The very last subject I’d usually want to talk about is referees.
I mean, have you heard yourselves?
Moaning at the ref, accusing him of bias, pointing to your watches. As if it’s an easy job, as if decisions are not made in the split second under high pressure. As if we actually give credit for the many decisions that are correct.
But in the English Premier League, with the world watching during the winter break around Europe, the attention on referees has been unwarranted, unwelcome and unsavoury. There has been some genuinely bad refereeing, but that’s no excuse for some of the claptrap from managers, and their apologists squealing about free speech. There’s a difference between free speech and absurdism.
The most perturbing situation is that of referee Mark Clattenburg and Southampton FC. That’s Southampton FC, not Southampton Amateur Dramatics Society. Their England international winger Adam Lallana has been ridiculed by many, and rightly so, for reportedly taking offence to the way Clattenburg spoke to him. Clattenburg allegedly accused him of having “changed since becoming an international” as Lallana remonstrate over a decision.
Clattenburg wasn’t charged by the FA for this alleged ‘crime’. It was bizarre that Southampton made this allegation, even more bizarre they stand by their complaint but the bit that engages me is this; they officially don’t want Clattenburg refereeing future matches. Did anyone report Pierluigi Collina for staring back in his day?!
I’m pleased the governing body of Premier League match officials have put the club in its place by saying he remains in contention for their games. They should get who they get. If he’d given a five penalties against them in one game their fear and loathing might be understandable. But a referee using a harsh tone? Heaven forfend. Get over yourselves Saints. Quickly.
And I hope he takes charge of a Southampton game sooner rather than later. Sadly he’ll be the focus of attention and that should never happen with referees, but there should be no subtle lurking pressures on who takes charge of matches in the world’s biggest league.
Pressure on referees to be ‘fair to a club’ should simply not exist, and should have largely disappeared with Alex Ferguson. Because for all his incredible achievements and for all the nonsense talked about ‘Fergie time’, ‘Fergie pressure’ would have been a more apt area to focus on. I believe referees wanted him to like and respect them, such was his undoubted power. And who knows how that affected decision-making. Enough to change the course of trophies? Probably not. Enough to be unfair. Yes. It was a form of intimidation. And very good at it he was too.
And that beings me to the second farcical situation with referees, involving Manchester United and David Moyes.
Let me reiterate what I’ve said since his appointment. This is a unique situation, following such a legend into a job after over 20 years of high-achievement. Moyes has to be given time. And I mean proper time. At least a season. Whatever the New York stock exchange might need from the club’s performances. But his attacks on referees have been embarrassing.
Apparently the treatment of officials towards the club has been ‘laughable.’ Senior statesman Ryan Giggs joined in the attack as United bemoaned their fate.
Perhaps by ‘laughable’ Moyes and Giggs mean that some, debatable, decisions have gone for them and some against. Just as it should be! If Moyes was trying to deflect from the real problems he faces, mainly the strange line-up of mediocre midfielders he inherited, it failed. Oh yes, blame it on the ref.
And did you know that Premier League referee Lee Mason is from the Greater Manchester area? Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers made sure we were aware of this by suggesting bias after the defeat against Manchester City, suggesting Mason’s performance had been horrendous then ‘innocently’ throwing his Manchester-dwelling into the mix.
At least Rodgers has accepted the FA charge. It was interesting to listen to sports writers and TV ‘tunnel’ reporters defend him for actually responding honestly to the questions. Shouldn’t we know the difference between speaking honestly and pushing your luck? Until Lee Mason is spotted wearing a Manchester City shirt and waving a rattle, this geographical concern is best put down to the frustration of an unlucky defeat.
How ironic that two days later Rodgers was on the wrong end of the worst refereeing decision I saw in 2013, from arguably the world’s best referee. I still have no idea what Howard Webb was doing when looking directly at Luis Suarez having his leg taken away by Chelsea’s Samuel Eto’o in the penalty area, from a few metres away.
Suggesting Webb went on reputation rather than the basic evidence is speculation. What irks me about this decision is that the referee’s job is hard enough without getting such a simple decisions wrong. It’s irrelevant how important the match was – Chelsea won 2-1 – but if you have a perfect view and you fail to get it right? I’d certainly like to hear Webb’s explanation.
We then had the inevitable wave of claptrap about the incident, led by that brilliant manager and spin doctor Jose Mourinho. He managed to turn the incident into a debate. Imagine if Suarez had tripped Eto’o that clumsily. Talk about the (Stamford) Bridge of Sighs. And head shaking. Come on Jose, we’re not all that naive.
I should also remind you, in trying to defend Clattenburg and referees, that Chelsea made an accusation against him to. Two problems can be a coincidence, if there’s a third – Clattenburg might be beyond defending.
But when a fine journalist and accomplished referee Mick Dennis set a quiz in his newspaper to see how much we all knew, believe me you would have joined me in struggling with the exact laws. Then try getting it right in a split second only to see pundits dissect your performance frame by frame, over and again.
Producing a BBC programme years ago we asked David Elleray to analyse the infamous 1970 Chelsea v Leeds FA Cup final and dish out cards where necessary. Barely a player would have remained on the pitch, but more interesting to me was what he said off camera. Bemoaning the levels of punditry and the sheer cheek of blaming officials for everything, he suggested an item where referees analyse the mistakes of pundits
One day for a TV experiment, maybe I’ll produce it, we’ll get a manager to referee a match under controlled conditions and watch them fail miserably. Then we’ll listen to referees slate their performance in the studio.
The ultra professional intense world of top level football clubs still manages to blame referees for their own inadequacies. If football ever wants to be considered a proper business, football bosses might want to consider how amateurish and pointless that actually is, and take a little look at the NFL.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport