Referees are coming under increasing pressure in Premier League football. Hardly a week goes by without a decision being questioned.
Personally, I am fed up with this constant ‘blame the ref’ from managers, pundits and fans alike after a game. I’ve been watching and listening to much content about modern management, and almost to a man the general consensus is that you cannot criticise players in public. In the dressing room is fine, but blame a player in the post-match interview and they will go blabbing to their agent, the press or both. Before you know it the manager has lost all credibility, control and any chance of motivating his poor precious little darlings the following week.
It seems the easy way out for a manager is to blame the one man who cannot fight back. The referee.
This weekend we had yet another ‘controversial’ incident when Mike Jones disallowed an equaliser from Cheikh Tiote for Newcastle against Manchester City. In case you haven’t heard about it, or seen it yet, Newcastle were on the attack and City only half cleared the ball. As the City players pushed up two Newcastle players were stood between the last defender and the goalkeeper, Joe Hart. The ball came out to Tiote, who was about 25 yards out and he fires a screamer into the top right hand corner, or Hart’s left if you prefer. Standing directly in line with the ball is Yoann Gouffran, one of the two players between the City defence and Hart. Gouffran actually moves slightly so as not to touch the ball and it screams past him into the back of the net. It was a great strike, for which Hart never moved.
The referee consulted his assistant and they decided Gouffran was interfering with play and therefore in an offside position and so the goal was cancelled out. St. James’s Park was in uproar as the home fans believed the goal should count.
The offside law used to be one which was relatively simple. It was often one that only people who followed football really knew and understood. But in recent years FIFA has fiddled so much with the law that hardly anyone really understands it. The same can be said of the handball rule too, but that’s for another article.
The problem with all this meddling is that a decision is not black & white anymore, it is simply down to interpretation. I am not a great fan of technology taking over from the officials, but in some cases it can act as an aid without reducing the official’s authority. Goal-line technology, for instance. But with the offside rule as it is, even countless replays will still leave you with some people believing the goal should’ve stood and others not. What is the point of having a rule, which can ultimately decide the match result, so open to interpretation that 10 different referees will not all agree on the verdict?
For this season FIFA changed the wording of Law 11, the Offside rule. “Interfering with an opponent means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstruction the opponent’s line of vision or challenging an opponent for the ball” – is the new wording.
Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, admitted Gouffran was in an offside position but that he was “recovering from an offside position and didn’t want to get involved with the play”. Now all that may well be true and had Tiote aimed for the other side of the goal, then he probably wouldn’t have been interfering. But with the ball going to Hart’s left hand side, Gouffran was in Hart’s line of sight as any dive from him would probably have meant he had to dive into the player, or just behind him. He may also have considered that the ball would hit Gouffran and as he was in an offside position, it wouldn’t matter what happened to the ball after that. Either way his judgement would have to have been spot on. He only needed to hesitate for a second and his chance was gone. He did hesitate, and therefore didn’t dive. Gouffran, on the other hand, had to evade the path of the ball. He may well have not wanted to be part of the play at this stage, but as the ball was hit straight at him, he was clearly involved with the play and therefore interfering.
Personally, I think Mike Jones was right to disallow the goal. But I also think the new law has not helped referees, players or supporters. Next week we could have exactly the same incident and a referee adamant the goal should stand. With the current situation no one can be certain what the verdict will be. I realise this may add to the drama for tv companies, but does it really improve the game?
FIFA has relented on goal-line technology. Originally, Sepp Blatter feebly argued that it created the opportunity for debate in pubs. Now they have discovered the debate will not just rest there, and can continue for many years to come. Now all they have achieved is to interfere with play themselves.
Surely it would be better to return the rule to its original state. If you are ahead of the opposition when the ball is played forward, you are offside. After all, as Brian Clough once said, why is a player on the pitch if he isn’t interfering with play? Get rid of who’s active, who’s inactive, and make it possible to look across an imaginary line and work out whether an attacker is ahead of an opponent. That way, if we want to use technology for offside decisions then it is quite simple to determine.
One aspect which must be remembered through all this is Jones and his assistant had one look at this and one look only. The rest of us have had the considerable luxury of watching it again and again, and in slow motion too. Referees have to be clear on their decision making and make them quickly. There is enough pressure already on them, and they certainly don’t need the laws of the game to heap more on them.
Ironically, on the document changing the wording of Law 11 is this paragraph
“The current wording creates many discussions as it gives too much room for interpretation and is not precise enough. The new text is more in line with actual game situations and will eliminate the confusion regarding what is meant by rebound deflection and when the ball has been deliberately saved”
Clearly by concentrating on one particular instance of the ball bouncing back off the woodwork, or goalkeeper, there is still the confusion surrounding when a player is interfering with play.
I do not believe FIFA is doing enough to protect the very people who officiate their rules. When Sky negotiated the rights to broadcast live Premier League matches they included a clause compelling managers to post-match interviews. Some down the years have flouted this clause, and the manager is still ‘free’ to decline an interview, but of course he runs the risk of incurring the wrath of a broadcaster and one man can never hope to win that battle.
With managers now needing to keep things positive and not criticise the players, there is only one person left to hoist the blame on and the referee gets it far too often. But what if the referee was able to give his side of things? What if we heard his thought processes towards key decisions, we could then discover why he ruled the way he did.
I don’t really care that referees can give different decisions for the same incidents as sometimes the context of a game needs to be taken into account, such as giving advantage, or maybe just stopping the game to cool things down a bit. I want humans to officiate during matches as I think if we turned everything over to technology then you end up with a pretty faceless or facile product.
But the game’s authorities are leaving these guys hanging out to dry and they’re just an easy target. They are not people or characters, they are just names. If they were able to put their side of the story across, maybe everyone would get to realise they are simply human and interpreting the laws of the game. The game is played at such a fast pace now, and there are so many cameras that every decision they make is analysed to the nth degree. I have already written an article on how frustrated I get that pundits far too often wait to give their own judgement on a decision after one, maybe two replays. Then they declare whether the referee got it right or wrong. Any idiot can do that. The real skill is to see something at first hand and at full speed and make a judgement which turns out to be correct.
FIFA, UEFA and The FA need to back referees. They are the custodians of the laws and their decision is final and really shouldn’t be challenged. But week after week they are being blamed for teams losing. A recent example came in the Manchester City v Liverpool match on Boxing Day. The referee’s assistant flagged (incorrectly, it was proved) Raheem Sterling for offside. Sterling went onto put the ball in the net, although Hart had stopped when he heard the whistle. Later on in the game, Sterling failed to convert a ball played across the area with Hart stranded and all he needed was a little more composure and the goal was gaping. But it was the referee who was blamed for Liverpool’s failure to equalise when they had many other opportunities to score. In the first instance Sterling still had to beat Hart, and there was no certainty of that, whereas in the second instance all he had to do was keep the ball down and it was a goal as Hart was nowhere.
This has to stop as their authority is being undermined and spoiling the game for the enjoyment of everyone else. Referees should be above all suspicion of bias or any favouritism, yet the authorities do little to help this. They determine whether referees can take charge of certain matches based on geographical criteria, yet they fail to take into account a particular referee’s club sympathies. This has resulted in a far too easy accusation of bias if a referee takes charge of a game when he is from an area considered too close to one of the teams. This happened after the Manchester City/Liverpool match when Brendan Rodgers questioned whether a referee from Greater Manchester should have a match between a Manchester and Liverpool club. The comment was ill-judged but the possibility of this accusation is created by the authorities already determining that a referee living too close to a club will automatically make him biased.
It is crass in the extreme to suggest a referee would jeopardise his career by giving decisions in favour of a club simply because he was born within miles of the ground. Of course, it is also possible he will be so concerned about the accusation that he may favour the opposition in a bid to prove his independence. But these are top class referees we are talking about. Refereeing is a decent profession and very well paid. Why would you want to ruin that simply for the benefit of a particular club when their success or failure is of no consequence to your career?
Yet the authorities do not seem to want to consider any club a particular referee may support. Of course, as was pointed out, just because a referee lives in Greater Manchester this does not necessarily make him sympathetic to a Manchester club.
The knock-on effect of this has also given rise to Southampton making demands of the Premier League that a certain referee, Mark Clattenburg, cannot take charge of any of their matches because he was a bit rude to one of their players. The FA and Premier League need to clamp down on this very quickly and restore the authority of the referee. Referees may then come to be respected a little more as they are in sports such as rugby.
It cannot be much fun being a referee. You’re not going to want to put on the radio on the way home and possibly not want to read many match reports if all you’re going to read or hear is that you were to blame for 11 players’ inability to beat another 11. With the pace of the game increasing over the years, referees have been required to be fitter and more mobile than they ever were and so are in the best position to make in-game decisions. They have a better view than any of the coaching staff, yet managers are able to come out after a match and claim the referee got it wrong. Generally, as a referee you will be told you had a good game by the winning manager, and a poor game by the losing one. But if the referee was able to put his point across then we could all understand the reasons behind them. Sure, there will still be the lardy-FIFA-playing-couch-coaches who believe he got it wrong, but then it is ironic how often an accusation of bias is only made when a decision is given against their team.
The authorities may not have wanted the referees in the firing line, but we have gone beyond that now. Referees are getting slaughtered every week with no right of reply, and it is a cancer growing within the game which needs cutting out.