Rob Styles was the unfortunate man caught up in the middle of a game between two teams whose hatred ran deeper than mere rivalry.
The feud had, at its heart, two of the Premier League’s most well-known and most prickly figures who may well have mellowed over the years. But just over a decade ago, in August 2007, Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho certainly weren’t men who could be described as mellow. And when you take two men like that and put them in a pressure cooker environment, wild things can happen.
With Liverpool leading 1-0 at Anfield in a match between Liverpool and Chelsea, Styles adjudged that Reds defender Steve Finnan brought down Florent Malouda in the box and pointed to the penalty spot. With half an hour remaining, Frank Lampard stood up to take it and promptly put his side level.
That wouldn’t be the end of it, though. Replays had shown that Finnan hadn’t fouled the Chelsea winger, and Liverpool’s indignation was massive. But it didn’t stop there. Flustered at what was clearly a bad decision, Styles also appeared to have booked Michael Essien twice and failed to show a red in an incident which was reminiscent of Graham Poll’s infamous three yellow cards in the 2006 World Cup. It later emerged that Styles hadn’t actually booked Essien twice, but it was just another moment where Liverpool could feel aggrieved at a referee for whom nothing was going right.
As all of these controversial games do, it first created anger amongst the already-fiery managers. Benitez, aggrieved at having drawn a game he felt his side were entitled to win, blasted Styles, as did Steven Gerrard, who said that the referee had ‘cracked’ after the penalty incident and intimated that Chelsea’s players were attempting to influence the referee throughout the game.
Jose Mourinho then hit back, saying that his players couldn’t possibly have influenced the referee. “They are naive,” he said, “because they are pure and they are clean.”
Benitez, hardly in the wrong, replied: ‘if Chelsea are naive and pure, then I’m Little Red Riding Hood.’
So far, playground handbags, but it was to be the referee at the centre of the storm to feel the brunt of the force, not the managers sniping from the sidelines.
Keith Hackett, at the time, the head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), came out to clarify the mistakes and to apologise to Liverpool for Styles’ refereeing errors. It’s not an unprecedented step for that to happen, especially when such controversy is created, but it was an unusual one. The referees’ chief dished out an even harsher punishment, dropping Styles from the next weekend’s fixtures, stating that if a player had a bad game, he’d be dropped. And it was no different here.
And yet, it was enough to make Styles do something that referees pretty much never do. Indeed, something that no player would do, either. He came out with a statement of apology and was left to fend for himself in front of a gleeful media, just when the internet was becoming mainstream, and just when literally everyone could hammer him for what was one mistake.
He wouldn’t be the first or even the last to be well and truly thrown under the bus. But it’s clear that he never fully recovered.
Having become a Premier League referee in 2000, it’s possible that Styles was considering retirement around that time anyway. But just over a year later, midway through the next season, he finally pulled the plug on his refereeing career. His final game was a match between West Brom and Manchester United, where he sent off defender Paul Robinson. That card was overturned. Two days later, Styles retired due to a lack of support from the FA.
It was a sad end, and maybe one that was accelerated by his misfortune at being caught in the middle of one of the most bitter managerial rivalries of the Premier League era. And of all the consequences of the Benitez – Mourinho feud, the demise of Rob Styles is probably the most underappreciated one.