I’m not sure how you would work it out, but the Championship has to be one of the toughest leagues in Europe. It is ultra competitive, as we saw yesterday with a direct Millwall side posing Fulham plenty of problems, and anybody stands a chance of beating anyone else (I give you Burton’s victory over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in September). There’s also the sheer weight and frequency of the fixtures that mean injuries and suspensions can prove very costly – and the stakes are so high that the pressure is intense.
Perhaps that’s why after the reverse at Wolves a couple of weeks ago there were those amongst the Fulham fanbase who were giving serious consideration to the idea of ditching Slavisa Jokanovic. Dan wrote at the time that he felt that was madness – and I haven’t spoken to a match-going fan who can come with a reason why the Serbian should be sacked – but, as the men who count the money never tire of telling us, football is a business now. And, to borrow a phrase from West Brom’s statement when they ran a mile from the odious Tony Pulis, it’s a ‘results-based’ one these days. If Jokanovic, who came so close to leading Fulham out at Wembley after that unbelievable end to last season, doesn’t manage to inspire some sort of promotion push than a parting of the ways could come at the end of the season.
But this week has shown us that dismissing the man who has got Fulham playing the best football since Craven Cottage witnessed Jean Tigana’s French revolution would be as big a mistake as, say, employing a stats fanatic with no experience in English football, as your assistant director of football. The Serbian certainly hasn’t become a bad coach overnight and Fulham’s prospects of reaching the Championship play-offs look an awful lot better after the Whites picked up seven points in a week where they hosted one of the promotion contenders, travelled to the league’s early pacesetters and won a thriller and then beat Millwall for the first time at this level since before Margaret Thatcher took up residence in Downing Street.
Jokanovic also tells us whether he can satisfied or not after each Fulham performance. It always reminds me of the pained high school teacher during parents’ evening trying to tell parents that their beloved boy or girl isn’t the angel they envisaged. Fulham’s head coach is such a stickler for the standards he set in his own playing career that he’s rarely ‘satisfied’ – and the last two games provided good examples of this. After the almost coronary-inducing end to that goalfest in south Yorkshire, Jokanovic told the press that, whilst it might have been a great game to watch for the fans, he’d have preferred a much less stressful evening.
The fear was always that Fulham, who looked like they could score at will when going forward at Bramall Lane, would grant the coach his wish – or wise – by struggling to break down a stubborn Millwall side. You could tell by the way some in the Hammersmith End began booing as Fulham nearly played themselves into trouble at the back that some fans felt Neil Harris’s men should be swept aside in an instant. That’s the danger of the sublime football we saw last season – those sort of standards are incredibly hard to maintain, especially when your opponents have had a whole pre-season to mug up on the things you do well.
People should also recognise that Fulham were markedly weaker yesterday than when they took the field in south Yorkshire. Tim Ream – undoubtedly Fulham’s most improved player during Jokanovic’s time at the club – was missing after succumbing to a knock picked up against the Blades. Denis Odoi, who had been an excellent left back against Derby and Sheffield United, reprised his central half role from Reading and Leeds. Kevin McDonald, arguably the most pivotal performer during last season’s surge to the play-offs, was missing from the base of the midfield and Stefan Johansen, promoted from the bench to the starting line-up, lasted only 45 minutes. Floyd Ayite’s hamstring injury is likely to get him out until much closer to Christmas at the very least.
In the circumstances, Fulham coped well with an aerial bombardment from a Millwall side who were desperate to end their six-game winless streak. On another day, the Whites could easily have been punished for allowing Tom Elliott two free headers inside the penalty area – one thudded against the far post – and affording the silky George Saville the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham at times in the second half. There were plenty of hairy moments, not least when Aboubakar Kamara made a clumsy challenge inside the penalty area during stoppage time, but Fulham ground out an important home win for only the second time this season.
They perhaps should have made their possession count earlier in proceedings. Sheyi Ojo, cruelly mocked for that ‘go faster’ hairdo by the excellent travelling supporters, wasn’t quite as clinical as in Sheffield but he has certainly shown why Fulham were so pleased to conclude that loan deal with Liverpool. A moment of magic, when he decided to try and chip Jordan Archer from outside the box seemingly because nothing else was on, almost put the Whites ahead and his movement and willing running injected energy into the hosts’ play. Having Tom Cairney pulling the strings makes such a difference – twice two sumptuous through balls might have released Ojo and Neeksens Kebano, but Archer and Shaun Hutchinson just about snuffed out the danger.
Harris was convinced there was an element of fortune about the award of the penalty, but Conor McLaughlin clearly pulled back Rui Fonte, who had struggled to get much change out of the Millwall defence until that point. Given the baffling penalties that Fulham have seen awarded against them – the phantom penalty at Burton still sticks in my mind – you could understand Jokanovic’s bullishness on that point after the final whistle. He won’t have been happy at how Fulham ceded the initative in the second half, even if both Kamara and Tayo Edun showed both an appetite for the fight and an aptitude at this level that might lead to more first-team outings over the festive period.
Fulham’s lowly league position has been caused by a failure to bank points in August and September unlike the early pace setters. They’ve struggled to break down resolute defences at Craven Cottage and, as a result, only just climbed back into the top half of the table. Few would have expected seven points from a home game against Derby, who demolished Middlesbrough yesterday to move into six, a midweek trip to Sheffield United and a south London derby. The manner of this scrappy and yet gutsy three points was almost more important. It showed Fulham have the stomach for a fight.
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.