Jones decided otherwise and immediatelybrandished a yellow card, to indicate that in his belief the Argentinian hadexaggerated 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backing the striker’s claims that he hadbeen fouled but one wonders if the booking will now be challenged andultimately rescinded.

It does highlight a conundrum for referees, especially atthe 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 secondevent that could determine the outcome of the game there and then?

Luckily thedecision made by Mr Jones was not match changing this time, but it seems thateach week there is one (or more) game(s) where a contentious penalty decisionis either given or not.

Earlier this season there was the alleged dive by Everton’sup and coming midfielder, Ross Barkley, in the game against West Ham, which replayssuggested was a clear ‘simulation’ and has been highlighted by many footballingpundits as an example of something that they do not want to see creep into thegame.

His manager, Roberto Martinez defended the incident at the time as anexample of a skillful player anticipating a strong challenge and avoidingcontact. Clearly even the interpretation of such acts depends on the viewpointof the observer.

Should referees be seen to be clear on their decision tomake rapid decisions in such instances or should there be a way to somehowtemporarily halt the game while he / she consults with a fourth official or oneof the assistants on the touchline?

Football’s ruling bodies seem opposed to theintroduction of excessive usage of replays and extra ‘officialdom’ into thesport, as many other sports such as rugby and American football have embraced(sometimes over zealously), but surely they similarly do not want the maintalking point after a big game to be the decision making by the referee.

The issue is not something totally unique to the last fewyears of course, although it often seems that players are often encouraged bytheir managers to look for contact in the box nowadays or to ensure that eventhe slightest touch by a defender is witnessed by the officials, throughexcessive theatrics and scenes that make the fans double check for ‘sniper fire’.There have even been interviews with managers after games where they havesuggested that certain players have been “too honest” and sought to stay ontheir feet instead of falling over, surely an admirable trait and not somethingto be condoned.

Neil Warnock, the Crystal Palace manager admitted as much afterthe game last month against Sunderland, when Fraizer Campbell went down insidethe first minute but did not get the decision in his favour because he did notexaggerate the challenge from Santiago Vergini.

After yesterday’sevents it seems that the murmurings will rumble on until a clearer guideline isissued and an approach is found to rule out the potential for humanfallibility. Alternatively, maybe we just like to see something that we candiscuss afterwards, so should leave it as it is? Another option would be tofollow 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 pointedto the spot. Fowler sprang to his feet to plead with the referee not to givethe penalty and was warmly praised afterwards for his ‘sportsmanship’.Unfortunately, the plea fell on deaf ears, and although Fowler’s subsequentspot-kick was saved by Seaman, the rebound was scored by Liverpool teammate JasonMcAteer and Liverpool went on to win the game. Fair play, but not perhaps a ‘fair’outcome?