Louis van Gaal, the current manager of Manchester United, is a confusing figure. Frequently disarming and able to display a self-deprecating humour, he’s occasionally also abrasive and blinkered. Sometimes, he’s just downright weird, a facet of his personality that came to the fore after the most recent act of thuggery from one of his least admirable players, a certain Monsieur Fellaini.
The occasion was the potential title-decider when Champions-elect Leicester City came to Old Trafford needing three points to clinch a miraculous Premier League crown. It was a compelling game, with Leicester going behind early and then showing their character to claw their way back and claim a valuable point towards eventual success. But all was not sweetness and light, as might almost be expected in such a tense tussle. One of the penalty area challenges between Leicester’s Robert Huth and Marouane Fellaini of Man Utd turned decidedly nasty and could easily have seen the dismissal of both, if the referee had only seen it. There was grappling, there was pushing and shoving, there was even the seizing and pulling of part of Fellaini’s impressive coiffure. And, sad to say, there was yet another example of the old “Spanish Archer” (el Bow) from serial offender Fellaini. It’s all there in not-so-glorious slow motion: a malicious, premeditated extension of Fellaini’s left arm in front of him, for it to be drawn back viciously into the head/neck area of the opponent behind him.
This is where van Gaal becomes rather difficult to defend. In interviews afterwards, he leant back further and more perilously than a limbo dancer in futile efforts to justify his player’s reprehensible action. It should have been a penalty for Huth’s silly hair-pulling, he said (No, it shouldn’t). Fellaini’s actions were justifiable on the grounds of provocation, he said (No, they weren’t). Hair-pulling was, he claimed, the sort of kinky perversion that belongs in “sex masochism” (Speechless). Louis van Gaal even playfully tugged at a reporter’s hair and asked him how he liked it. That the reporter then refrained from elbowing van Gaal in the throat rather detracted from the Manchester United manager’s attempt to justify, on the grounds of reasonableness and inevitability, Fellaini’s assault on Huth.
A careful study of the incident – something the F.A. must certainly have done, many times and painstakingly – reveals a couple of interesting points. Firstly, Fellaini’s elbowing action had started well before Huth made contact with the Man Utd player’s hairdo. The arm was extended forward and was well on its premeditated way back to catch Huth under his jawbone – before hand touched hair. That disposes of the penalty clause; Fellaini was the first offender. Secondly, Fellaini swiped backwards not once, but twice. The second was a weakish slap, catching Huth somewhere around the temple. That was the response to the hair-pulling. But the first elbowing action stood alone, and it was a dangerous act with a clear intent to cause damage, simply because an opponent had the temerity to challenge him closely, that could easily have been serious. For that alone, Fellaini deserves the most serious of punishment.
Having dealt with van Gaal’s attempts to defend his player, we should move on to consider Fellaini’s previous. And there’s plenty of it; you only have to listen to some of the Belgian’s old opponents and even his former teammates. Fellaini, we hear, does this sort of thing most games. Several examples have been caught by TV cameras, most notably at Anfield in a Europa League cup tie against Liverpool. Fellaini was bang to rights there, just as he was against Leicester – but he got away with the Anfield elbow. This time, he’s got a three game league ban – but is it enough?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit that it is not. The F.A. in another case, this one arising out of the Chelsea v Spurs match on Monday, have made it clear that some cases deserve more severe punishment. It seems likely that Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele will face a six game ban for his blatant eye-gouging offence. Now that’s nasty stuff – but is it really that much more serious than a back-flung elbow that could easily crush an opponent’s tracheal cartilage and leave him literally breathless as a result? The two cases are comparable, the two punishments should, therefore, be appropriately similar.
Crystal Palace will face Manchester United – including Fellaini, in all likelihood – in what is still a showpiece occasion, the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley on the 21st May. Palace should not have to face this serial offender, this reckless distributor of flying elbows, this accident waiting to happen. If Dembele can be taken out of action for six matches due to the disgusting nature of his offence, then so should Fellaini, for an assault no less culpable, no less disgusting, no less dangerous. And Fellaini has demonstrated that, left unchecked, he will simply continue this casual close-contact variety of GBH. He has shown no sign of reforming his ways and, while the F.A. treat him with kid gloves and his manager bleats in his defence, he will simply carry on carrying on – alarmingly.
If this season’s F.A. Cup Final spectacle is besmirched by the spectacle of some hapless player left sprawling with a crushed adam’s apple, a broken jaw, a smashed nose – or worse – then it is fair odds that one M. Fellaini will be the name on the charge sheet. But he will not be alone in the dock – for if the worst does come to the worst at Wembley, then the faint hearts and soft-sawder merchants at the F.A. will be just as guilty as a Belgian who can neither keep his temper nor control his aggression.
For all of those reasons, as well as consideration for the Crystal Palace players – whose big Cup Final day should not be sullied by common assault – Marouane Fellaini should face a good long ban that will see him out of action until the early part of the next League campaign. Most assuredly, he should not be playing at Wembley – neither in the F.A Cup Final nor, should the case arise, in the Community Shield. If he does, it sends out a wrong and dangerous message, to teammates, to opponents, to others who might be disposed to act thuggishly and – not least – to the errant and foolish Fellaini himself.