Why these incidents on reputation is doing football a disservice

Liverpool striker Luis SuarezIt is a footballing flashpoint that is seemingly seasonal in its topicality and inexplicable in its solution. The culture of diving, or to go by its more politically correct term, simulation, is an issue that has been thrown back into the public realm following a series of recent incidents involving Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. But as opposed to focusing on those who are partaking it it, what about those who are trying to police it?

Premier League referees are plying their trade in a working environment where the process of scrutiny, is perhaps impossibly out of proportion to the means of their own performance. Every decision they take, in a league that is played at the highest level of both pace and performance, can be slowed down and analyzed on a frame-by-frame replay and at 10 different camera angles.

Taking a scientific level of analysis to the job of a mere mortal will always produce unfavorable results, but with their decisions catalyzing the fates of clubs and often with it, millions of pounds, you can empathize with the level of pressure which they find themselves subjected to.

But although supporters are sympathetic to the difficulties in refereeing games in the top flight- or perhaps not judging by the disgusting abuse that Mark Halsey received following the Liverpool v Manchester United game – all we ask is that our refs uphold the cornerstones of their professions. Fairness and impartiality.

So to continue, here is an extract from ex-Premier League referee Graham Poll’s column, in the Mail on Sunday this past weekend. Continuing on from the controversy that stemmed from Mike Jones’ refusal to grant Luis Suarez a stonewall penalty during Liverpool’s 5-2 win over Norwich, Poll elaborated:

“I always tried to clear my mind of any previous incidents, but, when refereeing a player such as Cristiano Ronaldo in his early days at Manchester United, I would be more likely to wave aside appeals from him than I would if Roy Keane went to ground.”

Poll himself, is of course now retired and if you can cast your mind back to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the three yellow cards it took him to send off Croatia’s Josip Simunic, he resembled something of a pantomime figure towards the end of his career. But his World Cup gaffe aside, we are talking about someone who was largely recognized as one of the best English referee’s of the past 15 years.

So fundamentally, the top English referee of his era, has admitted that as opposed to judging each case on its merits as he should have been doing, he was allowing a player’s reputation to influence his refereeing. Whatever way you frame it, it doesn’t make good reading. If a referee is unable to officiate a game objectively, than surely they’re doing the entire game a disservice?

Of course, the comments of Poll have not and should be taken as gospel or an accurate microcosm of the mindset of today’s current crop of Premier League referees. But his past stature within the realms of English football, add real gravitas to what he’s saying.

How much can referees be afforded a degree of sympathy? Fans accept that as human beings, the game’s officials are always going to make mistakes. But as long as those mistakes are made in good faith, they can be lived with. If referees can’t detach themselves from public opinion and the howling protests of opportunistic opponents looking to get a cheap decision off the back of a player’s reputation, than she shouldn’t be doing it.

No one denies that concept is difficult, but it’s what refs are paid to do. The notion that Mike Jones would have possibly waved away Suraez’s penalty claims following a stonewall bundle by Norwich’s Leon Barnett, on the notion that he has a ‘reputation’ is hugely disheartening indeed. And Poll’s reasoning for change is even more depressing as well.

“It is human nature,” says Poll

“And Rodgers needs to accept that it will take more than a plea from him to change Suarez’s reputation.”

You can only hope that the bulk of referees that are currently officiating today don’t take such a similar point of view. What does Poll expect Suarez to do to change his officiating? No one denies that the Uruguayan has had his moments indulging in the games theatrical side, but this notion that he has to prove himself before referees actually start doing their job properly, is absurd. Will it take someone to rupture his knee ligaments or break his leg, before refs stop judging him on his reputation?

Suarez is of course a polarizing example and many will feel little sympathy for a man with a suspect reputation at going to ground. But supporters don’t have to be objective, in fact, they can be as biased as they like. Premier League referees cannot be afforded that luxury.

The Suarez case is of course a lot more complex in reality than it is on paper. Referees hardly live their lives in a nuclear bunker and you can’t prevent them from being exposed to the realities of public opinion. To some extent, perhaps there will always be a natural question mark in a ref’s head when it comes to a player with a negative reputation. But not to the extent that it starts influencing decision.

Life’s not easy for a Premier League referee. And no amount of suggested disciplinary panels for our nation’s officials can change the decisions that they make in a split second during a match – short of sterilising the game with a multitude of video replays, there’s nothing you can do. We just ask that they referee they game in a clear and objective way, and judge each incident on their merits. Graham Poll’s opinion suggests that may not always be the case.

What do you think about the Suarez incident? Can you sympathise with refs or do you despise the notion that reputation affects impartiality? Let me know on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and tell me where you stand.