James Lawton: Flap over refereeing leaves the top flight looking amateurish
Published 16/01/2012 | 11:25
IT is no doubt reasonable to believe that, if Mark Hughes gets a little more than nominal financial support from the owners who cut the ground from beneath his predecessor Neil Warnock's feet, he should save Queen's Park Rangers.
Unfortunately, a couple of apparently unsolvable problems had re-appeared at the top of the Premier League agenda long before Hughes suffered his first debut defeat in a club managerial career distinguished, at the very least, by an impressive level of competence.
One concerned the unfathomable depths of mediocrity into which the League which claims to be the richest and most dynamic in the world game so often plunges so abruptly. The other could hardly be more basic. It is the mushroom cloud of controversy which builds, routinely now, from game to game, around something which used to be known as the simple art of tackling.
The latest example which put Newcastle's gifted and frequently combative Yohan Cabaye out of the game had consequences which you would like to think might just provoke the Football Association into something more resembling crisis mode. The fact Chris Foy – whose dismissal of Manchester City's Vincent Kompany led to the player's four-match suspension and an inevitable analysis of any challenge which doesn't involve the phrase, "after you, Claude" – was once again the presiding judge is guaranteed to increase the clamour.
The worst effects of the late lunge by QPR's Shaun Derry, which brought him a yellow card, were apparently delayed because he spent a little time on his feet gesticulating wildly before falling down again and calling for a stretcher.
After throwing down his gloves while being carried to the touchline, he then disappeared into the bowels of the stadium. We later learned his injuries were not as serious as feared and that he would be subject to a scan the following morning.
This is where, you have to believe, a furore is in danger of lapsing into farce – one which needs more attention than scatter-gun appraisal by individual referees.
Arguably the best solution so far is one offered at the weekend – not by some key administrator or the players union or the head of the referees professional body but a member of the fourth estate. The suggestion is that a Monday-morning video review should determine the appropriate disciplinary action, avoiding the current scandal of inconsistency in the levels of punishment meted out.
Of course, the trouble with this is that it might just imply that Mr Foy and his colleagues are not exactly divinely inspired every time they reach into their pockets for one card or the other.
This could only be a sticking point if you do indeed believe that the only really untouchable doctrine in football is the one that says the referee is always right.
For Newcastle, the consequences of Derry's action could have been a lot more severe. The arrival of Cabaye's replacement, Hatem Ben Arfa, for a while at least, sharply increased Newcastle's creative instincts after they had been all but oblitered by QPR's classic response to having someone new in the manager's office.
Shaun-Wright Phillips and Jay Bothroyd both struck the woodwork as Newcastle displayed something which resembled nothing so much as a stunning inertia.
Ben Arfa is the type of player who can drive a manager to distraction – brilliant one minute, carelessly cavalier the next – but there were moments yesterday when he was the game's nearest thing to redemption. He had a spark, an urge to pass the ball with bite and a degree of vision and, for a little while, his team-mates looked as if they had been less than stripped bare by the departure of Demba Ba and Cheick Tioté for service in the African theatre.
That inspirational role might have been the sole property of Ba's gifted replacement, Leon Best, who lapsed into more or less total irrelevance after scoring a winner of sublime touch and judgement. The statistics told us this was Newcastle's only direct strike on goal.
For the game, it was certainly its most engaging breath of life – and it was another reason to marvel a little later at the spirit and the football of Swansea City in their assault on Arsenal's declining role as the purveyors of English football's most beautiful football.
Newcastle have certainly this season made extraordinary progress from some of the worst of their futility but here, through the loss of two players, they were too often at a disturbing loss. They are challenging for Europe, nosing ahead of Liverpool, but for much of a deeply unsatisfactory match the best they could do was offer hope to a team fighting against the end of their brief life in what is supposed to be the big time of English football.
The reality, if you did not happen to be in Swansea, was that it was one which had rarely looked quite so diminished.