And so an Old Trafford old boy came back to haunt his old team on Tuesday night. And, no, don’t be silly, I’m not talking about Ronaldo. He merely scored the winning goal.
It was Roy Keane, we are meant to believe, who did far greater damage to his former employers, by heaping liberal quantities of salt into a fresh and gaping wound.
No matter Keane had put in a routine, even pedestrian shift for most of the night. Once he’d laid his own killer ace on the table in response to Cuneyt Cakir’s red card, cyberspace almost exploded with outrage, indignation and highly personal vilification — though I suspect Keano’s attitude to being terrorised by tweets would most likely echo Denis Healy’s famous description of a verbal attack on him by Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons: “Like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
The pity wasn’t what the rest said afterwards but what Lee Dixon and Gareth Southgate failed to say to Keane in studio. Both of his fellow panellists believed the red card decision had been incorrect but, in the face of Keane’s declaration that it wasn’t — and the steely conviction with which he expressed that view — the pair simply folded like a cheap deckchair.
No doubt, ITV sports bosses were delighted with the subsequent furore, Roy igniting just the sort of water-cooler controversy they presumably had in mind when they signed him up as a pundit.
But, for those of us on this side of the Irish Sea, the sense of an opportunity lost was palpable. To imagine just how much more compelling Tuesday night might have been on the box, simply substitute the names Dunphy and Giles for Dixon and Southgate and, well, I hardly need to spell out the ravishing ding-dong possibilities, do I? As it happens, I appear to be in a minority in thinking that Gareth Southgate, intelligent and astute, is one of the best of a generally bad lot in the punditry stakes in Britain, though I can understand why his soft-spoken delivery might not be to the taste of those with a craving for raw meat.
His seeming reluctance to go mano a mano with Keano in the heat of an altogether too one-sided studio battle might also explain why it wasn’t until the comparatively relaxed and reflective atmosphere of the channel’s highlights show an hour or so later that Southgate got to raise a germane point which it would have been very interesting to see fielded by our man Roy.
Somewhat annoyingly, it was an observation which I intended to offer as my own contribution to the great debate this week but Southgate beat me to the punch. His point concerned the overhead kick and if, by officialdom’s definition of what constitutes dangerous play — as now given the Roy seal of approval — it follows that it should be a red card offence, especially where the boot of an upside down striker comes in contact with the head of an upright defender.
After all, there can be no clearer case of foot up in the game — the foot being about as up as the law of gravity will allow — so when, for example, Wayne Rooney (remember him?) scored that wonder goal in the Manchester derby, instead of hailing it as one of the great moments in football, maybe we should all have been reflecting on how fortunate he was not to have decapitated someone, had the goal disallowed and received a red card, especially bearing in mind that, up around City’s penalty area, he should have been possessed of an even greater awareness than Nani that, to paraphrase Keano, there was likely to be an opponent within 20 yards of himself.
But, no, football doesn’t condemn the overhead kick or even condone it. Rightly, it celebrates it as a supreme example of technique, timing unique to the world’s greatest game — though, yes, it is clearly potentially dangerous to an opponent and, on the basis of painfully embarrassing memories of attempting the thing in my youth, most definitely to oneself.
For that matter, consider something even more routine in football: the striker stretching to convert from close range as the keeper dives at his feet. (Sorry, that should read “bravely dives at his feet”, of course). By definition, there’s danger here, as George would say, but if the act was punishable with a red card, not only would there be fewer poacher’s goals but the noble concept of the keeper as a mad person would fade into history.
All of which is by way of saying that absence of intent is not an irrelevance — and nowhere in the rulebook is there any suggestion that it is. Rather, when challenging for a ball, a red card, we are informed, is deemed appropriate where “the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring an opponent”.
No-one can seriously suggest that Nani was guilty of ” exceeding the necessary use of force” in doing what he was attempting to do on Tuesday night — which, clearly, was to trap the ball. (Here again I seem to recall being guilty of just such excessive force when attempting to master the same skill in my playing days). What happened when Arbeloa suddenly appeared on the scene can only be described as an accidental collision — and if such is now to be deemed a sending off offence, then fellas who clash heads are in for a rude awakening the next time they come ‘round.