by Richard Brook

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert courted controversy ahead of Saturday’s fixture with Arsenal at Villa Park. The Villa boss chose to publicly stand by the comments that the FA had already deemed worthy of watching the Gunners’ visit from the stands and an £8,000 fine. While it might have been more prudent to simply let the matter drop, one has to respect Lambert for sticking to his principles. This is not least the case because his criticism of the decision to award Manchester City a penalty, for a perceived handball by Andreas Weimann, appears entirely valid.

Villa are entitled to feel hard done by about a number of decisions of the match officials during Villa’s 5-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, which included two goals from the penalty spot. Both spot kicks were awarded by assistant referee Adrian Holmes, for highly debatable handball decisions. The first of the penalties, given against Andreas Weimann, particularly incensed Lambert. Striker Weimann had been attempting to clear a corner, that had been delivered towards Villa’s near post. The Austrian appeared to receive a hefty shove from City’s Matija Nastasic, knocking the Villa man off balance. Still the ball barely glanced the striker’s arm, if indeed it did at all. Noticeably there was not the merest hint of an appeal from any of Manchester City’s players, which in itself speaks volumes as to what the equitable decision would have been.

In spite of the City players’ stoicism, the assistant referee’s flag was acknowledged by match referee Jon Moss, who pointed to the spot. Sergio Aguero stepped up to dispatch the ball beyond Brad Guzan in the Aston Villa goal, to put the home side two goals to the good.

If the second goal had changed the game, then the third killed the contest, as barely ten minutes later the same assistant held is flag up to signify that Barry Bannan, this time, had handled the ball. While this decision was more comprehensible than the first, it was still the kind of decision where supporters of the attacking team would be incredulous if it the spot kick is not given, but fans of the defending team feel very much aggrieved if the penalty is awarded. Bannan was sliding to the by-line to block a low ball from being fired across the goal mouth. David Silva instead attempted to cut inside onto his left foot as Bannan’s momentum carried him and the Villa man clearly tried to withdraw his arm from the path of the ball, but was unable to do so. This time it was Carlos Tevez that fired the ball into the Villa net.

Given the circumstances of the defeat were that 43 minutes of good work from Aston Villa, to frustrate the reigning Premier League Champions was undone initially by a goal-mouth scramble, eventually turned in by Silva just before the interval, and the two questionable spot kicks described above, it might be argued that Lambert was very restrained in terms of what he said. In fact it seems to me that either the media, or the managers themselves ought to put an end to questions about the match officials altogether, if the FA pursue their hard-line on such matters. If the manager disagrees with decisions, even in quite a reasonable and eloquent manner, in the current climate, he runs the gauntlet, in terms of repercussions from the sport’s governing bodies.

We have reached a point that when a journalist asks a manager what he thought of the match official’s performance, or indeed individual decisions, the manager must be actively disingenuous to protect himself from sanctions similar to those imposed on Lambert. The only hope the journalist has of getting a story from such a question is that the manager in question is not composed enough, after the decision, to hide his true feelings. Effectively those who report football, especially those in the broadcast media, are shaping the news they cover rather than observing and reporting it. They ask questions in full knowledge that if the manager says what he wants to say, and what they want to hear, he will be punished.

Why should manager’s have to be dishonest? It is absolutely fair that there should be boundaries regarding the comments that are permissible. Obviously the comments should not be insulting or damaging to the people involved but a manager ought to be able to disagree with a decision, and to do so publicly.

Frankly there is no way in the world that the decision against Weimann should ever have been considered a penalty. Lambert ought to have been free to say as much. He is a partisan employee of Aston Villa Football Club, and has a duty to the that club and their supporters. Beyond that, every neutral opinion I have heard agrees with the Villa boss’s appraisal.

Lambert’s comments were: “That is not a handball. Nowhere near it. How he’s called that I do not know. That is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. That’s never a penalty in this life”. Aside from going on to refer to the decision as “woeful” and “shocking” that was as bad as the post-match comments made by Lambert got. I can see nothing untoward in the content of his analysis of the decision. He has not stated that the officials are poor officials, he has not intimated there was anything underhand about the decision he has purely stated that he does not agree with the decision and surely he has the absolute right to do this.

In the last few weeks football has come perilously close to seeing a good referee’s reputation, and career in tatters due to an incorrect accusation. Mark Clattenberg has of course now been cleared of all wrong-doing by the FA, following Chelsea’s complaint that he levelled a racist comment at John Obi Mikel. The differences between the two cases are clearly vast, but the pertinent one is that accusations of racism, had they been true would have reflected poorly on an official as person and as a referee. This is not remotely true of Lambert’s criticism of an individual decision.

Had a manager used these terms to discuss his own player after a match, no-one would have batted an eye-lid, for example ‘You just cannot play the ball back to the keeper in that position. I don’t know what he was thinking but it’s a ridiculous decision. It really was shocking defending, woeful in fact. Under no circumstances can he make that choice’. We hear and read words like this from managers every week and it does nothing to harm the standing of the game, and is not regarded as improper. The fact this terminology was applied to a match official’s decision rather than a player’s decision is really neither here nor there.

In the build up to the weekend’s game, from which he is banned from the touchline, Lambert has repeated his views stating: “I still stick by the decision. It annoyed me”. Whether this assertion will prove fool-hardy in the light of his FA imposed punishment remains to be seen.

Paul Lambert was charged with “language and / or behaviour that amounted to improper conduct”. Can a criticism of a single decision, without wider or lasting implication about the match officials’ ability to perform their roles really be considered as improper? Like all football managers Paul Lambert’s job depends on officials getting decisions correct. If he does not think they have done, he must have the right to say so. If this really is to be regarded as improper conduct I hope that we will see high profile players, at certain top four clubs hauled over the coals similarly, should they swarm around the referee in numbers, to attempt to harangue him into changing a decision as we have seen in the past. In calling a ridiculous decision ridiculous, Paul Lambert’s conduct has not been a fraction as improper as much of the conduct to be seen on the field of play, that regularly goes unpunished. It reflects highly of Lambert’s character that he has not retracted his comments, or refused to speak about it further, because ultimately he was plainly right whether the FA like the fact or not.