For the first hour before everything changed, we looked good. Very good, even. Napa was probably over-eulogised by the TV commentators as the new messiah we’ve ALL been talking about, but he looked bright and caused enough problems. James Henry playing off the front two works well and we should have gone into the break at least even.
After the opening goal, my overriding thought was that we are a top eight team that can’t defend, and that’s what makes us a lower-middle table team. There are two principle reasons for this – Chey Dunkley and Curtis Nelson. Both were an immense physical presence in the back-four last year, which we’ve lost. Rob Dickie looks good on the ball, but lacks physicality – as was evident in the first goal. John Mousinho’s last two games have been solid, but he lacks pace and is a shadow of the legend we supposedly signed from Burton. They’re probably the best pairing available, although I’m not alone in wondering why we let Charlie Raglan go to Port Vale.
The game turned, quite obviously, on the penalty and the resulting dismissal of Alex Mowatt. It illustrates the thing I absolutely despise about football. It was a high-pressure moment, had the ball gone a millimetre to the left it would have gone in, a millimetre to the right it would have bounced out and the players would have been pre-occupied by the rebound.
Mowatt was clearly frustrated by the margin of his error, Nathan Thompson clearly elated. Both acted instinctively in their reactions. There were 17,000 people showing similar emotions and yet the two most involved were supposed to control theirs. The result was unsavoury, but neither player was in any genuine physical danger. But, because the rules say so, Mowatt was dismissed for violent conduct.
There are rules in football which have been created to deal with particularly elements of the game which are not conducive to its spirit. The offside rule was invented to prevent goal-hanging, the penalty box to stop players unfairly preventing goal-scoring chances. Violent conduct is clearly to stop people getting hurt.
In all three cases, the rules has been ‘gamed’, players will battle for the ball to get in the penalty box, but collapse on the fall at the merest touch, offside traps are set 30-40 yards from goal.
What Mowatt did wasn’t violent in the sense that Thompson was in any danger. If you see the physical punishment of boxing, ice hockey or rugby, it’s clear that Thompson was a long way from being seriously injured in the incident. I don’t blame him for his reaction immediately after the ball bounced off the post – it was the equal and opposite reaction to Mowatt’s. But, because he knew that violent conduct has been denigrated to ‘raising your hands’ he gamed the system by falling on the ground as though he’d been hit square on the jaw by Roberto Duran. It’s a reaction so deeply ingrained in football, it makes a mockery of its original purpose, and that should be a wake-up call.
We expect players to play with passion and commitment – the whole game is sold on it – but at the same time, act dispassionately and with detachment even in its most extreme moments.
As a result, not only did we lose the game, it degenerated as a spectacle at the moment it had reached boiling point and we’ve lost Mowatt for three games for what was little more than a light push. Plus, Mowatt is expected to act with deep remorse and everyone should fall in line with sanctimonious lines about how ‘you just can’t do that’.
The solution, in this case, is an adjustment to the law by adding something about having a clear intent to harm, and empower the officials to make that judgement. Sure, book players for being a bit silly and to defuse an argument, but sending him off and banning him is a ridiculous penalty for something so minor.
We’ve lost sight of the original purpose of the violent conduct rule, and as a result what we have is a pantomime in which players have learnt certain behaviours to use it and advantage their team. In this case, falling to the ground as though shot. A small adjustment to the rules, rather than expecting the players to act like robots, would improve the game significantly.