Referees Cannot Be Consistent and Use Common Sense

Consistency – noun. Steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form etc. 

Common sense – noun. Sound practical judgement that is independent of specialised knowledge, training or the like; normal native intelligence. 

Vincent Kompany had no idea that when he went in for a sliding tackle on Nani within 12 minutes of his side’s FA Cup derby tie that he would be setting the agenda for the next footballing week. That lunge, the controversial red card and the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he debate that followed dragged on well in to the week and in to this weekend. Every single sliding tackle – even when clean and legal – was met with a sharp intake of breath from the crowd; commentators and pundits cluck-clucking about “the current climate” and everyone pontificating on “consistency”, “common sense” and demanding clarification of what is and what is not a red card.

Since Kompany’s sending off we’ve seen Glen Johnson get away with a similar challenge in the League Cup semi final in midweek, Woodgate and Shawcross get away with one yellow card between them for reckless lunges for Stoke and Zat Knight avoid a red despite giving away a penalty for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity for Bolton against Man Utd (though with a push, not a slide tackle) this weekend. Those are just the big incidents, doubtless each game this weekend has contained its own slide tackle and/or red card debate. It’s the hot topic at the moment and everyone’s weighing in. The problem is not all the arguments made make a lot of sense…

Let’s take the main one we hear: we want consistency and common sense from referees. BBC 5Live’s whiner-in-chief Alan Green led the charge on this one, but Alex Ferguson also weighed in following his side’s win over Bolton, seeking clarification of what is and what is not a red card due to a lack of consistent decisions. The problem with demanding consistency and common sense should be obvious, but here it is in black and white anyway: it’s impossible to have both.

If referees are to be consistent then they must abide by the law to the letter. No interpretations depending on the circumstances, no letting anything slide. In short, no common sense. If referees are to apply common sense then they cannot be consistent. Different referees will see things differently, decisions on similar infringements will vary from game to game, and sometimes within the same game. You can have consistency, or you can have common sense, but you cannot have both because the two are incompatible.

As such, controversies like the Kompany red card will continue to happen. The referee interpreted the laws of the game and adjudged that the Manchester City defender made a reckless, two-footed challenge that endangered his opponent (after all, had Nani not avoided the challenge he could have been injured – must a player suffer a broken leg to justify a red card?) even though the ball was won and it did not seem there was any intent by the Belgian to harm his opponent. In yesterday’s Liverpool vs. Stoke game, Howard Webb adjudged that a similar challenge by Woodgate on Stewart Downing was worthy of only a free kick and nothing more. Again, the lunge was reckless and could have caused injury; again it was an honest attempt to win the ball. While Chris Foy leaned towards the side of the argument that said Kompany’s challenge was dangerous, Webb leaned towards the side that said Woodgate’s indiscretion was not made with intent to harm. The law lends itself to be interpreted either way by the referee in question. Both Foy and Webb used their common sense and came up with different answers.

By the letter of the law Kompany’s red was justified. So, then, would have been a red for Woodgate. And Johnson. And doubtless numerous others who have performed potentially dangerous slide tackles in the past week. Consistency from referees would have been reds for all. Common sense from referees would mean reds for some (if any). So which do we want? We must decide, because we cannot have both.