An old friend’s calling card

As I sat on my sofa on Tuesday evening for the much hyped and eagerly anticipated second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid, I spotted a very familiar face as Nemanja Vidic and Sergio Ramos met in the centre circle for the traditional coin toss — it was none other than my good friend, Cuneyt Cakir, the referee who sent me off in the final few minutes of our match against Italy in Poznan at Euro 2012.

An old friend’s calling card

Needless to say, myself and Mr Cakir haven’t stayed in touch since the summer but I have to admit I was intrigued to see how he would deal with such a huge encounter between two of the biggest clubs on the planet.

The shock news before kick off was that Wayne Rooney had been left out of United’s starting line-up, a decision which really took me by surprise as I’m a big fan of his. I felt a lot of sympathy for him the other night because sometimes I think his unselfishness and team-player ethos actually works against him. Last season he was Manchester United’s talisman and led the line to great effect, contributing a serious amount of goals. This season, with the arrival of Robin van Persie, he has had to play a number of different roles and, if he doesn’t affect the game in the way he is capable of — like when he played right wing at the Bernabeu in the first leg — then, much to my bemusement, fans and pundits seem very quick to criticise him.

Only last Saturday at Old Trafford against Norwich he started the game playing off van Persie but, after the latter’s withdrawal on the hour, Rooney pushed further forward to play the lone striker role to devastating effect — setting Kagawa up twice and then scoring a contender for goal of the season.

Normally I wouldn’t be one to jump to conclusions but given Alex Ferguson’s track record in cases like this — think David Beckham, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Jaap Stam and Paul Ince — it’ll be interesting to see how Rooney’s position at Old Trafford pans out in the coming months.

For all that, it has to be said that Alex’s tactics and team selection looked to be perfect against Madrid. He employed Danny Welbeck as a second striker to support van Persie when United went forward but his main task was to stop Xabi Alonso starting Madrid’s attacks — which he did diligently and much to the annoyance of Alonso. The game plan was working well and when United took the lead through a Sergio Ramos own goal just after half-time, it was clear that they were in firm control of this tie.

Obviously, that all changed in the 57th minute when Nani tried to control a clearance from Patrice Evra but succeeded only in catching Alvaro Arbeloa waist high with his studs. But since Nani had his eyes firmly on the ball as it came over his shoulder, he couldn’t have been aware of the onrushing defender, so the contact with the Madrid man was clearly unintentional. Yet, after a delay for the players to receive some treatment, the whole stadium looked on in astonishment as the referee produced a red card.

I thought Gary Neville summed it up quite well when he tweeted: “Been going to OT since age of 5 and I’ve never seen the whole ground as in disbelief as they were last night at a decision! Nani is a player who regularly tries to control a pass like this over his shoulder and it’s never a red card! Changed the whole game! Poor ref. The crowd actually weren’t angry/weren’t shouting, they were just open mouthed and in shock!”

My initial instinct, as I said on TV3 the other night, was that it was probably a red card but on reflection I think that yellow was the most that should be produced. In fact, Roy Keane seems the only person apart from the referee who still believes it was the right decision. Nevertheless, I think the referee, even in hindsight, and more importantly Uefa, will still believe it was right to show the red card as they will stick to the letter of the law. My view, is that with this being a slightly grey area, the referee should have used commonsense and issued a yellow.

The main reason I say this is because, during our pre-European Championship training camp in Italy, a certain Pierre Luigi Collina came to talk us through the rules and regulations of the upcoming tournament and, in particular, to alert us to what referees had been told to clamp down on. During this meeting he showed us some incidents and wanted our feedback as to whether we felt it was a free kick or maybe a yellow or even a red card. To say the players and Mr Collina’s views differed slightly would be a big understatement. He simply couldn’t comprehend where we were coming from on certain clips — and vice versa.

So I should have known trouble lay ahead for me in Poland! European referees are very different to the ones in the Premier League — you know you can’t get away with certain things in European games that maybe refs in England might let go.

The best referees are the ones you don’t even notice, the ones you rarely talk about in the pub afterwards. In my experience, referees like Howard Webb, Chris Foy and previously Dermot Gallagher were fantastic. They communicated with players, sometimes admitting they’d got their decision wrong or telling you to be careful as, the next time you put a foot out of line, you’d be in the book. Players really appreciate that kind of openness.

I can forgive referees making mistakes — I make enough mistakes myself — as long as they are approachable and treat me with the same respect I give them. It’s when you can’t even talk to a referee or he completely ignores you that inevitably it’s going to wind you up and create animosity. It’s all well and good sticking rigidly to the rule book but I believe that referees have to improve on player management in the interests of fostering the kind of mutual respect that can only be good for the game.

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