Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart pays penalty for sledging his opponent
One of the most satisfying sights of the weekend was England goalkeeper Joe Hart having to pick the ball out of the net eight minutes from the end of Sunday’s Premier League match at Swansea.
It’s not that I desperately care whether Mercenary City or fractionally less mercenary Manchester United win the Premier League title, and while I applaud the Swans on a notable victory, I certainly had no wish to see them overtake Norwich City in the league table.
But Luke Moore’s late winner at the Liberty Stadium was a reminder to Hart that he who laughs last laughs loudest.
Earlier in the game, the Manchester City ’keeper had indulged in what can only be described as sledging in deliberately trying to psych out penalty-taker Scott Sinclair.
Hart was seen to repeatedly shout at Sinclair “Don’t wait for me” as the Swansea man prepared to take his first-half spot-kick, an instruction, it seemed, not to wait and see which way he dived before hitting the ball.
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It was a tactic that appeared to pay off when he duly saved Sinclair’s poor effort.
Now Hart is a very good cricketer – he spent two years at the Worcestershire academy as a left-arm paceman and once played for Shropshire Under-19s at Manor Park, Horsford – and is therefore no stranger to the odd verbal exchange. But the point is that he was good enough to make that save without resorting to gamesmanship.
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Referee Lee Mason took no action against Hart, but as former official Graham Poll pointed out this week, such behaviour can be deemed “unsporting conduct” and he could have warned Hart, and followed up with a yellow card if he didn’t stop yelling at his opponent. A booking would quickly have shut him up.
The FA, perhaps not wanting to antagonise another of their England stars, concluded that it was mere “banter” between two players who knew each other from international duty, but where does banter stop and sledging begin?
Of course, goalkeepers since the year dot have always had ways and means of trying to gain an advantage over their opponents, but not as blatant as this.
Twanging the crossbar down to try to make sure the ball goes over the top is one favourite trick. And I can remember the Norwich ’keeper whose first act in the warm-up every week was to rake a line with his studs from the penalty spot to the goalline to give him a better idea of where he was in relation to the middle of the goal – when making additional marks on the pitch is against the rules.
Bruce Grobbelaar’s wobbly legs routine, which he introduced in the 1984 European Cup final shoot-out against AS Roma, was perhaps a more subtle variation of what Hart was trying to do but it still should have been stopped.
Time-wasting is another bone of contention and the worst offender I can recall was Everton’s Neville Southall. One could almost insert a commercial break while waiting for him to take a goal-kick.
The one exception was when Andy Townsend scored a very late winner for the Canaries against Everton at Carrow Road, and suddenly Southall was transformed into the Road Runner.
Newcastle’s Dutch goalkeeper, Tim Krul, was at the centre of this week’s time-wasting controversy when it seemed his delaying tactics antagonised fellow countryman Robin van Persie to such a degree that the row boiled over at the Emirates Stadium after Arsenal scored a stoppage-time winner.
Krul may have done himself no favours during the evening, but Van Persie’s taunting was childish for such a gifted player, enjoying his best season yet, and wearing the captain’s armband. With the game won, it was completely unnecessary and could have sparked ugly scenes.
There is such a thing as winning graciously and this wasn’t it.
The vast majority of supporters have learned to behave much better over the past 20 years or so. It should not be unreasonable to expect our highly-paid “superstars” to set an example.
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If and when Norwich City mathematically guarantee their Premier League place for another season – and even after a couple of below-par displays it still seems to be case of “when” rather than “if” – they can reflect with some satisfaction on the fact that they have won the games that matter most this season, or at least they have not lost them.
While the Canaries have beaten only two of the sides currently in the top half, Sunderland and tomorrow’s opponents Newcastle, they have prospered against those in the bottom half, the teams they were always going to need to beat, or at least to match, to keep their heads above water.
Taking a maximum 12 points from fellow promoted sides Swansea and Queens Park Rangers was a real triumph for City in the context of this season. Of the other four sides in the bottom five, they have doubled Bolton, drawn twice with Wigan and drawn on their first meetings with Blackburn and Wolves.
This is why you have to fear for QPR as they go into their final 10 matches.
By contrast, the Rs were doubled by Bolton, took just one point out of a possible six against Blackburn, and won one and lost one against both Wigan and Wolves. They were also doubled by Fulham, who have spent much of the season below halfway.
Now see what QPR are left with. Six of their last 10 matches are against teams in the top seven, and the remaining four games are against Sunderland, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke – still a pretty formidable quartet. It would be one of the great escapes to get out of this.