James Constable’s sending off seemed to cast a shadow over the otherwise excellent 3-0 demolition of Wimbledon on Saturday. But who is at fault? Constable, the referee, Will Antwi, or is it something else?

James Constable was sent off for the 4th time since we’ve been back in the Football League. In that respect he’s our most indisciplined, dirty, player. But something about that doesn’t sound right. The straight red he got against Wimbledon threatened to overshadow what was another tremendous display. And, of course, the sending off was a complete travesty with Constable appearing to elbow Will Antwi in the face without the aid of any elbows. This follows his ‘elbow’ against Exeter earlier this season which was similarly innocuous, and another raised arm against Swindon which didn’t seem to contain any particular malice.

It’s easy to blame the referee in situations like that. Referees are subjected to an unspoken conspiracy  by managers, players and experts within the press (i.e. made up of former players and managers). Last week Mark Lawrenson came out with the classic ‘If that’s not a penalty then why didn’t the referee book him for diving’ line. This insinuates that the referee did think it was a penalty and for sinister and conspiratorial reasons decided against awarding it. Or he thinks the referee is a cheat. Which is slander. And yet totally acceptable, it seems.

Was the referee cheating when sending off James Constable? Probably not. The idea that all referees are, for some reason, are just trying to piss off the entire world by deliberately making bad decisions seems somewhat far fetched.

Let’s Consider three most common areas of contention within football. Firstly, the penalty. The purpose of a penalty box is to penalise those who prevent a goal from being scored. And yet, a striker apparently has a ‘right’ to go down at the faintest of touches. Secondly, there’s offside; a rule that exists to prevent goal hanging, that irritating little shit at school who used to hang around 10 yards from the goal and do nothing but pop the ball in net every time it dropped to him. Now, offsides have to consider whether a player is ‘active’ or not. The third is handball; a simple rule designed to prevent someone using their hand to gain an advantage. Now, we have the chicken and egg debate about ball-to-hand or hand-to-ball. Most handballs now are simply players being penalised for not getting their hand out the way fast enough; even if there’s no real intention to prevent the opposition gaining an advantage.

In each of these three areas the rules have over evolved from their simple purpose. The margin of error in judging it, though, has been eroded away to a point that no human can make a simple objective decision based on what they see. Instead, they have to interpret what they see. Video evidence won’t help because you still can’t get into the player’s head to understand the intention of their action.

Each of these situations are easily resolved by objectifying them. Did the attacking player deliberately get prevent the attacker from scoring? For offside, why not draw a line across the pitch, Subbuteo style, to signify where offsides begin? And a handball is a handball when the player’s hands are outside the contour of his body (i.e. if his hands are by his side or in front of him, then it’s not a handball).

In Constable’s situation, it seems referees are starting to interpret his actions as being violent or dangerous. He’s a physical and aggressive player, he’s always been better when he’s had that fire in his belly. During the Conference years in particular he could easily have been guilty of ungentlemanly conduct, that’s a fair cop, but a dangerous player? Never.

The referee, however, now has to interpret what he saw to decide Constable’s fate. There was a physical aerial challenge, a player fell to the floor holding his face, people reacted and, well, Constable has done this before hasn’t he? Therefore, the balance of probability is that there was a foul.

Why is the referee forced to make a decision on the spot? Judging the “intent” in a split second based on a series of circumstantial signals, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to pause and look at the player on the ground. Is his injury consistent with being smashed in the face? Given that Antwi hopped to his feet and allegedly gave the crowd a smile suggests perhaps not. A quick inspection of the injury would have helped make the referee’s decision. No injury, no problem. This won’t rid football of controversy, but it will take the subjectivity out of referee’s decision.

It’s not fair on the referee, it’s definitely not fair on the player. If the club are successful and rescinding James Constable’s red card, I suspect this isn’t the end. Constable’s card is marked; he’s a player gaining a reputation that he’s likely to commit red card offences. Referees are unlikely to take the Wimbledon mistake into account when making their decision. Given that Constable’s game is based his combative nature, he’s more likely to get into trouble when he’s on form. I hope that the undeserved reputation he risks acquiring doesn’t deaden his impact.

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