It was a drama-filled Sunday afternoon when Manchester City met Chelsea in an early Women’s Super League title clash.
11 cards issued, two stars sent off and a late equaliser were the headline moments from the clash at Joie Stadium, but it was the drastic changes in refereeing which had players and fans alike up in arms.
New guidelines have seen officials swing from hefty leniency last season to a swift crackdown on time-wasting and dissent this term and City were left dumbfounded as some choice refereeing seriously harmed their chances of making it two wins from two WSL games.
City, who had both Alex Greenwood and Lauren Hemp dismissed, somehow clung onto the lead Chloe Kelly’s strike in the seventh minute gave them until second-half stoppage time when Guro Reiten brought Chelsea level just before the final whistle.
City have now racked up three red cards in just two WSL games after Leila Ouahabi’s dismissal in the 2-0 win over West Ham last week, an early statistic manager Gareth Taylor would not have wanted in his quest to reclaim top-three status.
“Three red cards in two games is going to send a message suggesting to anyone that hasn’t watched us play that we’re a dirty team,” the City boss said.
“But I think anyone who has watched us in the last two games would never say that. We are a good, young team that maintain possession of the ball really well, are exciting to watch and we would like to keep 11 players on the pitch.
“If there is consistency, then in most of the games [this season] we will see a lot of that – where there is yellow cards and red cards.”
It only took Kelly seven minutes to open the scoring. The England forward’s strike from distance deflected off Jess Carter’s outstretched leg and looped beyond Zecira Musovic’s reach to give the home side an early advantage.
However, things started to go downhill quickly.
Captain Greenwood was booked in the 17th minute for a foul and, only 20 minutes later, referee Emily Heaslip presented the defender with a second yellow for time-wasting at a free-kick. The home crowd began to stir against the officials, but with 26 seconds between the free kick being given and Greenwood taking the set piece, referee Heaslip deemed it enough to dismiss Greenwood for perceived gamesmanship.
Manager Taylor made no changes close to the incident despite goalscorer Kelly and Laia Aleixandri being booked for dissent following the call. New signing Jill Roord also received a yellow card for kicking the ball away after the half-time whistle.
Heaslip had cautioned two Chelsea players – Lauren James and Niamh Charles – before City’s first red card. Both were soft calls and seemed to lead to the official losing control of the fixture.
Ashley Lawrence avoided a yellow for a tackle on Hemp that left the Lionesses star contorted on the floor. Within minutes, Hemp was in the books for dissent for contesting a corner.
To further anger an irate crowed, Heaslip showed Hemp her second yellow for an innocuous foul on James in the 81st minute. Echos of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ and ‘you’re not fit to referee’ surrounded Joie Stadium as Hemp forlornly trudged off the pitch.
Nine-player City were left defending their early lead with their lives. Goalkeeper Khiara Keating retained her starting spot after keeping a clean sheet in the 2-0 win over West Ham but was denied a second shutout despite some brilliant saves when Chelsea finally drew level.
Reiten finished off a scramble in the box to break City hearts, with the hosts only having eight players on the pitch at the time as Alanna Kennedy was being treated for cramp.
It was little consolation for City to go 20 WSL games unbeaten at home after conceding in such a dismal way, having desperately clung onto their lead for the majority of the afternoon.
City boss Taylor called for consistency in officiating in the future, revealing: “Let’s see the challenges and the communication between some players and the officials. Let’s see. That’s all we want – consistency.
“You don’t want consistency in bad decisions, of course not. Everyone makes mistakes – players, managers and referees.
“We’re going to have to change a lot of things. That game was pretty subdued. I think you’ll have a lot of coaches sat in my position saying the same things.”
City were no more ‘dirty’ than Chelsea, who made more fouls (ten) compared to their hosts (four), but it was the crackdown on time-wasting and appeals from players that made City’s afternoon so difficult.
The changes were brought in at the start of the season but it was apparent on Sunday the new rules have not yet seeped down to the players, with many confused as to how they were booked for dissent, time-wasting or fouls that did not warrant a card.
That view was backed up by Taylor, who claimed the officiating has gone from one extreme to another.
“When you make drastic changes like this it can be quite difficult and, at the moment, you are saying a lot of those types of [offences] will be yellow cards,” he added.
“But it was 11 yellow cards and two red cards [in total] and it was not a malicious game at all.
“I’m all about respect. It’s such a hard job for the officials, especially when you have players coming at you and maybe staff. But let’s move it a little bit slower because, if not, it will be an eight-a-side league unfortunately – if they are consistent.”
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