I never thought I’d write a sentence like this, but here goes: “Well done Howard Webb – you refereed really well at the weekend.”
It’s probably not a sentiment Webb hears all that often, particularly from a supporter of a team whose game he has just reffed.
Despite being recognised by the international footballing authorities as one of the finest referees of his generation, Webb has always come in for stick from English fans.
From the suggestion that he started shaving his head to avoid tickling Sir Alex’s back passage on the way in, to an alleged bias in favour of clubs from his native North of England the former copper has faced plenty of abuse over the years.
So the fuss surrounding his failure to award a second penalty to the Diving Uruguayan on Sunday will be like orange sauce off a duck’s back to him.
And, in this case, so it should be.
Let’s start with the context.
Arsenal v Liverpool in the FA Cup was a very good game of football played with plenty of commitment.
Liverpool had the confidence of having thrashed us just a week earlier and of being one of the form teams in the Premier League; we, on the other hand, had the incentive of getting revenge, putting our season back on track and making more than a few media pundits Neknominate their words.
I thought Webb handled the match well, showing some early yellow cards to stop things getting too overheated but generally allowing the game to flow.
And so to the big decisions that have brought him so much criticism in the last 48 hours (the Daily Mirror’s headline was: “Howard Webb Escapes Demotion Over His FA Cup Stinker”):
First there was Suarez dive Number One: Podolski undoubtedly tapped the Uruguayan’s ankle but, as someone said in comments yesterday, anywhere else on the pitch Suarez would have stayed on his feet. You can also see from replays that the Scouser threw himself to the ground a split second after the contact – not in the instantaneous way that would have happened had his fall been genuine.
Even so, I have no quibble with the award of the penalty. Podolski caught Suarez’s ankle, however lightly, and Webb was right to point to the spot. However, I also feel that Webb knew that Suarez has bought the penalty to some extent by exaggerating his reaction to the contact.
Then we come to Suarez’s second penalty appeal when the Liverpool striker toe-ended the ball away from himself (and away from goal) and Oxlade-Chamberlain clattered into him from the side.
It was a clumsy effort by The Ox, and even though Suarez had lost control of the ball there is a strong argument it was a penalty. (I also think there is an argument for it being a “coming together” and not a foul at all, but I may be alone in that interpretation).
What stopped it being a penalty (in my opinion) was Suarez’s impression of a freshly caught marlin on the deck of a fishing boat.
It was such a fake, over-the-top and comical piece of physical theatre that it must have sowed a seed of doubt in Webb’s mind as to whether Oxo’s contact merited a penalty at all. In the split second the ref had to make his decision, the Uruguayan’s fakery probably swayed the issue. Look at it from the ref’s point of view: if a player is clearly play-acting for part of an incident, how can you be certain he wasn’t play-acting for all of it?
Ironically if Suarez had just gone down naturally he might well have got the decision.
There were a couple of other controversial moments. We could have had a penalty when Skrtel caught Santi Cazorla’s foot with a high and late challenge in the Liverpool box. As the saying goes, “anywhere else on the pitch it would have been a foul,” and that may be true. But it would have been a bit of a harsh penalty (the ball had already eluded Santi before he was clobbered and Skrtel was going for the ball).
Finally, there was the argument that Steven Gerrard should have received a second yellow for a tackle on Oxo. Well, maybe. To be honest it was the sort of foul that sometimes results in a booking and sometimes doesn’t. This time it was not a booking and also not a big deal. I feel Arsenal supporters have been stoking up the outrage on this one purely to counter the Scouse squeals of victimhood over the Suarez non-penalty.
Webb also had a nice moment when Sterling “put hands” on him while disputing a decision. It was a chance for the referee to engage in his own bit of over-acting, feigning outrage and having a stiff word with the player and his captain.
All in all, “Fergie’s Rent Boy” had a good day and played his part in an excellent game of football with a particularly excellent outcome.
But Howard, don’t get carried away: it was only one game and in the balance of things you still owe us at least another 10 dodgy decisions in our favour to make up for all those years of being the 12th man at Old Toilet.