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Martin Samuel on the Carling Cup final: We've no right to a free hit on the house

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01 Mar 2010 09:40:10

Martin Samuel on the Carling Cup final: We've no right to a free hit on the house

And here, in miniature, is why English football ends up with the odd broken leg, and a never-ending debate about the nature and boundaries of fair play. We play a version of the rules in this country, one with enough room to accommodate what we want football to be: a right old tear-up. We got one at Wembley on Sunday. Nobody came to physical harm and, over 90 minutes, the best team won. Pulling power: Fans turn up in their thousands to watch a tear-up, and Vidic's foul on Agbonlahor fuels yet another debate Yet, in the fifth minute, Nemanja Vidic, the Manchester United centre half, pulled, tripped and manhandled Gabriel Agbonlahor to the ground on the way to goal. He conceded a penalty, which James Milner scored, but not so much as a yellow card was produced by Phil Dowd, the referee, let alone the red many felt should have resulted. In the aftermath, there were various explanations advanced. Vidic said he was tackling from in front of the player, not behind, and that this made it different. Others argued that Agbonlahor was not heading directly towards goal, and therefore Vidic was not denying a goalscoring opportunity.   More from Martin Samuel... MARTIN SAMUEL: How can so many broken legs be down to chance?28/02/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: Jonny Wilkinson is just a mirror of England's mediocrity28/02/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: Left back at home, Wayne Bridge let nobody down 25/02/10 Martin Samuel: Jose Mourinho is a master of both Chelsea and Inter Milan24/02/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: Here's why Jose Mourinho really is so...special23/02/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: Jowell deserves an Olympic medal in utter madness21/02/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: Brand Tiger is out of a hole, now let the cash tills ring19/02/10 GREAVSIE: England's most prolific goalscorer, but now he prefers rugby19/02/10 VIEW FULL ARCHIVE  Richard Dunne, the Aston Villa defender, who managed while wearing his Republic of Ireland shirt to exchange philosophical pleasantries with Thierry Henry after the infamous handball in Paris, was equally fatalistic here. 'It's better to play against 11 men and it made it a better game,' he said. 'They got a man sent off at Villa Park, and it didn't make any difference.' Well, yes and no. United had Nani dismissed at Villa Park, after 29 minutes when the scores were tied at 1-1 and that was the score at the end. So had the scores also stayed the same when 10 played 11 yesterday, Villa would have won 1-0. Plus, there is considerable difference between losing a nippy winger with 61 minutes to go and the most experienced centre-half with 86 minutes to survive. To replace Vidic, United would have had to introduce Wes Brown at the expense of amidfielder: Ji-Sung Park, perhaps, or Antonio Valencia, who set up the winning goal and won man of the match. As far as mitigation goes, Vidic says he was in front of Agbonlahor when he brought him down, but that was because he claimed his shirt with his initial foul, forcing him to stop and change direction. It is a lot easier to get in front of people if you can grab their apparel. Amazing, really, that none of Usain Bolt's rivals have ever thought of gaining an edge in this way. Then there is the question of the route. Agbonlahor may not have been running directly at the goal, but he certainly wasn't running away from it. He was changing his angle, as strikers do when they are preparing to shoot, because hitting across the goalkeeper is often preferred to firing straight. Agbonlahor can be seen checking where the goal is immediately before Vidic brings him down, which suggests a goal attempt. Anyway, if Agbonlahor was no threat to goal, why foul him? Why didn't Vidic just wave him on his way to wherever the hell Dowd thought he was going and leave him be? Vidic tripped him because he was a danger. He was a danger because he had a chance of scoring. Communication breakdown: Phil Dowd explains his decision to Martin O'Neill Dunne's observation is the key to it all, though, because he reflects a popular view. How many times is a referee eulogised for keeping 22 players on the field, to satisfy what the English want from a football match? Dowd must have been horrified at the thought of reducing United to 10 after less than four minutes at Wembley. He would have received the inevitable blast from Sir Alex Ferguson, the inevitable accusations of ruining the game and the spectacle. We never consider that English football might be an even greater spectacle if the most talented players were allowed freedom of expression, without getting bludgeoned to the floor. Instead, we consider the spectacle simplistically as 90 minutes of frenzied activity, no quarter given, and remain the only country mystified if a referee books the first foul. When a yellow card is produced how often do you hear the complaint that it was a first offence? Here's a newsflash: you don't get a free hit on the house. Well, you're not supposed to, anyway. Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, was less accepting of Dowd's decision than Dunne, calling it inexplicable and saying it was universally accepted that a mistake had been made. Not entirely. Ferguson said Vidic was lucky not to be booked, as near as he would come to admitting this was an escape. Either way, he was fortunate. Even had Dowd merely gone for a yellow card, the centre half would have had to play on tenterhooks for the rest of the game. As it was he could afford to give Agbonlahor another kick from behind in the 67th minute, and make that his first bookable offence. 'The studs go in, the tackles fly, this is football, English-style,' sang I, Ludicrous (sadly obscure indie band, check out the magnificent Preposterous Tales below), and what happened at Wembley is the thin end of that particular wedge. The thick end is what Aaron Ramsey copped at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, when his leg was broken by the sort of challenge many would call part and parcel of the game. And it is. Just like keeping 11 against 11, whatever the circumstances; just like allowing a first foul, gratis. In the English version, anyway.  Manchester United 2 Aston Villa 1: Ref, you got it so wrong! Fury at Phil Dowd reprieve for Nemanja Vidic as Red Devils claim Carling CupWayne Rooney rules! But Fabio Capello can't count on injured star for England clash with EgyptCARLING CUP FINAL LIVE: Manchester United 2 Aston Villa 1 - all the action as it happenedMARTIN SAMUEL: How can so many broken legs be down to chance?  Explore more:People:Martin Samuel, Usain Bolt, Alex Ferguson, James Milner, WES BROWN, Antonio Valencia, Thierry Henry, Richard Dunne, Nani, Gabriel AgbonlahorPlaces:Paris, Republic of Ireland


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