It should be hoped that Sunday’s five minute spell of madness at Old Trafford is one day seen as a tipping point in the relationship between players and the referees but the likelihood is that it won’t be.
Sunday’s chaos – that saw two Fulham players and manager Marco Silva sent off in the space of 40 seconds – will be looked back on as an anomaly and that is perhaps the greatest shame.
The abuse of referees and their assistants is endemic in the Premier League and all the way down the football pyramid. Who, for example, would want to be a fourth official now that substitutes, managers and coaches have developed the modern grisly habit of haranguing them en masse?
The examples set by players and coaches at the very top of the game are followed throughout the system to the grass roots. Fulham’s Marco Silva is in the spotlight this morning but the fact the coach of the current Premier League leaders – Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta – is among the worst offenders speaks volumes.
At Old Trafford referee Chris Kavanagh showed everybody that there is a road out of the darkness. Red card for Silva for his use of language. Red card for Fulham centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic for what he then said and, worst of all, a shove to the shoulder. And, of course, a red card for Willian for the goal line handball that started the whole chain of events in the first place.
Referee Chris Kavanagh sent off Aleksandar Mitrovic and Willian at Old Trafford on Sunday
Fulham boss Marco Silva was also given his marching orders in the same crazy 40-second spell
The punishments changed the course of the game. Fulham – leading deservedly at the time – saw their chances of reaching the FA Cup semi-finals disappear in an instant. That’s a shame but it’s also a good thing. Referees should take control in this way more often and if anything is ever to change they simply have to.
Using foul and abusive language to an official is a red card offence. It’s in the rule book. But it’s hardly ever enforced. Not since Lee Cattermole was sent off for abusing Mike Dean more than a decade ago has it been used in the top flight.
Why is this? You would have to ask the referees but it has to change.
Only in football do we see regular mass confrontation of officials. Only in football is it accepted as part of the game. In sports such as rugby – both codes – it is not tolerated. Only a team captain is allowed to approach the man in the middle.
For too long mob rule has been allowed to hold sway in football and at some point it has to stop. Incidents like this one can help our game turn the corner. But where Chris Kavanagh has led, colleagues must now follow.
Mob rule has governed football for too long and the game needs to protect its officials better – Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka is pictured arguing with referee Stuart Atwell at the weekend
Manchester United’s progress on four fronts through what may yet be a transformative season for them is a source of understandable pride at Old Trafford but Erik ten Hag must hope that too much football doesn’t cost him and his players.
United, so poor for so long since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, have already won the Carabao Cup and the trophy was being shown round the executive lounges before kick-off against Fulham. They are now in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the last eight of the Europa League. When you add to that arguably the most important pursuit of all – namely a top four Premier League finish – then the improvement under Ten Hag becomes clear.
And here is the problem. If United are to go where they want to go between now and the back end of May then they will play a further eighteen matches. Eleven in the Premier League, two in the FA Cup and five in Europe. When they resume their football with a game at Newcastle on April 2, United will have eight and a half weeks to cram all that football in.
Erik ten Hag has enjoyed a fruitful first season at Manchester United, winning the Carabao Cup, but he must be wary of too much football as games come thick and fast
It seems a daunting task on paper and looked even more so out on the grass as United laboured against Fulham on Sunday. United got through their FA Cup quarter-final in the end but that was largely because of the way their opponents imploded. United were 1-0 down with 20 minutes left and at the time that was the very most they deserved.
Any team can play poorly on any given day and United did so. But they did also look tired and leggy. Ten Hag has a much improved squad but it does not have the depth that Manchester City have or indeed Liverpool. There are signs now that this is starting to catch up with them.
What United must do above all is prevent any kind of tail off in the league. Because of some extraordinarily bad results along the way – a 7-0 defeat at Liverpool and a 4-0 setback at Brentford – goal difference is not in United’s favour. If Newcastle beat them in 13 days, for example, they will edge ahead of them in to third.
That would leave United in a straight battle with Tottenham for fourth while Liverpool, and perhaps even FA Cup semi-final opponents Brighton, also lurk. United’s remaining league fixtures are not that daunting. Newcastle and Spurs away and Chelsea at home represent the three toughest fixtures. They should be okay but need to be watchful.
Despite beating Fulham 3-1 to reach the FA Cup semi-finals, United laboured to victory
The last time Brighton reached the last four of the FA Cup, they failed to seize their opportunity. This time they have every reason to be more optimistic.
It was in 2019 that Chris Hughton’s Brighton faced off with Manchester City Wembley and beforehand the manager responsible for bringing the Seagulls back to the Premier League said it would be ‘foolish’ for his team to be too adventurous at Wembley. Brighton followed Hughton’s instructions to the letter and lost a pretty grim game 1-0.
Hughton had reasons to be cautious. His team were desperately trying to stay in the Premier League at the time and ultimately managed to do so by only two points. The finished 17th. It could be argued that an FA Cup final appearance would not have helped.
This time it is different. After Hughton’s good work was built on by Graham Potter – who arrived at the club that summer – and the reins subsequently handed to Roberto de Zerbi last September – Brighton will head to Wembley next month with absolutely nothing to fear.
Brighton have come a long way since their FA Cup semi-final with Chris Hughton back in 2019
The in-form Seagulls should be fearless in their approach against Man United at Wembley
De Zerbi’s team continue to push at the glass ceiling at the top end of the English game. Brighton are currently seventh in the Premier League and have at least one game in hand on everybody above them.
They have not been mentioned in the race for Champions League places but may just exist on the very fringes of that conversation.
The FA Cup does offer them a more realistic chance of tangible success. Brighton will not fear Manchester United, having beaten them at Old Trafford on day one of the season and also by a 4-0 margin at home towards the end of the previous campaign.
Hughton took Brighton to the Premier League for the first time and kept them there. He will always deserve credit for that. De Zerbi has a different way of approaching things, however, and is working from a stronger base of quality in terms of his players. The Italian will believe his team can win the FA Cup and why shouldn’t he?
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