So The Arsenal, one of the great clubs in the world, puts on a pre-season friendly tournament in the capital city, and invites three decent European sides, Benfica, Monaco and Valencia to come and join the party. They throw the doors open to their wider fan-base ensuring a full house of 60,000 on both days of the weekend, many of whom are children visiting the ground for the first time. There is a real carnival atmosphere, and although the Sunday game does not go entirely to script (it is after all a proper match, albeit one played not quite at full pace) a clear cut foul on the home team’s striker in the penalty area ensures that a moment of high drama will see the match end as a draw. Not quite the perfect result, but the young crowd will experience a home goal in front of the North Bank and glow as their heroes parade the trophy that they all but guaranteed in a five goal romp against Benfica on the Saturday. Just about perfect in every way, and the officials (who have been treated with the utmost respect and looked after all weekend so that they too can get up to match speed for the coming season) don’t even have to massage the rules to achieve the result desired by all those who flocked to the Emirates. Just about perfect in every way. It is almost as if a script has been written. God, or at least Arsene Wenger, is in his heaven and all is well with the world.
Except between them the linesman and referee manage to find a way to avoid making the right decision. Instead of the initial penalty awarded by the ref, the linesman’s intervention results in a mere free kick. The match ends in defeat and the spoils go to a Valencia side that few in the crowd have even heard of. The disappointment is tangible and the young fans drift away: some will return, many won’t.
I cannot think of any other major club in the world that would have its hospitality so cynically abused. And if, given all the peripheral reasons for ensuring that justice was done on the Sunday afternoon of an essentially meaningless Emirates Cup, the officials still choose to disadvantage the home side, what chance is there that a level playing field will exist when we travel to Manchester, to Liverpool, to West London to contest not friendlies but proper matches where points and prestige are at stake.
The mind quickly returns to the FA Cup Final, May 17th 2014. The Arsenal, rocked by two early Hull goals, slowly but surely gain a foothold in the match through the excellent Cazorla and go about securing their first trophy for several years. Referee Lee Probert, who once infamously sent Arsene Wenger to the stands for having the temerity to kick a plastic water bottle in frustration at yet another anti-Arsenal decision at Old Trafford, turns down three obvious penalty decisions in a show of breathtaking indifference to the actual rules of the game he has been chosen to oversee. This time his meddling makes no difference and an extra-time winner secures the spoils, but few would deny that Probert made it much harder for the victors to impose their obvious on-field superiority.
Penalties are game-changing moments and as such spotlight the referee’s competence, not just in applying the rules correctly, but also and perhaps more importantly, of having the courage to do so impartially, no matter what the situation, no matter how hostile the home crowd. They are real talking points, and it is no wonder that at times it is obviously easier to wave play on. However, while penalties clearly do affect results, they are not necessarily the most important decisions that referees are called upon to make. An early Yellow Card not given for a professional foul sets in motion a whole series of cynical assaults, all designed to break up the rhythm of the better side – playmakers are targeted for rotational fouling, so lax officiating not only amounts to a cheat’s charter but also threatens the skilled player’s entire career. Any team that plays a passing game does so to maneuver their opposition out of position before making the final and telling assist: little unpunished professional fouls allow the out-maneuvered time and space to regroup. The Arsenal are particularly vulnerable to this tactic, but, and this cannot be stressed too strongly, this tactic cannot work if the referee is doing his job properly. Every time you see the official keep his card in his pocket when a yellow should have been given you will know that he is, either intentionally or unintentionally, favoring the transgressor over the transgressed. Every time you read an opinion that suggests that The Arsenal have been contained or beaten by a manager that does tactics, ask yourself whether the referee has also played a part in those tactics. And if you find that yes, in fact the ref has had an influence, then you might also begin to ask about the validity or the motive of that anti-Arsenal opinion.
Any Arsenal fan will have their own particular examples of games that have been refereed in a particularly anti-Arsenal way, and it will be interesting to see the comments section fill up with moments when the decisions have literally beggared belief. The best Arsenal site for detailing the vagaries of specific referees is Untold Arsenal, and it is always sobering to read their referee reviews before any game. There don’t seem to be many refs who call it evenly, and I leave it to you to think about why that might be the case, and why so few Arsenal blogs draw attention to that situation. But I think they should, and I think that all Arsenal fans have a responsibility to speak loudly and clearly about the way the games are officiated. If there is an anti-Arsenal bias then we should all draw attention to it. Fans interviewed on Arsenal TV should talk about the decisions of the referee, fans on Twitter should point to the man in black, influential bloggers should have the officials firmly in their sights. We all enjoy having our own views about what the manager should have done, and who has played well or not so well, and there is a time and place for those opinions, but I would suggest that in the immediate aftermath of a game the performance of the officials should be clearly and vociferously scrutinized.
And perhaps most importantly of all, those who go regularly to the stadium should be very loud and proud in support of their team – and even louder and more hostile towards the referee if he shows any signs of getting it wrong. The season ticket holders need to be the 12th man, and referees should expect any decision not correctly given Arsenal’s way to lead to a violent storm of ear-splitting hate. We expect marginal decisions to go against us at Old Trafford, the Bernabeu, and the Allianz for that is the way of things, but we must do all in our power to ensure that when we play at home we at the very least get the rub of the green. It would be nice to think that on match days all Arsenal fans would put aside their differences, and unite to make The Emirates a proper fortress that our players adore and opposing teams and referees fear. Make some noise, create merry hell and make the referees mind up for him. Together we can indeed be stronger and when we go to matches we need to remember that supporting The Arsenal means exactly that – and that proper and noisy support can and does lead to key decisions going the home team’s way
Today’s article was given to us by Tim Head @foreverheady