Fine time? Why the FA will always struggle to find the right punishment
Mauricio Pochettino faces a hefty penalty for his on-pitch meltdown at the weekend. But behind that decision exposes how football’s financial disparity means the FA can never quite get fiscal punishments right, reveals Gary Parkinson
Although it might feel an impossible dream if your preferred bunch of bandy-legged idiots are lurching into yet another season of disappointment or worse, the thing that draws all us addicts back to match after match is the possibility that our great game can inspire moments of ecstatic celebration. For those occasional yet unmatchable endorphin rushes we pay in spades, and sometimes the same can be said of the participants in the people’s opera.
Jurgen Klopp has had plenty of reason this season for air-punching star-jumps, but one moment of losing it cost him a third of the national average annual salary. In early December, the FA fined Klopp £8,000 for running onto the pitch to celebrate Liverpool’s late winner against Everton.
This prompted The Sun’s Neil Ashton into a column-padding tirade about comparative punishments because Jose Mourinho had three years earlier received a one-match stadium ban, merely for storming into the Upton Park match officials’ room at half-time, calling Jon Moss “f**king weak” and refusing to leave.
There’s something here of that hoary old contention-bone: consistency vs common sense. For each time a blethering head on Soccer Saturday has said “all we want is consistency”, there’ll be an occasion when somebody - quite possibly the same bloke – will have with equal certitude criticised a referee for giving a yellow card “too early” or “not taking the occasion into account”.
But more importantly, in comparing aged anger-filled apples to contemporary over-celebratory oranges, Ashton fails to balance the comparative seriousness of the actions. He’s probably right that that any fan who’d run on to cuddle Alisson would have been banned for life, but by the same token any Upton Park attendee penetrating Jon Moss’s most intimate circle could have faced a criminal charge. It might be comical to imagine Mourinho manacling himself to the officials’ massage table like a mardy managerial suffragette incensed by the incorrect awarding of a throw-in, but the Portuguese was in there to accuse the match officials of incompetence or, what is much worse, bias.
The FA tends to dislike this kind of disreputable action. It has a duty to cool Klopp’s jets too, but it’s notable that when Nuno Espirito Santo repeated the German’s dad-dancing antics after Wolves’ late winner against Leicester, he too was fined £8,000 – not, as some might expect, more because it was the second such offence and A Message Must Be Sent.
The FA’s laundry list
Nuno’s fine wasn’t escalated because the FA has standard punishments for regrettably standard crimes, punishments which are only augmented on specific occasions. In contravening FA Rule E3 – a 700-word, multi-claused catch-all entitled ‘General Behaviour’ – the one-manager pitch invasions were each deemed worthy of Standard Penalty 1, which is an £8,000 fine in the Premier League tapering down to £250 at Conference National level, with an additional one-match ban if a player or manager uses insulting or abusive language.
Like a local-council parking charge, the punishment is mitigated by prompt acquiescence “in order to incentivise early admission of charges”. However, if the charge is denied but upheld, the fine is upped by 50% and the potty-language punishment doubled to a two-match ban. (In any case, if abuse references ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, religion or belief, gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation or disability it’s an ‘aggravated breach’ with a five-match penalty, which again may be exacerbated by unsuccessful appeal.)
This much is clear because in the interests of transparency, the game’s dirty laundry is in the public domain. Reading the Discipline section of the governing body’s website is a jolting reminder of how many cases the FA has to deal with. January 2019’s ‘Disciplinary Charges, Suspensions And Responses’ page outlines each alleged infraction with legal succinctness - see example pictured below – but it runs to nearly 10,000 words. The words “fine” or “fined” crop up 69 times.
All human life is here, from the high-profile cases you’ve heard of – Wayne Hennessey’s photograph, Troy Deeney’s ref-baiting, Charlie Austin’s gesture, Wilf Zaha’s sarcastic applause, Barry Fry’s betting – through Tom Pope’s tweets, disorderly players all over the place, surrounded officials at Dover-Bromley and an international-clearance case involving those continental giants Hampton & Richmond, to agents accused of unlawful representation of minors, many an instance of “abusive and/or insulting” language (including one referee subsequently suspended), much improper conduct (with or without its evil twin violent conduct) and one of a former assistant manager making “reference to ethnic origin, race and/or nationality” to one of his own players on the team bus. (We should point out, for legal reasons, that in some instances the charges are denied and the cases continue.)
Purely in terms of mutually disorderly players, January saw cases brought from Charlton-Accrington, Dover-Bromley, Portsmouth-QPR, Hull-Wolves (U23s), Fleet Town-Barnstaple Town, Wycombe-Donny, Reading-Forest, Lincoln-Port Vale, Tilbury-Aveley, Notts County-Macclesfield and Solihull-Barrow. The FA’s disciplinary panel must occasionally feel like a cross between an overwrought teacher on playground duty and a bouncer wading into a closing-time brawl.
And their eyes have to be everywhere. Time was they just had to back up the ref, read any relevant (but usually ghosted) newspaper columns and maybe keep an eye on Brian Clough’s TV rants. Now their jurisdiction stretches far beyond the pitch, dugout and tunnel: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all cited as platforms for misbehaviour in January.
Crime and puni$hm€nt
The variation in fiscal punishments levied reflects both the seriousness of the offences and the depth of the game as administered by the FA. The smallest fine was £25, to Chris Hyem, who had played for ninth-tier Godmanchester Rovers FC in their FA Vase win over Sporting Khalsa FC despite being suspended for two previous yellow cards. He requested, and duly received, a paper hearing; his club, fearing expulsion from the Vase like a wilted bouquet, were represented in person to fight their own charge, pleading that they hadn’t received official notification of what is a new rule for this season. They were also found guilty, fined £50 and warned as to their future conduct. (Hyem, in case you’re wondering, will serve a one-match touchline ban to compensate for his unregulated presenteeism.)
Up at the sharp end of the pyramid, January’s largest fine was £100,000 to West Ham for last March’s events against Burnley, when the club had “failed to ensure that its spectators conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and/or that no spectator or unauthorised persons were permitted to encroach onto the pitch area.”
That kind of offence falls under another catch-all, rule E20, which makes each club responsible for ensuring its “directors, players, officials, employees, servants, representatives, spectators, and all persons purporting to be its supporters or followers, conduct themselves in an orderly fashion”. For offences like “mass confrontation” (ie a proper old set-to) or “surrounding the match officials”, the Standard Penalty in the Premier League is £20,000. West Ham appealed against theirs but given potential punishments including ground closures and points deduction, they will have been privately glad to swallow a fine significantly smaller than Chicharito’s weekly wage.
Physician, heal thyself
And there’s the rub with any conversation about fines in top-level football. The sums passing through the game are so head-swimmingly enormous that any fiscal punishment demands a dozen demeaning comparisons.
It doesn’t help when fines vary, as they surely must given the defendant’s ability to pay. Klopp’s celebration was potentially inflammatory (ask an away-end Toffee) but seemed genuinely ecstatic rather than antagonistic; the same can’t genuinely be said of Chelsea coach Marco Ianni’s goading of Mourinho following the Blues’ October equaliser against Manchester United. Even so, the Italian was fined £6,000, the FA perhaps taking into account the thirtysomething coach’s relative inexperience, and quite probably privately fuming that their employee Phil Neville had seen fit to weigh in by suggesting the coach be sacked.
Sometimes, especially when backed into a corner, the FA can start to sound like a haughty old reactionary. Last March Pep Guardiola was fined £20,000 for repeatedly wearing a pro-Catalan yellow ribbon despite “numerous warning letters”, but the association had already decisively lost the PR war thanks to the ill-advised ramblings of its chief executive. Speaking among friends – the besuited sheriffs and rubber-stamp wielders of an International Football Association Board – and searching for suitable comparisons to the ‘politicised’ ribbon, Martin Glenn extemporised as wildly as a bebop jazz saxophonist who’d had a touch too much of the Peruvian party powder.
“Things that are going to be highly divisive,” he started brightly, before foraying into the atonal borderlands with “and that could be strong religious symbols – it could be the Star of David, it could the hammer and sickle, it could be a swastika, anything like Robert Mugabe on your shirt – these are the things we don’t want.”
Understandably, the Jewish Leadership Council was rather upset to hear the Star of David – which, for the record, adorns the Israel flag, national team shirt and FA logo – compared to the swastika; Robert Mugabe was unavailable for comment, but the furore and indeed brouhaha served to both overshadow and undermine the FA’s attempts to bring Pep to heel, like a drunken dad ordering the kids to tidy their room while he spills the contents of the wheelie bin across the front garden and barbecues the neighbour’s hedge.
A question of integrity
Glenn lurched on for the rest of 2018 before self-defenestrating over the collapsed Wembley sale; he’s still in the seat until the end of the season, but has become notably more guarded in public pronouncements. The same can’t be said of certain footballing figures who are only too happy to unwisely hold forth, whether via social media platforms or their organic predecessor the pet journalist.
Jose Mourinho’s carpeting for dropping in on Jon Moss in October 2015 wasn’t even his first FA charge of the month. Well into the familiar dog-days of his second Chelsea reign, the Portuguese had already copped a disrepute charge for claiming after a loss at Southampton that officials were “afraid to give us decisions when we are top… Be honest with us and give what you have to give.”
Mourinho’s legal eagles submitted an eight-page defence but the FA calmly demolished the reasoning – again, the discourse is a matter of public record – and, mindful of previous fines and warnings for similar outbursts (£8,000 in May 2014, £25,000 in January 2015) fined him £50,000. Not a man to let a fight go, Mourinho publicly called the fine “a disgrace”, but the FA backed away from the bickering because, as the BBC put it, “The governing body is less concerned about criticism of itself than that aimed at individuals and match officials, given this could call into question their integrity”.
If so, they’d changed their tune from three years earlier, when Ashley Cole had been fined £90,000 for a rather direct tweet in which he hashtagged that the FA were “a bunch of tw*ts”. This doubled the previous record fine for social-media faux-pas, set a couple of months previously when Rio Ferdinand had thoroughly enjoyed a Twitter description of Cole as a “choc ice”.
Both tweetstorms were associated with John Terry’s £220,000 fine (and four-match ban) for racially abusing Ferdinand’s brother Anton. Again, not everybody would want to be the judiciary in the middle of all that, although you may have your own judgement about the relative sanctions handed out. Certainly Liverpool fans did, having seen Luis Suarez given an eight-match ban (but a £40,000 fine) the previous December for his abuse of Patrice Evra.
Which brings us back to Anfield, and Klopp’s latest fine – for his curious assessment of Kevin Friend’s performance at London Stadium. “Our goal was offside,” quoth the garrulous German about the opener from Divock Origi – the same scorer who had prompted the Alisson-cuddling pitch invasion against Everton. “I’m pretty sure the ref knew that in the second half. In 50-50 situations or 60-40 it was always a free-kick for the other team. As a human being, if I know I have made a big mistake in the first half, I don’t want to open the gap any more. Referees are obviously human beings.”
A textbook transgression of our old friend Rule E3, this resulted in a £45,000 fine, quickly accepted. If it that seems hefty for an errare humanus est caveat compared to Mourinho’s £50,000 fine for a conspiracy theory, it wasn’t nearly the biggest fine handed to an Anfield alumnus this season for raising a question mark over refereeing bias.
Back in September – well before seeing red at Southampton – Wilf Zaha had complained, while picking studs and grass out of shins, that he wasn’t being protected by referees and it would require a broken leg before a red card was dished out to his harassers. With Palace hosting Newcastle the following weekend, Rafa Benitez was asked his opinion and duly delivered a lengthy quote for the assembled notebooks and cameras.
“I have a lot of confidence with Andre Marriner,” said the Spaniard. “He has a lot of experience, even if his record with our players is not that great in terms of red cards. He is an experienced referee... Marriner will not have this in the back of his head. The way that he [Zaha] plays, normally, he will receive more tackles than other players because he likes to run at players. It won’t make any difference for our players.”
Reasonable enough, you might think, even if it came with a side-order of previous-expulsion accounting. The FA disagreed, and fined Benitez £60,000 for commenting about the referee before the game, which is expressly forbidden. Curious, then, that two months later Pep Guardiola discussed Anthony Taylor, custodian of the imminent Manchester derby, after City fans had suspected his Altrincham roots might suggest a leaning toward United.
Guardiola shrugged it off – “Mr Taylor is from Manchester but do people know the team he supports? Altrincham, so no problem” – and the FA, believing his comments more neutral than leading, wagged a finger rather than levying a fine.
Should the Catalan – perhaps wearing a ribbon, as he is allowed to do in press conferences but not on the touchline – wax thoughtful about the arbiter ahead of what could be a decisive derby in April, perhaps the suits will have to think again. But that’s borrowing sorrows from misconduct yet to occur, and the FA has plenty in its inbox already.
As with any justice system, how it deals with delinquency is always going to be a divisive, dissatisfying discussion, the sort that fuels football fans across the country. Perhaps, in a roundabout way, the FA is accidentally fulfilling another remit by keeping the brightly-coloured ball of public discourse high in the air and keeping our national pastime at the centre of the conversation. Just as we all like to cheer our heroes in their moment of celebration, so we like to boo the villains and nurture a sense of injustice. As long as we’re all watching, football will continue to court our attention.