LIAM MACKEY: A big hand for the referee

COMING up to two years on from the hand that rocked the world, and there’s still no getting away from it.

In my hotel room in Tallinn the other night, I was casually channel hopping when up popped Ruud Gullit running the rule over the European Championship play-offs. “Estonia v Ireland, Ruud?” Big smile. “I just hope this one is not decided by a handball.” Cue laughter all around.

As if he needed any further reminding, Damien Duff had a particular reason to relive Paris recently, since our old friend Martin Hansson happened to be the man in the middle for Fulham’s 0-1 Europa League away defeat by Wisla Krakow. The game wasn’t without its refereeing talking point either, Hansson having seen fit to send a player off from each side but, given the Duffer’s long established practice of media body-swerving we have no idea if he took the opportunity to gently remind the Swede about the last time they’d shared a football pitch.

Personally, I’m glad to see Hansson is still whistling away. A nation might have suffered greatly – and whinged even more – as a result of the ‘Hand Of Gaul’, but the poor old ref hardly escaped unscathed.

It was a half an hour after the game ended in the Stade de France that Hansson realised the magnitude of his error – and broke down and cried in his changing room. And it was months later before the part-time firefighter could bring himself reveal what it was like to be caught in the backblast.

“The media was in my small village ,” he said. “They took photos of my parents’ house, they were knocking on my neighbours’ doors in the middle of the night. Then, I had to think if it was really worth being a referee.”

Nor did he get much sympathy from his own folk. Here’s what a writer for a leading Swedish paper had to say afterwards: “There are millions of Irishmen around the world. We guarantee they all feel pretty bad today. But I sincerely hope there are three Swedes that feel even worse. They are Martin Hansson and (referee’s assistants) Stefan Wittberg and Fredrik Nilsson. There will be no World Cup for Ireland and I assume that Team Hansson has also forfeited its right to continue to take charge of major international matches. Anything else would be a further insult to the Irish nation.”

On the home front, the ref was again cast in a harsh spotlight after last weekend’s FAI Cup final saw Richie Winter criticised for showing a red card to Shelbourne’s Barry Clancy. Where Martin Hansson’s was a sin of omission, Winter’s was a sin of commission – he saw a blatant dive by the Shels man whereas most everyone else saw the player go down in the box after Sligo’s John Russell had leaned into him.

It was later suggested in some quarters that Winter wanted to put himself centre stage on the big occasion, an oft-heard criticism of whistlers in the modern game. I don’t buy into that, at all. Martin Hansson’s ordeal should be evidence enough that there is nothing to be gained by a referee making a contentious decision simply to make headlines. As far as I’m concerned, Richie Winter was convinced in his own mind that Clancy was guilty of simulation and, having shown him a yellow card just a couple of minutes earlier, felt he had no alternative but to produce another and send him to the line.

In other words, it was a bad call rather than a malicious one, and all the more unfortunate because its significance impacted so hugely on proceedings that it can be rightly regarded as the game-changing moment which tilted the cup final away from Shels in favour of Sligo.

But, rather than lambasting the ref, I’d focus my criticism on those tasked with guarding the guards. In an effort to “clean up” football and achieve something close to the refereeing consistency which managers are always demanding, it seems to me that the powers that be have left little or no room for the application of something which used to be regarded as arguably the most important weapon in a ref’s armoury – commonsense. A case in point: had it been possible to apply the spirit of the game rather than the letter of the law in the Barry Clancy incident, then play could have been waved on – and maybe a word had in the ear, if that was deemed necessary – and a wonderfully promising FAI Cup final might have gone on to be memorable for everything other than a refereeing intervention.

In Paris, Hansson didn’t see something that was there; in Dublin, Richie Winter saw something that wasn’t there. What ultimately unites the two incidents, of course, is that literally seconds after they’d both occurred, television viewers, hundreds and even thousands of miles from the action, could see clearly to the truth of each. Yep, sad to say, we’re back to our battered old hobby horse of the need for FIFA to embrace technology. But, maddeningly, two years after the ‘Hand Of Gaul’, they’re still refusing to give the biggest hand possible to the men who need it most.

* liammackey@hotmail.com



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