Footballers are remarkably petulant, spoilt, egregious individuals. They complain instantly at even the slightest hint of perceived injustice, yet they are quite happy to commit acts of sometimes shocking indiscipline. Naturally, some players attain reputations as “bad boys”. Duncan Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, Eric Cantona, Robbie Savage and Joey Barton are just a handful of notorious names from the Premier League era. Similarly, some players are, on a football field at least, “whiter than white”. Most notable of these shining examples are Michael Owen, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard.

Rangers captain Joey Barton discussed his sending off at length on social networking site, Twitter.

The last is not seen as a dirty player, and thus it was certainly notable that his extremely ill-timed and reckless challenge on Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Adam Hamill received just a yellow card. Particularly in light of Vincent Kompany’s dismissal against Manchester United in today’s FA Cup encounter, Lampard’s “exoneration” appears to coincide even less with the rules of the game than it did at the time. Queens Park Rangers’ Barton, meanwhile, was shown the red card by Neil Swarbrick during a home clash with Norwich City, after squaring up with Canaries midfielder Bradley Johnson.

Video evidence has since shown little contact, or head movement from the Rangers midfielder, but Barton’s suspension has been upheld. It would, of course, be easy for pundits or supporters to say: “Well, he [Barton] must be guilty. He’s the sort of player who would usually do that.” Equally, statements along the lines of: “Lampard isn’t that sort of player” were being thrown around on Match of the Day.

It appears that, although we may not want to admit it, observers of the great game do allow history, opinions, prejudices and biases to cloud our judgement, and rationality is a perennial loser to predisposition, whatever this may be. But are referees affected by reputation?

Many have argued persuasively over the years, that officials can be intimidated by big personalities and the huge egos which sadly make the “beautiful game” what it is. John Terry, for instance, is constantly surrounding any referee over even the most tenuous, straightforward and uncontroversial decision. He is rarely disciplined, castigated or even verbally cautioned for his aggressive, bullying tactics, and he is not alone. All major clubs, indeed, some might say the vast majority of the Premier League, surround the referee, attempt to influence the decision-making process and push the limits of the spirit of the game.

But what goes through a referee’s mind when he sees a player scythe down a fellow professional, without making contact with the ball, risking severe injury to the recipient of the challenge? Does he simply assess the incident and issue an appropriate punishment? Or, in the back of his mind, does the referee think back to his knowledge of football? Does it cross his mind that the player who has committed the offence is notorious for putting in career-threatening challenges? Or does he consider that the player in question has never been booked before, and would thus surely not be capable of contravening the rules?

The answer is: probably. He probably does. After all, referees are only human. One would imagine they read the Sunday papers, check the gossip columns, discuss and debate the game as passionately and regularly as supporters do, and tune in to Match of the Day each weekend. Thus, when Johnson reeled away from his coming together with Barton, clutching his nose as if to indicate he had been punched or head-butted (because the referee didn’t actually witness this incident) what would Mr Swarbrick assume? Most likely he would consult with his fourth official, and linesman, before coming to a decision. But all four are as fallible and easily influenced. So, one could argue, as soon as Barton squared up to Johnson, he was risking dismissal even before any incident took place, based purely on his reputation.

By the same token Lampard, a consummate professional who rarely incites controversy, and, in the time-honoured cliche, “lets his football do the talking,” almost has a psychological hold over the referee at Molineux. Peter Walton knows the Chelsea player is a “good lad”, and thus issues only a yellow card for an offence which could easily have merited a dismissal. Whether the official was intimidated by Chelsea’s stature as a top-four club is another debate entirely, but it certainly seemed he, like Mr Swarbrick, succumbed to the inevitable and let reputation overrule reality.

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