LONDON — Imagine walking home and someone hits you in the face. The ambulance arrives and the police, who have already caught the aggressor, charge you with loitering because you are laying on the ground.

Christopher Davies



Yet this in effect is what the Football Association has done with Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney and Bolton defender Tal Ben Haim.

When the teams met at Old Trafford on Dec. 26, Rooney took the meaning of Boxing Day too literally. Reacting to a “nothing” clash between the pair, Rooney made a mountain out of a molehill and pushed a hand in the face of Ben Haim, who did himself no favors with what appeared to be an exaggerated reaction to the actual pain level.

Even his manager, Sam Allardyce, said the Israeli “made a meal of it” but added that had the referee seen what had happened Rooney should have been sent off.

The incident was not witnessed by referee Dermot Gallagher, who had his back to the sparring partners, but on Wednesday the F.A. charged Rooney with violent conduct (correctly) and Ben Haim with improper conduct (remarkable).

The F.A. is saying that Ben Haim was guilty of simulation — trying to deceive the referee. How can they possibly judge — whatever the television images — that the player was play-acting?

Ben Haim needed treatment by the Bolton physiotherapist. If the physio is asked by Bolton to give evidence on Ben Haim’s behalf at the disciplinary hearing and says the player was caught in an eye by Rooney — the United striker’s hand did “cover” an eye of his opponent — what case does the F.A. have?

A very weak one, I would say.

There are no recorded instances where a player has been sent off for violent conduct and the victim was also punished. If the referee has decided a player is guilty of a red-card offense then the reaction of the opponent is irrelevant.

An opponent cannot deceive the referee if he has already come to the view that violence had occurred.

Players are rightly shown the yellow card for trying to con the referee, usually by “diving” for a penalty or slumping to the ground holding their face when: (a) there has been no contact, or (b) he was hit on the shoulder.

In these instances no foul had been committed but as the F.A. believes that Rooney WAS guilty of violent conduct how can it also say Ben Haim was guilty of deception?

The F.A. has left itself open to accusations of bowing to public (and Sir Alex Ferguson’s) pressure by charging Ben Haim. There is no guarantee the Bolton player will eventually be found guilty by a disciplinary commission, leaving some — albeit faceless suits — at Soho Square with humble pie to digest.

Ironically, had Gallagher, one of the more lenient referees, seen what happened he would probably only have cautioned Rooney — at most — and taken no action against Ben Haim.

The F.A. has gone at it with disciplinary studs showing, but has hit the target with only one boot.

SIR ALEX FERGUSON was not a happy man.

The assembled media knew the Manchester United manager was not full of festive spirits when, last Monday, he cleared the desk of cassette recorders after bringing a fist down in such a manner it was testament to the piece of furniture’s strength that it did not end up smashed to pieces.

Ferguson was upset, which is putting it mildly, when he was asked about the Rooney incident during United’s 2-0 Boxing Day win over Bolton.

Guidance to referees states that “. . . where a player strikes or pushes an opponent (in the face) with his hands or fists it will be deemed an act of violent conduct and the player will be dismissed.”

Ferguson, in a classic act of deflecting the spotlight from his own player, saw it rather differently. He said: “Because it is Wayne Rooney and because it is Manchester United, the emphasis is taken off the Bolton player completely.

“That is sad because it is obvious to everybody what he did. He lay down there for about two minutes rolling around, which is absolutely disgraceful as far as I am concerned and should be more of a concern for football in general, than talking about Wayne Rooney.”

A fair point, but it does not excuse the petulance shown by Ferguson’s player, who would have given Gallagher the opportunity to send him off had the referee witnessed it.

And when it comes to exaggeration, most neutral observers believe that the way Rooney flew through the air with the greatest of ease to earn a penalty after a non-contact challenge by Sol Campbell when Arsenal was the visitor to Old Trafford two months ago, was a disgraceful (if successful) act of referee conning.

Had the F.A. not charged Rooney, the next time a player pushes an opponent away by putting a hand in his face and is correctly sent off, the cry would have been: “Rooney got away with it.”

The F.A. is also aware that there is a perception it favors the bigger clubs, though the bigger clubs believe they are picked upon because they are big clubs.

Ferguson got his wish and Ben Haim was charged, though that will be scant consolation with Rooney facing a three-game ban starting New Year’s Day. As Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha are recovering from long-term injuries it leaves them with only Alan Smith as an experienced striker.

WHILE WAYNE ROONEY and Sir Alex Ferguson would disagree, it might do the striker a favor to serve a three-game suspension. For all his talent — though he has made little with United since his impact on Euro 2004 — there is a streak of ill-discipline in the teenager that must be corrected.

Rooney was very fortunate not to be sent off during England’s friendly in Spain in November, and had it been a competitive match the striker would surely have seen red. As it was, Sven-Goran Eriksson substituted the player for his own good.

Now in his third season, Rooney has 19 Premiership goals and 19 red and yellow cards to his credit, an ignominious statistic for a 19-year-old.

For all Ferguson’s defense of his player, it was an unnecessary act of petulance by Rooney to push a hand in the face of Tal Ben Haim. If he does the same in a Champions League tie Rooney will not finish the match.

Somehow the message must be hammered home that behaving in such an unprofessional manner is no good for the player or his team, be it United or England.

There is an enormous potential in Rooney, but temperament is also a skill. His constant disapproval of referees’ decisions treads a fine line between frustration and dissent, while there are some challenges he goes in to that make the observer wince.

United paid a guaranteed £20 million to Everton for Rooney in August, with a further £10 million dependent on club success, international appearances, etc.

Just as well there was no discount for games when Rooney was suspended.

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