Participant behaviour

Are we slapping?

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Olivia Smart of Leeds United Women striding onto the pitch at Garforth before playing FCUM, turning to the camera and laughing

Leeds United captain Olivia Smart, who once described herself as “the defender who doesn’t defend”, spent Wednesday night showcasing all the tricks in her arsenal. With an eye-catching curler, she gave the Whites the lead against FC United of Manchester, then spotted the perfect pass to set up Charly Pizzarello for their third goal.

Smart’s role in the fourth, though, was the most artful of them all. It came late, helping Kathryn Smith to seal a 4-1 win by tucking away a 79th minute penalty — and this was a goal Smart had been working at for some time.

Rewind to the first half when, led by her ferocious nose for an attack, she’d chased down an FC player all the way to their own corner flag. There must have been some stray arms in the tussle for the ball because, once play had moved on, and the duellers were jogging back up the pitch, an indignant Manchester voice asked, “Are we slapping now, ref? Are we slapping?”

Neither the referee nor I were close enough to the action to know whether we were slapping or not but, really, reality was irrelevant. Sometimes, the mere suggestion of slapping — that you might have been slapped or, indeed, that being slapped by this player was a possibility — is enough to get heads ticking.

In the opening exchanges I felt the newly-promoted FC hadn’t a hope of surviving Division One North, as they failed to keep pace with a side who know the league better than anyone. Two goals to the good within twenty minutes, Leeds looked comfortable, but that didn’t quieten the Manc behind the goal asking, ‘Are they paying you, ref?’

Leeds wouldn’t waste their money. Coach and recovering full-back Rebekah Bass knows compliments are free and fantastic motivators. “Brilliant ref, well done you,” came shouts from the technical box as Bass applauded justice as enthusiastically as she applauded her team’s successes.

The men in black have got a bit sick of people shouting at them lately. Some are quitting, and plenty more would-be officials are not bothering to take the training in the first place. Consequently, the International Football Association Board, who are the body responsible for making the laws of the game, are taking a stand against ‘participant behaviour’. That’s mouthing off, to you and I.

Last weekend, referee Emily Heaslip booked three players who protested against Alex Greenwood’s controversial red card in Manchester City’s dramatic draw with title rivals Chelsea. On Wednesday night in Garforth, referee Mr C Salmons didn’t have to warn anyone to shut the heck up because, even when it heated up, everyone in the Leeds United camp was on their best behaviour.

FC United of Manchester’s Abbie Carrington was not. There were seventeen minutes left to play when Carrington lunged into Smart as the Whites skipper threatened to deliver yet another goal-scoring opportunity.

Fortunately the LUTV cameras got a great angle on all of it: Carrington’s too-heavy touch, the moment she clocks Smart, the staggered sprint to beat her, the spring off the ground, the kung-fu silhouette, the two feet.

FC substitute Tamara Hamer had the best view of anyone and she raised her arms in theatrical disbelief. Given her proximity, it’s hard to believe she felt the response — Smart’s body flipping helplessly to the floor — was a dishonest reflection of the impact. Perhaps, instead, she was wondering how her teammate could be so savage. Again, the reality is irrelevant. The basic question, why has this happened, has a basic answer: that Smart is a pest, a wind-up, a really good football player. That’ll do it — Smart had found her stride and Carrington wanted to disrupt it.

But she couldn’t. The biggest wind-up of all is that Smart hardly reacted. After receiving treatment, she just got up and carried on. If I were Carrington, I’d have been rattled by that: ‘I’ve just tried snapping your leg and you’re not even arsed??’

Smart didn’t even react to the ref only pulling out a yellow. She had a right to disbelief, but any frustration only manifested in a little laugh. Smart was having a lovely evening, playing some of her best football, pulling the strings on a win for her girlhood side. Now someone, from 3-1 down and well beaten, was trying to end all the fun. I couldn’t figure out how she kept so calm about her staying on the pitch.

Then I remembered that Smart works in an NHS team responsible for organ transplant and retrieval. People die if you don’t stay calm in the operating theatre; some charged-up red from Manchester was the least of her worries. Smart had only just come off shift when the game kicked off, in case Carrington needed another reason to resent her brilliance.

Get Flora Snelson’s women’s football newsletter by email every week. It’s an ongoing celebration of 31st July 2022, when the Lionesses won the Euros and Flora’s head fell off for sheer joy. Get the latest on the Lionesses, WSL and the world beyond.

The booking didn’t deter Carrington. Moments later, she swiped the ball from under Rousseau, sending her stumbling with a fair but firm tackle. Now here was the piece de resistance of Smart’s performance. In a gorgeous moment of gamesmanship, she ran to collect the ball, letting Carrington ‘know she was there’ on her way past, then taking the throw-in so rapidly nobody could give that nudge another thought.

Carrington’s rattle-o-meter exploded, and within seconds Smart was on the floor again, having taken an emphatic chop to the legs. She seemed to know it was coming. Maybe that’s why she ran into the eighteen yard box before it did. Penalty given, assailant walking, Smart chilling. While referees are trying to clamp down on ‘participant behaviour’, Smart behaved impeccably, gently guiding the referee from a yellow card to a red one without so much as a word out of turn. Let’s hear it for the players, helping refs finish off a job half-done. ⬢

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