Is time really up for the good old-fashioned English referee?
According to Keith Hackett, the former chief of English referees, the Premier League currently only has three world class referees.
He identifies these as Mark Clattenburg, Michael Oliver and Mike Dean. Prior to the recent Chelsea v AFC encounter, Hackett had previously included Martin Atkinson in this list. The solution, he suggests is the wholesale importation of ‘foreign’ referees to save the English game from the “shocking decline in correct decision-making which is ruining big games …”. (Source: Daily Mirror http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/premier-league-only-three-world-class-4443385 ).
Here on PA we have long discussed the issue of referees wrecking games and it’s not my intention to (entirely) rehash previous posts on the subject.
I would say, however, that one of the big changes for me in the modern game compared to when I first started watching, is the degree to which my emotional reaction to a match is, as often as not, dictated by the activities (or non-activities) of the day’s match referee, the collective failures of his linesmen, and the seemingly evident non-participation of his so-called Fourth Official. I can even pinpoint the game when my absolute faith in the fairness of the supposedly neutral referee was steamrollered flat out of existence. It was, of course almost ten years to the day and Mike “Blimey O-” Riley’s horrific display in Arsenal’s infamous 49th unbeaten game at Old Trafford on the 24th October 2004.
I now only enjoy partial faith.
Interestingly, back then in 2004, as after the recent Chelsea match, off-pitch unrest was widely attributed to the performance of the man in the middle. And significantly, then as now, ‘Pizzagate’ successfully deflected attention of many from the referee’s performance and the ‘Battle of the Buffet’ dominated the headlines in much the same way Arsene’s more recent – and infinitely more enjoyable – square-up to Mourinho has done. One recalls discussion of the failure to dismiss Rio Ferdinand in Manchester that awful day was as conveniently thin on the ground as contemporary coverage of Gary Cahill’s murderous assault on Sanchez.
Ever since Old Trafford – as unforgettable ten years on as it remains shameful – I’ve been as likely to have been enraged by the ‘under’-performance of an official as I have by any cheating or other dubious activity on the part of opposition players.
And that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
Admittedly, my own partisan, biased and hugely impressionistic take on the game has inevitably coloured my view of proceedings and, acutely conscious of this, I routinely make the effort to not believe the ‘evidence’ of my own eyes, at least in the cold light of the post-match day.
For a more dispassionate coverage of the lamentable state of our unloved refereeing stable, trawl your way through our friends at Untold Arsenal’s outstanding contribution to the subject. They created http://untold-arsenal.com/referees in order to more objectively investigate the questionable but largely unaccountable performance of the nation’s most senior referees.
Eye-opening, hair-raising, anger-inducing and ultimately, depressing reading it makes, too.
To my limited knowledge, Keith Hackett’s comments are the first and most damningly critical assessment of the state of our referees by one who, in theory at least, knows exactly how difficult it is to take charge of a match and has the seniority of his past roles to back up his comments. In other words, whilst few would be well-advised to listen to my take on any game, most would do well to sit up and listen when Keith finally blows his fuse on the subject. Or at least recommends a thorough purging of the English ranks.
But whilst Mr Hackett points towards the continent as the possible saviour of our refereeing woes, is it perhaps worth asking the question – why are our own home-grown referees apparently so bad at their jobs as to effectively be in little less than an ongoing unending collective crisis?
Is there any truth in the suspicion of a long-held north (refs) v south (clubs) bias? If so, if held for so long, why does it appear particularly noticeable now?
Is the Premier League, which is now one of the most watched leagues on the planet, also the most critically scrutinised? Are we simply finding more because we are looking more?
Has the current fashion for referees to ‘manage’ the game rather than simply ‘apply the rules’ come back to bite them? Players generally know they won’t get sent off for the first few tackles, no matter how outrageous or dangerous. They also know most referees appear to have no knowledge of the devastating impact on their opponents of the practice of rotational fouling. The bizarre habit of repeatedly warning some players and electing to book others for a first-time offence is one of the most infuriatingly unfair features of the current game.
Is there actual corruption in the game? Are certain teams getting more of the rub of the green than others due to the power of their club’s limitless budgets which enable them to literally buy off referees? Or is it the presence in greater depth of the best players in those apparently favoured sides being given more of the benefit of the doubt than opposition lessors? Prior to his retirement Howard Webb was long seen as favouring Manchester United, but Martin Atkinson’s record for Chelsea (23 wins, 4 draws, 1 defeat) is just as impressive. That neutrals find this so suspect isn’t proof in itself of any wrong-doing and if anything, it’s a reflection of too small a pool of the same individuals refereeing the same teams. But it just looks awful.
The bottom line is that regardless of actualities, the integrity of the game in this country is challenged on a weekly basis by the plethora of decisions by seemingly biased referees that can, at best, be described as ‘odd’.
And it is this fractured integrity that lies at the heart of a refereeing crisis that has been brewing for so long and which adversely affects so many.
Is it really time referees from abroad took over?
I personally think overseas footballers have largely enhanced the game (despite the downsides to the national team and certain other factors) so why not give overseas referees the opportunity? Assuming their grasp of the English language is as sound as many of our home-grown players (‘basic’ should suffice accompanied by plenty of arm-based mime) then that shouldn’t be an argument for not doing so.
But fundamentally I believe the problem isn’t with the passport but rather the pace, the power and the passion of the English game.
In other words, the very factors that make it an invaluable export to the rest of the world.
It is this that renders the game vulnerable to problems for the men running the matches and their colleagues running the line. The game, fuelled by immense fiscal reward is just so competitive, so prone to gamesmanship, diving, the dark arts and other forms of what we once called ‘cheating’ that it has been rendered largely beyond the control of genuine, consistent and fair rule by the men in black. And this, I venture, would be as true of a top, top referee from a Swiss Alpine village as it is of anyone emanating from England’s north west.
For me, Keith Hackett’s intervention is simply the latest step towards the recognition of the need for and the gradual, phased introduction of technology. Even Blatter’s blathering on about it these days (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/11/sepp-blatter-video-challenge-managers-fifa) so whilst nothing is likely to happen overnight, it is, it would seem, inexorably creeping towards us.
By all means welcome the best refs from sunnier, non-English climes, but the long-term answer is likely to be digital in nature as opposed to anything more internationally exotic.
Not all will agree and concerns I know are genuine. Implementation is likely to prove challenging.
But this is something for which I personally have longed for almost ten years and for the sake of the reputation of our home-grown referees (who I understand are said to be broadly in favour of technology), as well as my personal sanity and enjoyment of the game, it can’t come a day too soon.
To once again have football conversations that centre on the skill of the players rather than the mistakes of the referees would be a marvellous thing indeed.