Hats off to Mark Clattenburg for having the courage of his convictions over Rooney's raised elbow at Wigan on Saturday
Carlo Ancelotti says he has no problem with Wayne Rooney taking part for Manchester United against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this evening, yet it appears the greater part of the country disagrees. A significant body of opinion seems to believe any other player than the England forward would have been serving a ban by now for his impetuous elbow on Wigan's James McCarthy at the weekend, and one prominent football website even went so far as to claim that cowardice on the part of officials was favouring United and taking all the uncertainty out of the title race.
Really? Surely if Mark Clattenburg – the referee at the DW on Saturday – wished to take the cowardly way out he could have fudged his report by saying he did not get a proper view of the incident, thus letting retrospective disciplinary procedures swing into action with full recourse to slow-motion replays and different camera angles.
Instead Clattenburg stood his ground and said he thought he had made the right decision at the time, and one rather admires a referee willing to do that. Especially over such a contentious issue as a raised elbow. There are many who will tell you that any sort of attack to the head, to borrow a term from the other sport played at the DW, is unacceptable in football, and they might be right. What Rooney did was arguably worse than what Arsenal's Abou Diaby did to Joey Barton at Newcastle last month, or what DJ Campbell was sent off for at Wolves on Saturday.
Yet no two raised arms are ever quite the same, and despite the hysteria surrounding Rooney's misbehaviour – as predicted by United's manager – it seems idle to pretend, as many have sought to do, that this particular assault was a potential jaw-breaker or cynical attempt to hospitalise an opponent.
The Wigan player involved was not wholly innocent, he had moved into Rooney's path to block his run, and as the game was only eight minutes old it did not seem unreasonable for Clattenburg to try to calm the situation and warn the United player about his future conduct. Those who are now complaining that he ducked the issue or made an exception for Rooney are probably the same people who complain from time to time that referees have become automatons, mindlessly applying the letter of the law with no discretion of their own.
I happened to be at the DW on Saturday and like most people in the stadium, I missed the incident first time round. I also managed to miss it second and third time round, because only about one in three of the DW press-box monitors actually works, and though people in more favoured seats reported that an elbow had been used, the first decent footage I saw was on Match of the Day.
Clattenburg, of course, had to make up his mind on the spot, about something he could only have seen in the periphery of his vision. That is, if you like, an argument for putting players on report and letting video judges with a proper view take disciplinary action after the event, but before going down that route the game really ought to give referees with the courage of their own convictions a chance. Clattenburg may not have had a perfect view of the collision, but he was in a better position than anyone else to form a judgment, so that is what he did.
Judgment, of course, is not an exact science. There are different ways of looking at things. That's why we are still talking, three days after the event, about something that was over in a second and which few people noticed until McCarthy got up clutching his head.
Here are 10 positions it is possible to take about the same incident. Not everyone will agree with all of them, but each one could be considered true.
1 Rooney got lucky. No one who raises his hands on a football pitch could complain at a red card.
2 The attack was not premeditated, but was occasioned by McCarthy deliberately moving to block Rooney's run. The Wigan player leaned into Rooney with his shoulder, which is why he got hit in the head. The referee could simply have viewed it as six of one and half a dozen of the other.
3 Roberto Martínez had a point when he said a Wigan player would never have got away with it.
4 The Wigan manager was clutching at straws, preferring to argue that United should have been down to 10 men rather than confront another collapse by his side.
5 Dave Whelan should just pipe down. His team are in enough trouble and his manager had already made the point that United often seem to be treated differently to sides lower down the league. Moaning about big-club bias is a bit much after another 4-0 defeat.
6 Sir Alex Ferguson's claim that the press would try to persecute Rooney was damn clever. Forcing the press to use quotes about what the press might do next was a smart way to tie reporters in knots.
7 The press, and media generally, did try to persecute Rooney, though they sensibly stopped short of electrocution. Though the crime was worse than the "next to nothing" Ferguson claimed, it was not quite outright thuggery either, and the manager knew exactly what he was doing by hyperbolising the anticipated reaction.
8 John Hartson was right to say on MOTD2 that Ferguson ought not to be trying to defend Rooney's action, though wrong to say the issue is not about Rooney. The issue is all about Rooney.
9 Rooney's temper is taking him into Roy Keane territory. He is making himself a centre of attention for reasons unconnected with his core task of scoring and making goals for Manchester United, and not even Ferguson will be able to keep pretending that he is a misunderstood innocent. One of the factors in Ferguson's decision of a decade ago to swerve the post-match interview that all the other Premier League managers do was that he was finding it increasingly difficult to remain loyal to his players while handling pointed questions about his captain's behaviour.
10 Clattenburg may have made a mistake, which is to say he might have acted differently with a better view, but unless referees can be 100% sure it is probably best that they give players the benefit of the doubt eight minutes into a game. Whoever they may be.