There is a phenomena in Premier League football I like to call ‘the Neil Warnock margin’. A column created by paranoid accusations, dependence upon fortunate circumstance and the inability to admit one’s own inadequacy, it’s not a particularly nice place to find yourself in – as Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has discovered this season.
Plenty a Premier League manager have shifted the blame for defeat onto a referee’s doorstep. In fact, it’s pretty much common practice nowadays. Yet none have done so with the consistency and conviction of the former Sheffield United and Crystal Palace boss, who would describe the injustice of a wrongly-awarded throw-in so subjectively and sensationally, tying it into a timeline of similarly conspiratorial acts from Premier League officials, you’d be left equally convinced such an innocuous decision had cost his side the match by the end of his rant, despite them receiving a 5-0 battering.
No doubt, big decisions can decide big games. That has become an inevitability in the Premier League, the controversy of which seems almost intertwined with its popularity. But that’s why we have a 38 game season, a large enough sample to rule out any element of luck or human incompetence, which, in turn, is why most managers oblige to the adage of refereeing decisions balancing out by the end of May. Perhaps the adage is not entirely accurate, but complaining after the fact isn’t going to change anything.
Other managers, however, such as Mourinho and Warnock, aren’t quite so accepting, and find themselves tracing every defeat back to the calls of the men in black. Fractional offsides, unawarded yellow cards, free kicks taken two yards away from where they should’ve been and misappropriated corners suddenly become of the utmost importance once the final whistle is blown, regardless of whether the score is 1-0 or 5-0.
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But if your side’s fortunes are dependent upon the ‘Neil Warnock margin’ – the thin line between right and wrong referee calls and the assumption that all will be made correctly – then quite frankly, I don’t have much sympathy for you.
The FA say referees get 99% of decisions right, but we all know that isn’t true. Refereeing is becoming an increasingly tougher job as the pace of the Premier League increases with every passing season, so nobody can realistically expect referees to get every decision right every time. If that’s what you’re banking on en route to victory, then your fate is essentially a ball on a roulette wheel. Your side haven’t done enough to put the result beyond doubt, leaving it open to the element of chance.
That may seem a sweepingly idealistic notion to some, but let me put it this way. Neil Warnock lost nine games during his 18 in charge of Palace last season, winning three, and complained about refereeing decisions after every defeat. Alan Pardew, with the exact same group of players, won ten of his 18 games in charge, guiding the Eagles from 18th to 10th.
Do referees like Pardew more than Warnock? Probably – he is a very annoying and arrogant man. But the difference between the two sets of the results had nothing to do with the pro-Pardew stance of Premier League officials. Pardew’s Palace performed to a level where they could win matches regardless of whether marginal referee calls went their way; Warnock’s Palace didn’t.
Let’s apply the Warnock margin to Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to Liverpool on Saturday. Mourinho didn’t explicitly mention it in his post-match interview, but we all know what the Portuguese was hinting at – Mark Clattenburg not sending Lucas Leiva off after committing a second potentially bookable offence, depending upon your own interpretation. Some have praised the referee for not letting one poorly-timed challenge spoil the match, but reducing Liverpool to ten men would most likely have swung momentum back into the Blues’ favour with twenty minutes remaining.
But let’s say that sending off is realistically worth a goal at most, considering Chelsea weren’t exactly dominant going forward and Liverpool weren’t exactly ropey at the back. The game would have, at best, finished as a draw, which hardly makes a huge difference to the predicament the 15th-place reigning champions currently find themselves in.
Similarly, Chelsea played Liverpool three times last season and never conceded more than one goal, drawing twice and winning once, so the idea that they lost on Saturday because of Clattenburg borders upon laughable – especially considering he overlooked what some other referees would have interpreted as a Diego Costa stamp on Martin Skrtel, and therefore a straight red card.
The Blues of 2014/15 didn’t depend on every refereeing decision going their way as they lifted the Premier League title, so how can it suddenly be such a pivotal influence on their results now?
The fact of the matter is that, regardless of whether you believe Chelsea have a legitimate claim to injustice in recent weeks, a higher quality of refereeing isn’t going to miraculously turn their season around. Performing to a level that requires the benefit of refereeing decisions in order to win quite simply isn’t good enough – especially for a club who should be challenging at the top end of the table.
Chelsea need to move themselves away from the ‘Neil Warnock margin’ as soon as possible. Unfortunately, however, Mourinho’s obsession with it appears to be growing by the game.