As someone who refereed football for far longer than I care to remember, I know how difficult the job is and I’m loathe to criticise the man in the middle. The two things that were imprinted on me as a young official were to be consistent in your decision-making and to be aware that your first judgement will set the tone for the contest. Players and supporters look for a barometer of what will punished and a barometer of what offences will carry the threat of a card – especially in such a combative and gloriously unpredictable division as the Championship. That’s why Simon Hooper’s first call at the Madjeski Stadium yesterday afternoon was such a crucial one.
The Wiltshire official shouldn’t have needed reminding of how the last contest between Reading and Fulham ended. He would have been well briefed as to the importance of keeping things under control, especially after a rowdy pitch invasion and a questionable penalty decision that decided the play-off semi-final. To dismiss Tomas Kalas after just 31 seconds, Hooper had to absolute certain that the Czech centre halve was either denying a goalscoring opportunity or had committed a professional foul. Having gone to ground under a challenge from Joseph Mendes, Kalas does catch Mo Barrow but this seems clumsy rather than malicious.
Barrow is bursting through down the left wing channel and it isn’t even clear that he is going to reach his own touch. He would have to outsprinted Ryan Fredericks and beat the covering Tim Ream to fashion a goalscoring chance as well as changing his stride pattern to go clean through on David Button. How Hooper could have made the judgement to dismiss Kalas from twenty yards behind the play in seconds is still beyond me. The fact that he was so keen to brandish his red card that he nearly dropped it showed that the referee hadn’t given his decision the ‘thinking time’ we were always told to deploy before making a game-changing decision.
Fulham might decide to ask for the red to be rescinded but whether that decision was correct or not was not actually my main bone of contention with Hooper’s patchy display. Having dismissed Kalas so early on in the contest, the referee – who has a history of controversy since becoming a Select Group official – declined to clamp down on a series of niggly fouls from the home side. He awarded Fulham ten free kicks in the first half but despite a succession of heavy challenges from Liam Moore, Tiago Illori and George Evans no caution was forthcoming. Even when Evans kicked out in retribution at Stefan Johansen after being awarded a free-kick, there was no yellow card. Such a liberal attitude to foul play was firmly at odds with Hooper’s earlier decision to give Kalas his marching orders.
Hooper waited until the 70th minute to produce a yellow card and then there were a flurry, almost as if he was making up for the previous leniency. Hooper showed no desire to punish any of the Reading centre backs for their repeated infractions. Jaap Stam was allowed to withdraw Tiago Illori who, having been carded made three robust challenges on Fulham forwards, and would have been very grateful that Liam Moore wasn’t shown a second yellow after taking out Aboubakar Kamara when it looked like the French forward’s pace might have taken him clear. Stand-in skipper Sone Aluko did very well to take his team-mates away from the official so he could speak to Hooper himself but, at times like this, you are left wondering whether Fulham’s family club feel actually works against them.
We all know that referees are the subject of hysterical and often unfair comment from players, supporters and the media. It is one of the toughest jobs going and there’s little gratitude within the game for the fact that fixtures couldn’t be fulfilled without somebody in the middle. But every young referee will find it a bit tougher out on the amateur pitches this week if Hooper’s uneven performance is shown to the players they take charge of. I hope the select group assessor will have some frank words with the referee about a display that did him no credit.