EARLIER this season, I watched a Football League game between Team X and Team Y (not their real names, before you go hunting for scarves and replica kits). Team X had a lot of possession, and probably most of the chances. Team Y responded with a combination of physical play, chronic over-acting and attempts to intimidate the referee. The best euphemism to describe Team Y’s performance that day would be “professional” – not least because they won the game.
I’ve been thinking about Team Y a lot over the past week, amid the latest batch of blathering about refereeing standards. (Honestly, I’m almost wondering if the Respect campaign was concocted purely to give Sky Sports News something to fill airtime during the Beijing Olympics, to which they didn’t have the rights.)
First Chris Foy sent off Vincent Kompany for one two-footed tackle, then Lee Mason didn’t send off Glen Johnson for another, and suddenly it seemed as if everyone was screaming about inconsistency like a seven-year-old who has just seen his older brother get a bigger slice of cake for dessert.
I have a problem with the moral inconsistency here. It’s easy to complain about a lack of clarity in football’s rules, and an inconsistency in the way they are applied. But the fact is that there are plenty of teams out there who behave just like Team Y did when I saw them – trying to influence and deceive officials to gain an advantage. Yes, the referee that day had an awful game, but that was largely because Team Y made it so difficult for him.
Partly because of this, and partly because the game is so much quicker than it used to be, I’ve come to the conclusion that professional football is rapidly becoming impossible to referee. Officials make mistakes. The only wonder is that they don’t make more, given the speed at which some tackles fly in.
The usual argument at this point is to suggest making use of TV technology to help referees. It could be done, certainly at the top level. Perhaps there could be a video official, on the touchline or in the stand, watching replays on a monitor and alerting the referee via an earpiece if he had made a clear error.
Done that way, the flow of the game wouldn’t be interrupted. My fear is that the TV industry wouldn’t be satisfied with that. It would want to be the centre of attention, with the game stopped for big decisions and everyone watching for a verdict to be displayed on a big screen, cricket or rugby league style. There is, though, an argument for introducing TV technology as unobtrusively as possible. Except, except. . .
I’ve watched Kompany’s tackle on Nani in last Sunday’s Manchester derby several times. In slow motion, I think it looks a fair challenge. At full speed, it looks dangerous. Referee Foy saw it at full speed. And so I can understand why he sent Kompany off, and also why the FA rejected Manchester City’s appeal against the decision.
Johnson’s tackle on Joleon Lescott in Wednesday night’s Carling Cup semi-final between City and Liverpool looks awful from some angles, and not from others. Mason presumably saw it from an angle where it didn’t look like serious foul play. Had his position been different, maybe Johnson would have walked too.
But referees are in an impossible position, often damned even if they’re right. In fact, sometimes it feels as if managers, players and pundits almost moan about officials out of habit, like junior office workers who grumble about their boss because it’s all they have in common to talk about. This week they’ll complain about inconsistency, next week they’ll complain about a lack of common sense. Because, of course, everyone’s idea of common sense is exactly the same, right?
In short: When it comes to the issue of refereeing consistency, I’m with Gary Lineker.
Last on MOTD: Liverpool 0 Stoke 0
Commentator: Guy Mowbray
Lineker was a world-class centre-forward, and his intelligence off the pitch once led him to address the Oxford Union (about the banalities of sports interviews, since you ask). But he proved during last night’s Match of the Day that he’s no Bob Monkhouse.
Years ago, Monkhouse was presenting the National Lottery draw when his autocue failed. Ever the pro, he improvised a routine of topical jokes on the spot. Faced with his own autocue breakdown as he prepared to introduce highlights of West Brom against Norwich, Lineker fell silent for a couple of seconds as his composure went for a wander.
He didn’t quite stray into Ortis Deley territory, but it was reminiscent of the late Bob Greaves’ accident-prone attempts at hosting Granada Goals Extra in 1991 (about which I’ve blogged on here at least twice before, should you desperately need further enlightenment).
“Something’s gone wrong with the autocue at this stage,” Lineker said, “which is not really what you want to happen in the middle of a programme. But let’s go to that game now.”
He then introduced commentator Conor McNamara as ‘Colin Macmagara’. McNamara took it in good spirit on the popular invade-your-own-privacy site Twitter. “People are being very unfair on Gary Lineker,” he tweeted. “It was Colin Macmagara commentating at West Brom, not me.”
It still wasn’t as embarrassing as Lineker’s missed penalty for England against Brazil at Wembley in 1992. And the MOTD host recovered sufficiently to make a cogent defence of referees after yet more tackling-related controversy at Anfield.
In the first half, Stoke defender Jonathan Woodgate ploughed into Liverpool’s Stewart Downing, and didn’t get so much as a yellow card. Woodgate hasn’t always looked up with the pace of the Premier League this season – there was one game at Wolves were he was hauled off to save him getting sent off. And there’s certainly an argument that his tackle at Anfield yesterday was hopelessly mistimed rather than malicious.
The problem is that FIFA’s law on tackling doesn’t touch on intent. Instead, it described using “excessive force” and “endangering the safety of an opponent” to be an offence of serious foul play, worthy of a straight red card. If you make a dangerous tackle, you’ll be sent off regardless of whether you meant it or not.
But here, again, I think, was an example of TV muddying the waters rather than clearing them. At full speed, Woodgate’s tackle looked committed to me. Guy Mowbray, the MOTD commentator, only really picked up on the seriousness of the challenge while watching the slow motion replays which, to my mind, made the challenge look a lot worse. Maybe referee Howard Webb was lenient with Woodgate. Maybe, at full speed, he just didn’t see it as that bad a tackle.
“Referees are human,” Mowbray said. “They will see different incidents differently.” I think he meant to say that they will see similar incidents differently. One for Private Eye’s Commentatorballs, perhaps.
In the MOTD studio afterwards, Alan Hansen stated the obvious: “What you could do on a Saturday is take five or six incidents, get a different referee in there and you’ll get a different outcome.”
Lineker lets a lot of nonsense go from his pundits, but not this time. After reading out FIFA’s law on tackling – which is clear – he made a very sensible point. “How can you clarify that? There’s always going to be inconsistency, isn’t there? You’ve just got to put up with it.”
To prove the point, Hansen and Alan Shearer then watched another slow-motion replay of Woodgate’s challenge on Downing, and came up with different verdicts as to whether it should have been a red card. Pundits, eh? No consistency.
Celebrity Stoke City fan and Sean Dyche soundalike Nick Hancock hosted Radio Five Live’s Fighting Talk yesterday morning, with Colin Murray interrupting himself to host the BDO (Both on Double One) World Darts Championship coverage. During the show, Hancock asked his assembled guests to forecast which game would be first on Match of the Day.
Amid the various predictions, Hancock said: “It’s very rare that you leave a Premier League ground and don’t hear the home fans say: ‘Well we’ll be last again tonight. We’re always on last.’ Everybody can’t always be on last. That is not true. Although Stoke are always on last.”
Well, last this week, yes. But Nick: since Stoke were promoted to the Premier League in 2008, they have been last on MOTD 20 times. Over the same period, Fulham have been on last 28 times. Don’t believe me? Check the video evidence.
1. Fulham: 5 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
2. Aston Villa: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
2. West Brom: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
4. QPR: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
5. Swansea: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
6. Norwich: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
7. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 0)
8: Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
9: Liverpool: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
9. Stoke: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
11. Wigan: 2 (2L: 6, 3L: 4)
12. Blackburn: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
13. Tottenham: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
14. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
15. Bolton: 1 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
16. Everton: 0 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
17. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
18. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
19. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 3)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2L = On second last (Aston Villa 1 Everton 1)
3L = On third last (West Brom 1 Norwich 2)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)