Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shielded from scrutiny

A-League news.
The A-League's showpiece finale was a tale of match-costing errors of judgement - and not all of them from the vanquished Central Coast Mariners.

Newcastle's worthy 1-0 win has been somewhat overlooked in the wash-up of a match which unlike previous grand final episodes was decided by individual errors rather than flashes of brilliance.

Topping last season's five-goal haul from Melbourne marksman Archie Thompson was always likely to be a pointless exercise - and so it turned out as the Jets, the better team on the day, carved out a hard-working although ultimately fortunate victory to scoop their maiden domestic title.

Fortunate not because the Mariners had a player, goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, sent off nor because retiring veteran defender Tony Vidmar made a meal of clearing his lines and gifted possession to Australia under-23 striker Mark Bridge who curled a second-half winner.

Fortunate because for consecutive weeks the league's top officials made a perplexing penalty decision in stoppage time. Only this time it irreversibly altered the destination of the championship.

We live in an age where those who admit their wrongdoings are usually absolved if given the floor to explain and seek forgiveness.

The typically upfront Vidmar came clean straight after the match. "A mistake from myself has cost us the game and I'm going to gave to live with that," the third-most capped Socceroo of all-time admitted afterwards. "I'll put my hand up on that."

It would be a particularly vindictive individual to hold that moment of hesitation against the departing Vidmar, one of Australian football's truest champions.

But what of those possibly career-damaging choices made by Vukovic and referee Mark Shield?

Vukovic's heat-of-the-moment decision to manhandle Shield made little difference to the result but its consequence will reverberate around the domestic game for some time.

The affable Central Coast custodian faces missing two-thirds of next season after the FFA handed him a draconian 15-month suspension for striking Shield as he, and his Mariners team-mates, protested the decision not to award a penalty when the ball struck Newcastle substitute James Holland in the box.

TV replays vindicated Vukovic's protests if not his actions.

The 22-year-old, gagged by the Mariners while the club gather an appeal, reportedly later apologised to Shield for losing his cool although that apparently held little sway.

The FFA came down on him like a ton of bricks and have almost certainly punctured his dream of representing Australia at the Beijing Olympics by serving such a exorbitant sanction.

Vukovic's contact with Shield was nowhere near Paolo Di Canio's petulant shove on EPL referee Paul Alcock for which the Italian received an 11-match ban.

And while it's clearly no defence, the protest had plenty of legitimacy. It arose from an unusually poor piece of officiating from the country's top ref when only he and his assistant failed to notice Holland's arm colliding with Tom Pondeljak's corner.

Shield waved away the Mariners' desperate claims, booking John Aloisi and then sending Vukovic packing. Sasho Petrovski is also under investigation for an unwelcome gesture while the club have been invited to explain why they shouldn't be punished for losing control of their players.

The FFA are asking plenty of questions of the Mariners but outsiders are pondering Shield's part in the sorry story.

Vukovic's moment of madness reopens the various debates about the standard of refereeing and the possible introduction of technology.

What needs saying is that the A-League's top officials are considered among the best in Asia and will make as many mistakes at work as anyone else.

That, however, should not shield them from scrutiny.

Let's remember that Vidmar put his hand up, and so too did Vukovic but they'll still continue to pay a heavy price in the months ahead.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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