The very first article I wrote on The Tilehurst End over four years ago was about a referee. In fact, probably the first 20 articles I wrote were about referees, as I earned my stripes on the site by contributing our weekly ‘Ref Watch’, which previewed who would be officiating Reading’s game on each matchday.
The feature had probably ran it’s cause 18 months later when I stopped doing them, mainly as there’s only so much you can write about a referee for the third time. Since then, I haven’t felt obliged to comment much on the officials (sorry Ref Watch fans), and I’m often the last person to criticise them. This is largely due to the fact that I genuinely believe the referee has one of the hardest jobs on the field. They have to be incredibly fit, make tight decisions in the blink of an eye and control the game all whilst being hounded by supporters of both sides and often by players too. An ideal afternoon for a referee is a fixture that is incident free.
Sadly for Geoff Eltringham, the man in the middle as Reading hosted Aston Villa on Saturday, the game didn’t pass by without incident. Midway through the second half, the ball comes to Nelson Oliveira who flicks it over the head of Tyrone Mings, but the Villa defender manages to poke the ball away. As the pair both chase the ball down, Oliveira falls to the ground, halting the stride of Mings in the process and the defender’s right boot comes clattering down on Oliveira’s face. Debate can rage on about whether he meant for this to happen or not, but the incident caused the Reading striker to be substituted and images have since circulated on social media showing the extent of injury he suffered.
The coming together has been a hot topic since, with a retrospective ban for Mings speculated as the likely outcome. However on Monday, Reading confirmed that no action would be taken, with an official statement reading:
“As a club, we ensured that the referee & the FA were fully aware of an incident during Saturday’s match which caused injury to our striker, Nélson Oliveira. But as the incident was seen by the ref at the time, we understand no retrospective action can or will be taken by the FA.”
My sympathy for referees means I don’t think Geoff Eltringham is entirely to blame for this. The issue lies with the Football Association, who’s retrospective action rules are inconsistent and quite frankly not fit for purpose.
The FA formerly held a view that if an off the ball incident was seen by the referee, who took no action at the time, then no subsequent action could be taken. Only incidents that had not been seen by officials could result in retrospective bans. This changed in 2013, and under the current laws, retrospective action can be taken following “off-the-ball incidents where one or more match official did see the players coming together, but the match officials’ view was such that none of them had the opportunity to make a decision on an act of misconduct that took place within that coming together”. Speaking about the new rule, the then FA Director of Governance Darren Bailey said:
“This enables The FA to consider acts of violent conduct, like an elbow or a stamp, which have occurred after a challenge for the ball or coming together of players.
”It is sometimes difficult for officials to see such incidents, as they are often concentrating solely on the challenge for possession of the ball, and we are mindful of this. Also, where off-the-ball incidents are concerned, the policy adjustment will allow action to be taken where an act of misconduct could not have been seen by the match officials, even though they may have seen some part of the players coming together.”
In truth, this is all a load of waffle, but what Bailey essentially means is that incidents can be reviewed if the officials’ view of situations is impaired or not fully clear.
Sadly we can’t see from the one camera angle we have on the incident (more on that in a minute) what the view of the referee was. To my mind, if Eltringham had a clear view of what happened, he would have stopped play immediately and not waited for Mings, to his credit, to alert him to Oliveira’s discomfort before blowing his whistle. Head injuries are a huge worry in football at the moment, and the fact that Eltringham didn’t stop play when Oliveira is clearly clutching his head in some pain is slightly concerning.
If he didn’t see Oliveira holding his head, then I hardly think he would have had a clear view of the incident. But that’s seemingly what he noted in his report, which whilst hard to comprehend, means that that’s where his involvement in the situation ends.
It’s also, according to the FA rules, where the situation ends entirely. That’s where the problem lies. Intentionally or not, Mings’ boot hospitalised Oliveira for two days and was centimetres away from blinding him. But just because the referee didn’t see any harm in real time, the FA see it as a box ticked and case closed. It’s an archaic way of dealing with matters, treating every incident as the same and not considering each one individually. A boot landing on a a player’s face is pretty serious, it’s not as if it happens every weekend. Surely the whole idea of taking ‘retrospective’ action is to take a full look back on events and their consequences? VAR anyone?
The fact that the FA judge an incident that has resulted in one player being left with a serious head injury as not worthy of further investigation does not reflect well on them at all.
This is of course not the first time Mings has been accused of stamping on an opponent’s head, with the defender being involved in a similar incident whilst playing for Bournemouth against Manchester United in 2017 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic being the ‘victim’ on that occasion. No action was taken by referee Kevin Friend at the time, but in an interview with the Guardian, Mings recalls what Friend said to him at half-time:
“The referee said something to me as the second half started, saying: ‘It will probably get reviewed.’ I said: ‘What will get reviewed?’ He said: ‘The stamp on his head.’”
To know it was a stamp, Friend must have seen the incident clearly and presumably included it in his report. Yet it was still looked into and Mings was handed a five game ban. The difference between that and what happened on Saturday? It involved one of the biggest clubs in the world and a global football superstar, was live on television and had multiple camera angles showing just what had gone on. Put simply, it comes across as incredibly bias towards the Premier League.
We won’t find out what Kevin Friend wrote in his referee’s report two years ago, nor will we know just how Geoff Eltringham described what happened on Saturday afternoon. We won’t know why the FA treat incidents as so black and white. But this lack of transparency, fairness and clarity showcases gaping wholes in the way the governing body is run.