There was a time long, long ago in a league not too far away, when the most spoke about person on the pitch was undoubtedly the team’s top player. Men such as Cantona, Shearer and Henry were the stars of the show with others grappling to compete for recognition. Now though there seems to have been a slight shift in focus, while there’s no denying the likes of Rooney, Drogba and Gerrard are the most talked about by fans and press alike, there’s a list of men rapidly gaining ground in the attention stakes. Names such as Clattenburg, Foy, Dean and Riley’s appearance on a team sheet can evoke a bigger groan from fans than the omission of a star striker. It seems referees have now become household names in their own right-and for all the wrong reasons. Almost every football supporter has a mental list of which referees they hate seeing officiate. The times of the man in black –or green- being an anonymous figure are well and truly long gone as more and more referees are influencing games. Every weekend there seems to be more and more games where the referee is the main focus of discussion at the final whistle. Even when teams are being steamrollered there’s always at least one dubious decision to give the losers pause for thought.
There’s no doubt always been bad refereeing- anyone who remembers the likes of Elleray and Poll will acknowledge that. The problem seems to be that bad decisions are becoming increasingly commonplace and ruining many football matches, particularly closely fought ones.
Last week’s Wednesday night matches saw the sort of inept performances we’ve come to expect now in the top flight. At Villa Park referee Peter Walton seemed to lose all grasp of what constituted a foul and a tackle as the game wore on. Yes Nani deserved to go, but that was one of the few decisions the official got right as tackles were punished as fouls and one or two blatant fouls simply ignored.
Then over to the Emirates where a last-minute free-kick was saved blatantly by Fabregas’s arm only for Howard Webb to ignore Liverpool’s appeals. Meanwhile over at Ewood Park Lee Probert was endearing himself to Hull fans by sending off George Boateng for what appeared to be a fairly innocuous attempt to win a header.
Some referees seem to enjoy being the centre of attention, whipping out cards quicker than a croupier as bookings and sendings off are becoming more and more frequent. This season has already seen more yellow and red cards than in the whole of the inaugural premier league campaign. Although the amount of cards issued, doesn’t necessarily mean poor decision making, the amount of controversies seems to have increased.
Since Russian linesmen through to the Hand of God we’ve had disputable or downright dreadful judgments by referees. More often than not the announcement of the ref before a game can result in a collective groan from certain fans that’ve come to know his reputation. The next sight of Chris Foy leading the teams out at Turf Moor will no doubt be met with disgust by the Burnley faithful. Martin Atkinson should probably avoid going out drinking anywhere near Stanley Park in the near future following his completely incompetent performance in the Merseyside derby. Kevin Friend won’t be going round to Avram Grant’s house for a cup of tea any time soon- or Neil Warnock’s for that matter. Howard Webb is arguably the most famous referee at the moment, yet is it for his excellence? Ask any Spurs fan at Old Trafford last season and I’m pretty sure of the answer you’ll get.
Just as each set of fans has an opposing player they vehemently despise- with Ronaldo gone there’s no unanimous choice, although Gary Neville tries his best- there is now almost always a referee to unite us in our anger.
There are several solutions to the refereeing problem in the top flight, relegation to lower divisions for poor performances, suspensions- these are used but not nearly enough- or the introduction of video replays to give the officials some much needed help.
Is the problem more than that though? In this age of celebrity big brother-get me out of here-makeover- are referees becoming fond of the attention they’re receiving. Are the men in green becoming too well-known and getting too used to it? If pressed most fans could name at least half the premier league refs by sight and this may be the trouble. Its a self –amplifying problem the worse the referees are, the more famous they become- the worrying part is, some of them seem to revel in it.
There is an argument that things always seem better when you look back over the years, perhaps the standard of refereeing is no worse than it was a few years ago. After all Uriah Rennie is still a name which can conjure a feeling of physical discomfort to many supporters. I just can’t remember a time when so many referees were so well known for doing their jobs so badly. The problem isn’t exclusive to the premier league of course; you only have to ask an Irish fan to know that.
Read more of Justin Mottershead work at his blog ‘Name is on the Trophy’