Earlier this week, the SFA offered Garry O’Connor a retrospective two-match ban after he allegedly dived to win a penalty in the victory over St. Johnstone little over a week ago. Hibernian responded by rejecting the offer, forcing a tribunal, which will convene today to decide whether or not to uphold the ban.
The Hibernian decision to appeal cannot be based upon the innocence Garry O’Connor, even their Assistant Manager Billy Brown admitted his guilt on Sunday night’s Sportscene, rather their appeal will relate to the severity of the punishment.
Even though the new rules, introduced by the Scottish Football Association along with the new Fast-Track system, state that "No player shall cause a match official to make an incorrect decision and or support an error of judgment on the part of a match official by an act of simulation”, the on-pitch punishment for the same crime only carries a yellow card.
This poses the question: Is it just to retrospectively suspend a player for a bookable offence?
Steven Naismith, the first player to receive a retrospective ban since the introduction of the new system, was found guilty of elbowing Dunfermline’s Austin McCann almost two weeks ago and received a punishment identical to the penalty he would have incurred had referee Ian Brines noticed the incident when it occurred.
The same cannot be said for O’Connor, however. Had referee Steve Conroy noticed the simulation by the former-Birmingham striker a yellow card would have been shown, a free-kick awarded and O’Connor would find himself available for selection for the Motherwell match at Easter Road on Saturday week.
As it stands, the ruling today could see the ban upheld, and even increased if the SFA deem that Hibernian are wasting the governing body’s time through appealing.
Intuition dictates that a retrospective two-match ban is a harsh punishment for a yellow card offence: We would surely find it difficult to accept a player receiving such a ban for, say, jumping into the crowd or ripping his shirt off whilst celebrating a goal.
A common retort in opposition to this line of argument is that the severity of the ban should be greater since the referee was actually conned and that the outcome of the incident had decisive bearing on the result. That is, not only did O’Connor commit the bookable offence of simulation, his conning of the referee caused the referee to make an erroneous decision and the incident was central to the outcome of the match - the spot-kick allowed Hibernian to take a 3-1 lead in a match they eventually won 3-2.
Nevertheless, I have doubts as to the strength of this defence of the SFA’s decision. For instance, what if the simulation had taken place in on the halfway line and Conroy had failed to spot it? Would we still be having this discussion?
The defender of the SFA’s decision may interject here and claim that this is precisely why we are having this discussion, because it did take place somewhere that had a significant effect on the outcome of the match.
This, again, fails to stand up to scrutiny. If we accept that dives inside the box, missed by the officials at the time, are worthy of a retrospective two-match ban, then surely we should also accept the same for free-kicks at the edge of the area. These have a lower success rate in terms of goals scored but, nonetheless, are potent weapons in the armoury of certain sides. Regardless, the point is that such a decision may have as much of a bearing on the full-time result as the O’Connor incident versus St. Johnstone. Moreover, the referee was conned was still conned in our hypothetical example.
This then extends to free-kicks awarded, say, thirty-five yards from goal or around the halfway line. The award of free-kicks in such areas when the player is guilty of simulation may still lead to a goal which decides the outcome of a match. Soon we are on a slippery slope to the conclusion that each and every piece of simulation, for which the officials failed to take action, should be targeted by the authorities as worthy of a retrospective two-match suspension.
We can take this example to extremes and show that even a Steven Pressley-esque dive in a players own penalty area may lead to a long up-field punt, be flicked-on and then stuck into the net, leading to a 1-0 victory. I find it difficult to accept that should this type of scenario come to pass that the authorities would act in the same manner as they have regarding O’Connor.
Therefore, the SFA either has to punish each and every act of simulation it catches on camera, or else we are left with some arbitrary cut-off point which, at the moment, seems to be whether or not the act took place inside the box, with the extra qualification that it had a bearing on the eventual outcome of the match.
Failing this, until simulation is deemed a red card offence, offering a retrospective two-match suspension, a punishment akin to that of a red card offence, is untenable. Instead, we should stick to punishing the offence for what it is, a yellow card offence.
Amending the laws of the game so that simulation is worthy of a red card would, of course, bring about its own issues. But until the authorities deem it so, when simulation occurs, we are left to draw an arbitrary line between what areas of the field are appropriate for retrospective punishment and which are not.