BACK in the 1990s, there was a referee called David Elleray. He became, entirely inadvertently, a kind of refereeing pantomime villain.
Oh sure, I know all referees attract the ire of supporters at some time or other. Listen, I’ve been unfortunate enough, on some occasions, to hear up to half-an-hour of Six-O-Six.
But Elleray was something else. You see, he managed to make outrageously poor decisions which angered the fans of just about every team in the country. As if that wasn’t enough to annoy the football-watching public, he was also a house master at Harrow School.
My favourite Elleray decision came in an FA Cup semi-final between Middlesbrough and Chesterfield at Old Trafford in 1997. With Chesterfield leading 2-1, Jonathan Howard hit a shot which bounced down off the underside of the bar and so far over the line that even Roy Carroll might have given it up for a goal. Elleray decided it hadn’t gone in.
Minutes later, he awarded Middlesbrough a penalty for a foul which had taken place outside the area. Boro fought back to draw 3-3 and won the replay.
There hasn’t really been a ref to take Elleray’s place since he retired in 2003 (marking his final match by sending off Birmingham’s Matthew Upson at Newcastle). And that is despite the best efforts of Rob Styles.
Tonight’s final match: Aston Villa 1 West Ham 1
Commentator: John Roder
I should make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that Styles sets out to referee badly, or to wind up supporters. As with Elleray, he’s an honest man, doing his best in a difficult job. However, he does make his fair share of controversial decisions. And he does seem to attract almost universal contempt from fans, players and managers.
Yet to my mind, Styles has never been able to match Elleray’s sheer range of bizarre decisions. You see, almost all of Styles’ controversies have consisted of him awarding penalties when he shouldn’t have done, or failing to award penalties when he should.
OK, his decision to give Manchester United a penalty against Bolton back in September, despite the fact that Jlloyd Samuel won the ball cleanly from Cristiano Ronaldo and no one appealed for a spot kick, was weird. But it wasn’t up to Elleray’s standard.
So it was encouraging to see Styles expanding his repertoire at Villa Park this afternoon. Yes, there was a penalty controversy. I shall come to that shortly. But what intrigued me was the fact that he managed to throw Aston Villa’s preparations into chaos by objecting to their strip.
Villa were set to turn out in claret and blue. West Ham had brought their change strip, which is sky blue with claret bits. Styles insisted he couldn’t tell the difference. West Ham didn’t have another kit. Villa’s change strip is also sky blue.
The solution? Villa had to scrabble around for an all-white third strip, dug out from the kit hamper at such short notice that there was no time to put the players’ names on the back of the shirts. (This was done with another set of white kit in time for the start of the second half.)
With both teams now playing in kits which satisfied Styles, Villa went in front through Emile Heskey, only to be pegged back by Diego Tristan after the interval. There was just time for one more golden Styles moment.
Villa striker John Carew chased a long ball out of defence into the penalty area, and looked set to score, only for Hammers centre-back James Tomkins to scoop the ball away with his hand in a manner that would have impressed Michael Jordan. Styles, a good 30 yards behind the play, gave nothing.
Afterwards, Villa manager Martin O’Neill was a picture of exasperation. “The defender has moved in and he’s almost caught it,” he said.
It was a strange end to an entertaining game. “The best game of the day,” said Lee Dixon in the MOTD studio afterwards. However, it was the only game of the day not to have an impact on the relegation battle, hence its appearance at the end of the show.
(Mind you, if any West Ham fan tries to convince you that only 30 seconds of highlights were shown, you can tell them it was eight minutes, excluding post-match interviews and analysis. I know, because I timed it. And if any Villa fan complains about being on last, you can tell them it’s the first time that’s happened to their team this season.)
As for Styles, he’s still got a long way to go to inherit Elleray’s crown. But he’s made a start.
1. Fulham: 9 (GD: +1; CD: +1)
2. West Brom: 7 (GD: +1; CD: 0)
3. Wigan: 7 (GD: 0; CD: +2)
4. Middlesbrough: 7 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
5. West Ham: 5 (GD: +1; CD: +2)
6. Bolton: 5 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
7. Capello: 4 (GD: +1; CD: +4)
8. Arsenal: 4 (GD: +1; CD: 0)
9. Blackburn: 4 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
10. Gubba: 3 (GD: +3; CD: +1)
11=. Newcastle: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
11=. Hull: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
11=. Stoke: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
14. Tottenham: 2 (GD: +1; CD: 0)
15. Portsmouth: 2 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
16. Sunderland: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
17. Manchester City: 1 (GD: +1; CD +1)
18=. Aston Villa: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
18=. Everton: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
19=. Chelsea: 0
19=. Liverpool: 0
19=. Manchester United: 0
(NB: Teams level on points will be separated by Gubba difference: the number of times a team is last on Match of the Day with Tony Gubba commentating. If they are still level, they will be separated by Capello difference: the number of times a team is last on MOTD with Fabio Capello present.)