Manchester City have been charged by the English Football Association with failing to control their players during Sunday's nail-biting 3-3 draw against Tottenham Hotspur.
Incensed players surrounded referee Simon Hooper when he awarded a free-kick to City late in stoppage time after initially waving play on for a foul on Erling Haaland, who had played teammate Jack Grealish through on goal for what could have been a potentially match-winning moment.
City were charged under rule E20.1, which mandates that a club must ensure its players do not “behave in a way which is improper, offensive, violent, threatening, abusive, indecent, insulting or provocative”. The club has until Thursday to appeal against the charge.
Granted, no one wants to see players surrounding a referee like screaming hyenas at every contested call, but what looks "improper" or "threatening" or "provocative" through the FA's lens can look completely different through players'.
The idea of asking players to be robotic, disconnected, emotionally numb in high-pressure situations, when so much is at stake, is ludicrous, and worth examining.
Let's for a moment consider what the alternative reality would have looked like at that exact moment at the Etihad Stadium.
Haaland is cynically scythed down by Tottenham defender Emerson Royal just inside City's half. Haaland, being the brute force of nature he is, rides the challenge, turns, looks up, sees an ocean of green for Grealish to run into and plays a ball for his City teammate to bear down on goal. Hooper blows his whistle to signal a foul and a free kick to City.
City players march up the pitch ready for the ball to be hoofed up to them, no questions asked. The ref blows his whistle. Game over. Everyone shakes hands. You win some, you lose some. Cut to the live studio, Micah Richards champions Hooper for making a decision and sticking to it only to change his mind a second later, Roy Keane gently nods his approval.
That reality is neither achievable nor desirable.
Players connect to their fans, and vice versa, by overt displays of passion, whether through an elaborate goal celebration or when a sense of injustice, perceived or real, is inflicted on them.
It's often said that players feed off the crowd but it works the other way, too. A crunching tackle will often illicit one of the biggest roars from supporters, precisely because it conveys a sense that the player is giving his all for his team - and by extension his fans.
How would City supporters have received Haaland if he hadn't remonstrated, a giant blur of blond metaphorically pulling his hair out at a dubious call? What would City fans have thought of Kyle Walker if he did not speak to the referee – as the rules permit him to do as the team's captain, as long as it's within reason? Why would City fans or any other supporters expect their players to make their protests at a safe distance instead of in the proximity of the person who made the decision?
To be clear, this isn't advocating for the wholesale haranguing of referees over every decision nor a witch hunt of Hooper. It's definitely not a Man City sob story. The FA's guidelines are black and white when there is too much grey area. Clearly, there has to be a line between what's acceptable and what's not when approaching a referee. Violence and intimidation absolutely fall into the latter but questioning a referee's decision to wave play on one second only to call play back for a foul is one that all teams are surely entitled to make?
Anger is a universal emotion – we all get hacked off at something – and when it's something people feel passionate about – ie football – then there will be incidences when players, fans and coaches want immediate answers. The Premier League markets itself as the best in the world with the most passionate fans, does it really want its lucrative product diluted by asking its players to keep emotions in check?
Haaland made his position clear both in real time and digital, though the FA have said he will not face additional sanctions. It would be interesting to hear Hooper's take on it all. An otherwise fine game by the official was marred by one controversy, but if he was confident he made the right call then surely he can be confident it will stand up under scrutiny.
Alternatively, if he made a mistake, most (except maybe Manchester City) will forgive him for holding his hands up and owning it.
It seems inevitable City will be charged and fined. Hooper may find himself relegated for one week's duty in the second-tier Championship. Neither seems necessary. Mistakes were made, but that's what makes us human. That and being allowed to vent every now and again.