Monday’s announcement that Fulham were to be charged by the FA for failing to control their players in the recent Leeds United fixture is the straw that has broken my proverbial camel’s back when it comes to officiating.

There has been a fairly unilateral feeling that refereeing standards have been going down over the past few seasons, an opinion that has only been enhanced in Fulham fandom by the regular lower calibre of decision we’ve seen during our inaugural foray into the Championship.

However, I don’t take criticising officials in print lightly. Yes between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon we are all automatically pre-disposed to blame them but let’s face it, they have a difficult job, and a vital one at that. They are the last line of protection for players’ safety and often hold the key to keeping a game entertaining, but in the career of a referee or assistant you mostly either face criticism or anonymity.

Yet there is a time and a place to speak up and the quality of officiating in this country needs to be addressed. This is not simply a biased spectator looking for an excuse to pardon his own team’s inefficiencies. Referee’s don’t have Fulham fighting a second successive relegation, but they do play a part in every game and the evening out of decisions for and against you over the course of a season is no reason to gloss over the underlying issue.

However, to start with, let’s be a little biased and look at the aforementioned Leeds game. Kostas Stafylidis gets booked for dissent after launching a verbal tirade against the assistant referee after he gave a throw in against the Fulham defender. The decision to give Leeds a throw in was a wrong one, and having just gone two goals down, Kostas took out his frustrations on the hapless official. A yellow card was probably fair, officials don’t need berating, even if they have made a boo boo. Twenty seconds later, Stafylidis rather idiotically decides to foul a Leeds player directly in front of the same assistant referee (and the Leeds fans). The referee gives him the old “calm down” motion and sets off towards the box ready to oversee the resultant free kick. However, his assistant has other ideas. The Leeds fans (of which there are some 6,000) reign down from the Putney End with a cascade of “off off off” chants and the assistant tells his referee to send off Stafylidis. Seeing this change of scenario unfold, several Fulham players (Captain Scott Parker and Vice Captain Ross McCormack included) charge towards the referee, incensed that their match has just been effectively ended with Stafylidis’ sending off. These are the facts [Imagine that said in the voice of Rafa Benitez and you’ll get where I’m going].

Why did the Fulham players (and the entire stadium) react with such anger? Well, the appearance was that the assistant referee either sent off Stafylidis because he was still upset about the earlier dissent, or because the Leeds fans encouraged him to do so. Or both. Yes, Stafylidis was a first rate hothead and shouldn’t have put himself in that scenario, but the entire situation came about from what was frankly poor officiating by the linesman in the first place. This was a linesman that was consistently yards behind the play (but we’ll get to fitness later).

Fast forward to later in the game and Ross McCormack gets taken out from behind, leading directly to a knee injury that has seen him have to withdraw from the Scotland squad after a hard earned recall. Was the relevant Leeds player sent off? Or even booked? No. Of course not. What was that about player protection?

The frequency of refereeing howlers is on the face of it alarmingly high. This last weekend we even had not one, but two wrong man sending off incidents across the Football League where Cauley Woodrow was dismissed wrongly against Huddersfield and West Brom’s Craig Dawson managed to hide from the referee for long enough after bringing down Manchester City’s Wilfried Bony that Gareth McAuley was sent off instead. However, there has been a magna carta-full of refereeing blunders this season and these were just the latest.

So why is this?

Well, a few weeks ago top flight referee Lee Propert delivered a lecture at the University of Bath entitled “The Demands of a Modern Referee and Why Angles are so Important”. What Mr Probert said was both revealing and highly unsatisfactory and points to an increase in difficulty and a resultant drop in standards and a high level of deniability.

Firstly a caveat, it was Probert who sent off Brede Hangeland v Sunderland in 2012 thus commencing the downward spiral that Fulham are still in, so my opinion of him is reasonably low, however what I write here is a direct report of what he himself said in that lecture at the University of Bath.

There were two main strands of the debate on standards that came out of his discussion; fitness and the media.

Firstly, Mr Probert described how up to about 2012, Premierleague referees had made an enormous effort to get themselves on the same level of fitness as the players. Indeed some of the fitness tests referees have to pass would make Olympic hopefuls blush. However, he said there was an overriding feeling amongst officials that players had since got fitter at a rate referees simply could not match. This means that for a referee to be in the right place and the right time to make the right decision is harder than it ever has been before as the game, and the players, are always getting faster. This is a legitimate explanation for an apparent drop in standards. The game is becoming simply too fast for the referees to catch up.

The second, and far more unsatisfactory point, is that referees are mindful of the media. Probert said referees don’t want to be the story, therefore there is a tendency to shy away from big decisions if they think they might be scrutinised. The more worrying aspect of this is that he said referees know decisions involving (and against) the big teams will inevitably generate more controversy and therefore coverage and therefore they are less likely to take them. The sum of that statement being that referees really do favour the big teams.

Probert gave an example of when another referee, Mike Dean, sent off Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany in a game against Arsenal back in 2013. The incident in question involved the Manchester City defender being shown a straight red card for a 50/50 tackle against Jack Wilshere. Probert’s explanation was that the Arsenal man should also have been sent off as both tackles were red card offenses. Why did only one man get sent off? To avoid the controversy as a double sending off would have made the referee the story. Interestingly, Kompany’s red card was actually overturned, something that went undiscussed.

However, Probert’s comments serve merely to reinforce the opinion that refereeing is suffering a bit of a crisis at the moment. With video technology not being utilised referees simply cannot achieve the ultimate levels of performance that their colleagues in other sports can. Without the quality of performance, they will not command the respect they crave and for the most part deserve. It is hard to talk about referees without using rugby union as an example, but watching Nigel Owens, the welsh referee, summarily end a conversation with the England Captain Chris Robshaw during last weekend’s Six Nations encounter between England and France with a simple, “Christopher, that’s enough” and the player responding with an even simpler “Yes sir”, it is hard to think that there is a long way for football to go.

What is the answer? Video technology is certainly the most obvious way to start, but football also needs to not be afraid of adapting and clarifying the rules themselves. Lawmakers need to ask themselves some questions. What are the purpose of the rules and what are the purpose of referees? Are referees set to be at the middle of football’s existential crisis? Of course not, this is football, we don’t worry about such things.

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After the 2-1 defeat courtesy of Ipswich on Saturday afternoon, Kit Symons’ honeymoon period was clearly over, finished and kaput. Fulham are now on a run of six games without a win in all competitions, or four in the league if you want to ignore the draw and defeat to Premier League opposition in Sunderland. The Welshman is not the first Fulham manager to go on a run of poor form, and won’t be the last, but there are certainly some issues that need to be addressed.

The former youth coach stepped in following the sacking of Felix Magath, winning four of his six games as caretaker manager, which ultimately earned him the title of First Team Manager permanently as the committee of five deemed no one else to be a better option. Fulham had begun to play some nice, quick, counter attacking football, alongside games like Bolton and Charlton at home where Fulham had dominated. I think more questions would have been asked had Kit Symons not got the job and the same had played out, but that’s just me.

The turn of the year looked promising for Fulham, an impressive performance at Sunderland and two home wins against Reading and Nottingham Forest followed with a loss at Cardiff wedged in between; it seemed the football club were ready to turn a corner and look up the table rather than over the shoulder. Since the turn of the year, Fulham have dropped just the one league spot from 18th on the 25th game week to 19th this, though at one point we peaked at 14th following the win against Nottingham Forest, also our second highest position in the table this season.

Kit Symons has now faced 30 games in charge of Fulham this season, with a win percentage of 36.67%, and there’s certainly a development year feel at the football club this season. Kit is in his first period of official management so we must accept mistakes, especially with a lack of experience around him. It’s like a young player; which people don’t want to admit or recognise, young players should be encouraged when they try something that doesn’t pull off, so should young managers – he will make mistakes, he will learn from them. Kit Symons is not stupid, he knows what we now and then some; he will learn and he will develop over the rest of the season, the summer and future years at Fulham or elsewhere.

One of the things that attracted me about Kit Symons was the football he had got the Under-21s playing, especially when you consider that Martin Jol was struggling to pull off a similar style with older and more experienced players. Of course, it helps when you have a great collection of players for that age group but the consistency of that group was exceptional. The 4411 was the formation of choice for Kit Symons, with Cauley Woodrow leading the line and Muamer Tankovi? just behind. Kit oversaw Fulham’s Under-21 group go the first 12 games of the season undefeated; as the system would also dip into a 4231 here and there, does that show that Kit is utilising the diamond to get the best of the squad in place?

Felix Magath assembled the squad with the diamond in mind; against Crawley for example, Scott Parker sat in front of the back four with Lasse Vigen Christensen and Ryan Williams starting on the side of him and Chris David behind the two strikers of Cauley Woodrow and Hugo Rodallega. Felix Magath failed to bring in any wide-men (unless you want to count Moroccan Adil Chihi), and thus leaves Kit Symons with little but the diamond. We started with a 442 against Ipswich on Saturday, but we lost all that Lasse Vigen Christensen has to offer, by sacrificing him against the physically impressive Tyrone Mings. You could point the finger at the club failing to bring in a right-sided midfielder, but with bids for Matt Ritchie rejected and links with Ricardo Vaz Te, the club did identify the missing wide-man, but failed to do so, preferring (I presume) to look at the summer transfer window.

Talking of Ipswich, you can’t deny that Fulham were poor. From misplacing simple short passes, to launching long balls into largely no one against Ipswich central defenders that ate up every high ball we offered. That showed tactical irresponsibility from Kit’s side, especially for a team lacking a target man who will win these balls for us to play off of. We are a team of smaller stature, but technically comfortable players, and keeping the ball on the floor is where we should excel – but at the weekend, Scott Parker and Ryan Tunnicliffe were sloppy with the ball as Fulham lacked an incisive threat. It is sloppiness over the last two weeks that have cost us a comfortable zone over the relegation zone whilst we creep into the upper half of the table.

The football club needs to return to basics again to get themselves out of a torrid run, which will not get any easier with upcoming games at Wolves and Watford whilst also welcoming the visit of Derby. It could take a fluke result to regain morale and positivity that could see us through at the last hurdles. In a division based highly on momentum, Fulham have stagnated since travelling to Sunderland and it’s a difficult job for Symons and his young backroom staff to turn it around – which will be a test of their man management skills as well as their coaching. Lets start doing the basics right, circulating the ball sufficiently, defending solidly and peppering the opponents’ goal with shots.

Can Kit Symons take us forward? I think he can, what this football club needs is stability, togetherness and a plan; we’ve barely had any of those in the last two years. The key thing for me is a plan – where do we want to go on a 6-month basis? What style of football do we want to play? Fulham are desperate for a direction. I can sit here for a dozen paragraphs going off on a tangent discussing what I would do to move the football club forward, but that’s maybe for another time.

Shahid Khan has begun to construct the upstairs staff that should aid in future success of the football club. Khan moved Alistair Mackintosh into a role where he will thrive, away from the on-pitch workings. For example, the current sponsorship deal with MarathonBet is a club record; more of that is what we want and need from the former accountant. The appointment of Mike Rigg should help the club find their feet in the transfer market, as finding players with the characteristics required will become easier with Rigg’s vast scouting knowledge and amassed contacts over his 20 years in football.

Could Kit Symons benefit from the appointment of an experienced coach? I don’t know, I suppose it depends on the coach. Ray Lewington complimented Roy Hodgson wonderfully, which led to Ray being Roy’s right hand man at International level. Is there a Ray Lewington out there for Kit Symons to use? I’m not convinced. Alan Curbishley who (according to the Daily Mail) rejected our offer to see him overlook Kit Symons in a similar role to when he was here previously could be a shrewd option for the football club; Curbishley was allegedly very impressive when creating opposition preview sheets; though unknown how frequently he got his football boots on.

To conclude, I would back Kit Symons until the end of the season at least, before re-evaluating. Mike Rigg would be in full flow, the players would be better for the yearlong experience and the squad would be more tailored for progress; where we delete memory of Dino Fazlic, Adil Chihi and Elsad Zverotic ever being here. There are other possible exits, which again, is probably best discussed for another post. Obviously some will fear relegation, but I feel we’ll creep to safety meaning another sacking would be pointless at this stage. Kit has a lot of learn, the squad needs a bit of tinkering and we perhaps need to be a bit more enduring as supporters – should we be grateful that Kit Symons has dragged us from the depths despite a halt in progress? He can get his team playing nice and attractive football whilst also getting results; his Under-21s showed that, but the bloke just needs a bit of time to get his methods into the players’ heads – and our players also need to pick themselves up and be counted for. It is fine playing well when the whole team is, but who is going to get us out of a hole? Who is going to get us points that the club didn’t deserve? Kit can’t take blame for the weeks of Hugo’s anonymity, but he can take the blame for continuing to pick the Colombian despite his weekly disappearances. Another plausible development step perhaps, Hugo may have been amazing in every training session, but still on the training ground on match day; Kit should have reacted. It’s been frustrating, I understand and we have underachieved this year, not by much but we have nonetheless. Kit Symons can be trusted until the end of the season, and hopefully the end of his contract – let the man have a real go of it, rather than just reacting to a pre-constructed squad.

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Some Sunderland Musings

January 26, 2015

Tweet   The FA cup 4th round tie between Fulham and Sunderland gave many fans reasons for optimism. Fulham played a very good game and were disappointed not to win against the Premier League side. The players, many of which have never played against PL opposition, gave a very good account of themselves and will […]

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Ruiz late show seals Fulham win

January 17, 2015

Tweet A stoppage-time header from substitute Bryan Ruiz secured a priceless win for Kit Symonds as his Fulham side edged a scrappy encounter against Reading and ended a run of three successive league defeats. Symons had called on his team to build on their penalty shoot-out success at Wolves in the FA Cup in midweek […]

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Opposition Opinion

January 16, 2015

Tweet Helping us preview this weekends game is Matt Joy (who you can follow on Twitter @MattJamesJoy) my co-host of our student radio show, the Weekend Warm Up, which you can listen to every Saturday at 2-3pm on Nerve Radio. In your words, how are Reading doing this season? Frustratingly inconsistent, hopefully this will be […]

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Why New Contracts and Player Development Trump Transfers at Fulham this January

January 16, 2015

Tweet The announcement this week of contract extensions for both George Williams and Cameron Burgess, the latter of whom immediately went on loan to Scottish side Ross County, comes as most welcome news for Fulham fans. This season can so far be best described as a voyage of discovery. We are in a new league, […]

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Ditching the diamond?

January 9, 2015

Tweet An old fashioned system, some would say, but the simplicity of 4-4-2 has served Fulham well over the years, particularly under Roy Hodgson, as we added a Europa League run to a Great Escape in his tenure. Largely using the two banks of four, which provided defensive stability, aided by exceptionally setting up his team, […]

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A Look at Officials: What could Football learn from Hockey?

January 8, 2015

Tweet   This isn’t really anything to do with Fulham specifically but just shows my thoughts on issues surrounding refereeing in football. One aspect of football that the game could do without is the lack of respect towards the referees. Rarely can a match be complete without a player angrily arguing a decision that has […]

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Up next: Bournemouth (a)

December 26, 2014

Tweet Kit Symons’ quiet rejuvenation of what was a horribly dishevelled Fulham side faces its sternest test this afternoon with a festive trip to the Championship pace setters Bournemouth. The Cherries have been in quite scintillating form, surprising almost everybody with their free-scoring, attractive football to sit atop of the table ahead of many of […]

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The emergence of Lasse Vigen Christensen

December 23, 2014

Tweet Counting the bright spots in Fulham’s 2014 won’t take you too long during this festive season. They were conspicuous by their absence as the club’s thirteen year tenure in the top flight came to an end with a whimper, but the emergence of Lasse Vigen Christensen represents a real fillip as the most f0rgettable […]

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