The past few weeks have seen one ‘hot-button’ issue dominate football debates up and down the land: the standard of refereeing. One by one, decision after decision, refereeing controversies are racking up faster than you can spell Mark Clattenberg.
I wrote the majority of this article before our game against Wigan at the weekend. Lee Mason did his best impression of someone who didn’t know the rules in a shambolic performance whereby decisions were seemingly made at random intervals in order to fill some kind of quota. However, the main talking points were two non-decisions. The non-penalty we arguably should have had in the first minute when a Gary Caldwell somewhat robustly hacked down Clint Dempsey in full stride, and Pavel Progrebnyak’s non-goal when it appeared on replay that his shot from 3 yards cannoned back off the underside of the crossbar over the line. Hard decisions, yes. Wrong decisions, also yes. Something doesn’t add up.
I must caveat the rest of this I am not having a go at referees (well, not entirely). It is undoubtedly the hardest job on a football field, short of tackling Moussa Dembele. The top of the English game is played at such pace and with such strength and passion that I defy any man to get 100 percent of the decisions right 100 percent of the time.
There are also more forces at work here, beyond that of human errors of judgement that you, can come to expect and, unfortunately, learn to live with. The most egregious of these, is the long quested foe that is simulation. Diving. It is a part of our game, it shouldn’t be. When Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville suggested that it was just a part of the modern game, he opened a cauldron of fire and divided the opinions of players and fans.
The debate on diving, and referees, took on a new level a few weeks ago, when QPR’s Shaun Derry was sent off at Old Trafford, despite the man he supposedly fouled, Ashley Young of Manchester Utd, being proven to be both offside and to having have dived. Unfortunately, of course, the linesman missed the blatant offside and the referee missed the dived.
It is important to remember that football is a contact sport. Contact alone does not necessarily merit a foul. Yes, it’s not rugby and I’m not suggesting carte blanche on physicality, but some commentators, players and members of the media would have you believe we are in the business of watching rhythmic gymnastics.
This particular furore was reprised two weekends ago when, once again, that man Young, took the slightest contact from an Aston Villa defender, and followed it with a swan dive so grand that you wouldn’t be surprised to see him at the Aquatics Centre come London 2012.
At the complete other end of the spectrum, when Reading took on Leeds in a televised Championship match over the Easter weekend, the referee failed to control the match from becoming an advert for mixed martial arts. It was a lack of consistency on that occasion that was the main frustration. Leeds had one player sent off for a poor two-footed lunge in the early stages. It was, to all intents and purposes a red card offence.
What irked many supporters of the Berkshire club was that, later in the game, Leeds players on certainly one, if not two, further occasions committed fouls worse than the earlier red card offence. One of these abhorrent challenges left pivotal midfield energiser bunny Jem Karacan with a broken ankle.
The final two decisions I’d like to consider both involve Chelsea. The Solomon Kalou penalty against us at the Cottage and Juan Mata’s “ghost goal” in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Tottenham.
The first was such a close decision that there was no unanimous opinion anywhere as to whether it was, or wasn’t, a penalty offence. When referee, Mark Clattenberg, told Danny Murphy that it was a foul by Stephen Kelly, and not the skipper, a controversial decision became a wrong one in my mind. Once again, contact doesn’t mean foul, especially if it is the attacker who initiates contact, as happened here.
The incident in the semi-final was, however, less debatable. The awarding of Mata’s “goal” by Martin Atkinson, despite the ball barely entering the demilitarized zone, let alone crossing the border, was simply appalling. Goal line technology I hear the masses cry. Well, yes, frankly. FIFA has said that, come July this year, there could be an agreement in place for it’s introduction. Not a moment too soon, but what’s the chance that FIFA find a way to obstruct this much-clamoured progress?
Other sports the world over have introduced the option to call upon video evidence, even without the need for Hawkeye or some chip and pin device being planted in the ball. Would cricket fans say the use of Hawkeye has improved their sport? Would rugby fans argue that try decisions being made accurately has improved their sport? Of course they would.
There’s little or no retroactive action that can be taken to compensate teams for wrongly awarded penalties or goals. Should Man Utd have their win against us rescinded after the almost unanimous feelings that the 91st minute penalty against Danny Murphy was, wrongly, not awarded? No because a penalty is not a goal until it hits the back of the net.
On the other hand, the lack of retrospective action on violent conduct and simulation is something that I find particularly hard to tolerate. If we want people to stop diving, then start handing out three match bans. Ashley Young might stop his flagrant cheating if he couldn’t play until August.
Finally, as it stands, a player can’t have retrospective action taken against him, unless the referee admits to not having seen an incident. This means the likes of Mario Balotelli, who planted his studs into Alex Song’s groin, in full view of Martin Atkinson without sanction in the recent Arsenal v Man City game (not Atkinson’s best few weeks) go unpunished despite the ex post evidence being crystal clear for all to see.
There is a changing wind blowing through the annals of footballing power at the moment, and not a moment too soon. We all love our sport, and when played at it’s best, is when the referee is invisible. It is a thankless job for sure, but it probably says that on the job application, along with “must give penalties to Man Utd at Old Trafford”.
There are several simple changes that would make the game we all love better for all involved. The introduction of goal line technology is the first; heck, even goal line cameras and a willingness to get the decision correct would work. I am also a firm believer in post match citing of violent conduct and diving even if missed by the matchday officials. The FA should stop protecting referees as if they are infallible, like all of us, they make mistakes (perhaps a few too many at the moment), but let’s get decisions right, it’d make the game that little bit better.