In a 2005/2006 Champions League encounter between Manchester United and Villarreal, a young and extremely fiery Wayne Rooney was sent off after sarcastically clapping his hands right in the face of the famously no-nonsense referee, Kim Milton Nielsen, who took great exception to the England international’s unique brand of Scouse humour.
Rooney looked shellshocked but the referee stood firm, and later doubled down when he claimed that such gestures, humorous or otherwise, were unacceptable. The United striker doubtless disagreed but that was that, and no amount of remonstrating or kicking of water bottles was going to change it.
At the time, the petulance of youth could’ve been used as an excuse to defend Rooney’s actions, but he certainly showed a lack of maturity and it cost his team big time.
On Saturday, it was Dan Neil’s turn to be cast in the ‘Rooney role’ against Middlesbrough, with Jarred Gillett, a man who probably won’t choose Sunderland as his retirement destination after such an infuriating display, playing the role of the villain.
Already on a yellow card after a strong challenge earlier in the half, Neil protested the non-awarding of a Sunderland free kick in favour of Trai Hume with a good, old-fashioned, ‘It’s a f***ing foul!’.
Gillett saw it as dissent, the red card was brandished and Neil trudged off, seemingly incredulous at what had happened, much like the 40,000+ Sunderland fans inside the stadium.
To say that it eventually proved costly is an understatement, as Middlesbrough cruised to a 0-4 victory, walking through our fatally-weakened midfield at will in the process and gleefully heading back down the A19 having claimed the bragging rights.
In such situations, the scapegoat is generally chosen swiftly and all of the attention was on Neil in the aftermath, but let’s not crucify him, because as with any young footballer, sometimes you have to accept the shortcomings in order to reap the benefits.
This season, Neil has evolved into a genuinely brilliant Championship-class midfielder.
On the ball, he’s improved at an immense rate, and his work out of possession is equally key to our style of play.
Alongside Pierre Ekwah, he’s formed an exciting partnership and in recent weeks, he and Jobe Bellingham have dovetailed nicely, although Ekwah’s return from a dead leg will certainly help to shore things up in an engine room which has been high on skill but perhaps short on physicality.
However, Saturday proved that for all of his progression, Neil still has to smooth off the rough edges of his game and in this case, it was a lack of discipline at a key moment.
He would’ve been as infuriated as any fan at Gillett’s performance and at what he saw as a clear injustice, but as the great Bill Shankly said, the referee always wins in the end, and this was another example.
What was needed at that moment was self-discipline and the ability to remain cool and composed instead of letting his emotions dictate matters.
Giving the referee a chance to brandish a second yellow was foolish and in that sense, he fell into the trap that can often alter the entire dynamic of a game.
Perhaps one of his teammates should’ve arrived on the scene to say, “Bite your tongue, Dan, walk away, and and channel that anger into a performance”. Easier said than done at times, but that’s what’s so often needed at this level.
On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that if a referee takes offence to some coarse language in the atmosphere of a game like this, he’s either desperate to make a scene or guilty of showing little empathy on an occasion where things often get heated.
Gillett’s performance on Saturday, on just about very level, was an abomination, and it provided further proof that performative, limelight-hogging referees are becoming a problem at all levels of the game.
Why are top-flight officials who turn in substandard performances then demoted to try and make amends in the Championship? Where is the accountability and the right to reply that head coaches should be afforded after such dismal displays?
Fundamentally, the authorities are marking their own homework when it comes to officiating, and you have to wonder how long this can be sustained, given the amount of errors we’re seeing on a weekly basis.
However, referees can’t reach for the card unless given reason to, and that’s the harsh reality for Neil. The rules are the rules and although you might’ve hoped for some common sense to be applied by the Australian, he clearly saw fit to take a hardline approach.
Moving forward, Neil will recover from this, without a doubt.
He was defended in the aftermath of the game by Tony Mowbray and although some harsh words will probably be exchanged behind closed doors, he’ll almost certainly respond with aplomb when he returns following his ban.
Yes, his red card proved costly on Saturday, but if and when such a situation arises in the future, let’s hope that he’s able to stay calm, not get embroiled in a spat, and remain where he’s so influential: at the very heart of the team.