It’s an argument often levelled at the bigger clubs, and that the managers of the lower clubs like to mention, that referees tend to pander towards the big teams. Whether we’re talking about time added on, penalty decisions or the amount of yellow cards there always seems to be something for someone to complain about. When Michael Owen scored in the sixth minute of injury time against Manchester city in the infamous Manchester derby at Old Trafford two years ago there were grumblings from across the board as people suggested ‘Fergie time’ had come in to play once again. The suggestion that Ferguson and his peers receive preferential treatment might be something that people like to complain about, but is there really any evidence for it? The only way to really tell is in the stats, so here is the break down of refereeing decisions from the 2010/11 season.
The average number of penalties awarded to and conceded by each club last season was 5.15. Out of the top six clubs Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool were all awarded more than this, with Manchester City being awarded nine, more than any other club in the league. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are all also in the top five whilst Manchester United and Tottenham were both awarded five each. The bottom five clubs were Blackburn, Birmingham, Stoke, Wolves and Fulham who were all awarded three or less penalties. At first glance this looks like a pretty damning report. However, you have to take other factors in to account. Firstly, the bigger teams spend a lot more time in the opposition’s penalty area and with that increased time there is obviously more chance of being awarded a penalty. Secondly the style of play from the top teams means that they have players who are more skilful and therefore harder to tackle. The result is that they are more likely to draw fouls and therefore penalties. The defenders from the top teams are also going to be better and so you would presume that they would give away less fouls. Nobody is saying that on this basis the theory of preferential treatment is false, what is clear however that when you take these extra factors in to consideration then suddenly the figures don’t look so implausible. One final thing to consider is that Arsenal and Liverpool conceded more penalties than any other team.
The evidence concerning yellow cards is split when it comes to the top teams. Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool all conceded an above average number of yellow cards whilst the opposite is true of Chelsea, Man Utd and Spurs. When you see that possibly the smallest team in the league last year, Blackpool, were shown fewer yellow cards than any other team, and that Manchester City were awarded twenty-seven more yellows than Holloway’s relegated team then the idea of preferential treatment appears even more unlikely. If anything you could say that referees had prejudice against certain players who were repeatedly booked. For example, despite Blackpool receiving so few yellow cards Charlie Adam still ended the season with the third highest number of bookings out of any player in the league.
Last Season all of the top six clubs were in the lower half of the foul table for the season. As in they had all committed less fouls than the majority of the league with Spurs and Manchester United having committed the fewest. You could interpret this a they are allowed to get away with more, or you could interpret it as they spend much more of the game with posession and therefore have less opportunities to commit fouls.
As far as extra time is concerned there is no real way of quantifying whether or not there is positive discrimination for the larger clubs. The fact is that despite incidents like Owen’s goal at Old Trafford there really aren’t that many occasions where events unfold in this way. That we remember each occasion should prove testament to the rarity of such incidents and, to be honest, it happens as much to smaller teams as it does to the larger teams. The only difference is that when Jordan Rhodes scores in the seventh minute of extra time to complete a comeback for Huddersfield, as he did recently against the bigger Sheffield Wednesday, it is a brilliant end to the game but if it happens for a big club in the Premier League it is corruption.
Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory but if we are being honest with ourselves does anybody really believe it? If there is a factor that could contribute towards swaying the opinion of a referee then it is the outrage of a home crowd. All teams play at home as much as anyone else and all home fans scream and shout for every contentious decision therefore the teams are all on an equal footing. Fans can complain as much as they like but ultimately the stats do not support the argument.
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