Sunderland 1-2 Chelsea: Robben's leap takes football further away from the crowd…

After the disappointment of missing out on the signings of Evra, Adebayor, Diaby and Walcott along with the countless others we were supposedly “in for” during the first fortnight of the transfer window, as Grocer Jack detailed below Chelsea were ultimately deserving winners in the North East on Sunday afternoon. A hectic but perfect Christmas / New Year programme and a sizeable lead is the stuff that last season’s title win was built upon; if more excitement were needed, Jose could almost hand the team over to Kevin Keegan now and still be reasonably certain of picking up the Premiership trophy come May. Yes, I said almost…

After the shuffled pack that overcame Huddersfield last weekend, a more familiar Chelsea side looked lethargic and careless in the opening exchanges. Wayward passes (Lampard, Makelele and Del Horno all guilty here) gave Sunderland the early initiative and an improbable twelfth minute lead that had most of the population salivating at the prospect of arguably the biggest upset in Premier League history. Had Liam Lawrence scored the only goal of the game, he could well have found himself collecting an MBE for services to football with Stevie and Jamie when they case the Palace in the summer. The performance wasn’t exactly vintage Chelsea for long periods, but Crespo’s close range header and Robben’s deflected shot either side of the break gave us our tenth consecutive victory and a sixteen point cushion over Man. Utd.

Whilst the game’s talking point was Robben’s red card (more of which later), one aspect that hasn’t been commented upon, either in the press or by a rather subdued Mourinho post-match was Joe Cole’s substitution. After his well-documented “running around the streets barefoot with torn clothes” antics (well you can take the boy out of West Ham…), valuable assist for Crespo’s goal aside the blur of his tricky stepover feet and continual exposure of Gallas on the right flank may have had more to do with his withdrawal after Jose’s recent warning than the bruises he received from the angered boyfriend of page 3 stunna Keeley. Jose isn’t one for idle threats; the starting eleven against Charlton may well reveal more.

On the evidence of today’s gritty Sunderland display, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for Mick McCarthy. To quote a northern comedian whose name escapes me at present; “He’s so unlucky — if he fell into a sack of tits he’d come out sucking his thumb…” With the statistic that the Mackems are now mathematically incapable of winning the league doing the rounds, rather making light of six points from sixty-three and just eight home league goals this season, it is not hard to see why so much red plastic is visible in the stands at the Stadium of Light these days. But what the team lack in points and goals scored, they more than make up for in terms of sweat and endeavour and a swift return to the top flight after the inevitable drop to the Championship is definitely on the cards.

And so to Robben’s dismissal; a poor advert for football which had as much to do with ridiculous rules as it did poor refereeing. His first yellow was definitely the latter of the two and the second, whilst following the letter of the law, was proof positive that football’s authorities are unwittingly dragging the game further and further away from the fans. If President Tony is to be believed the nation’s biggest problem is a lack of respect; with the rules of the national game and the officials that enforce them appearing ever more bewildering and dictatorial to the man in the street, events like this in football seem an almost apt explanation for the indifference to authority that the Daily Mail rants about in the pages that aren’t slating Chelsea for buying the game’s mortal soul.

The lack of consistency, both in terms of similar incidents and in comparison with other more serious indiscretions was the most startling aspect of Robben’s premature exit from the game. Countless instances of players and managers celebrating with fans and remaining unpunished can be cited by way of example; step forward Stuart Pearce and Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen to name just two. But at the time of writing we await news of the fate of Barcelona’s ever-charming loose cannon Samuel Eto’o, who received no punishment for spitting in the face of Athletico Bilbao defender Unai Exposito during a La Liga fixture on Sunday. Will mad Mr. Blatter chip into the debate, citing the rulebook for Robben but ignoring the phlegm in Spain? Who knows — football’s authorities are a law unto themselves so reasoned comment and explanation of the game’s anomalies are the last thing we should expect as mere paying punters.

Which deserves greater punishment — spitting in the face of a fellow professional or celebrating a (winning) goal with fans who have paid good money and traveled hundreds of miles to watch a game? Individual biases and age-old rivalries aside, does anyone really want to see Rooney, Henry or Gerrard booked for celebrating with those that idolise them? By all means, reprimand them for sarcastic gestures towards opposition fans but do at least try to understand one of the few remaining pieces of common ground shared by supporters and players — the adrenalin rush of sheer excitement that a goal brings.

Whilst not appearing to have a great deal in common, the Robben incident and dear old Sven, the weekend’s other big news are two sides of the same rather tarnished coin. With half the country fuming self-righteously and the other half amazed that anyone in the public eye still falls for the old “super-rich sheik and a few alcoholic tongue-looseners” scam, the errant Swede added another black mark to his zero-hero-zero tenure in charge of the national side. Unprincipled, indiscreet money-grabbing swordsman Eriksson may be (an ideal bedfellow for English football, you might think), but the nature of his entrapment will only serve to make both him and the players more reticent to communicate openly with a media that is now more adept at manufacturing football related news with its own slant than it is at reporting what actually happens. (And pity poor old Villa; Doug Ellis and David O’Leary and then the fantasy threat of Sven and Beckham — haven’t they suffered enough for one lifetime?)

The almost cowardly “just doing his job” defence of, in Chris Foy’s case, a very poor refereeing performance in the view of both sides draws a thin veil over the fact that the rule makers and enforcers seem to have little comprehension of the passionate nature of the game and its fans at the most basic level. Draconian health and safety regulations will probably be given as the reason, but banning players from anything other than on-pitch congratulation by their colleagues only serves to remove yet another link between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The same applies to every newspaper sting, exposé or misrepresentation of a manager or player’s words; the football community will become more wary and reluctant to give anything other than carefully managed press conferences and interviews, withdrawing themselves into their own protective bubble and moving further away from the public. The game needs and indeed thrives upon controversy, but the gap between those on the pitch and those in the stands has grown ever wider with this weekend’s events.

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