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Mike Hopper

Wednesday 14the December

It's not been a good couple of weeks for Premiership referees overall, has it? Leastways, several of them have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons and that's all football supporters need to have a go at them with some voracity.

Kevin Friend was the antithesis of his name to Liverpool at Fulham while Chris Foy, Mike Jones, Stuart Atwell (again!) Mike Dean and Andre Marriner have also each made potential game-changing howlers.

Personally I don't go along with some of the specific positioning of arguments and see things in more of an overview.

My first point relates to that well-worn cliché regarding officials not being noticed. For sure that cannot be the case all the time (for example, a correctly adjudicated last minute penalty is what it is) but it is a time-honoured view that holds plenty of merit.

In those far off days when I was a player, I can recall how quickly a team of players would adapt to the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a different referee and I do believe that holds up at every level of football. Some officials will do all they can to let the game flow, others are more precise and like to blow up with efficiency. But the players know this and adapt accordingly.

For me, the two worst referees at the top level in recent times have been Uriah Rennie and Atwell. And the common theme running between them has been their unpredictability. And believe me, I've been to enough Premier League games at Anfield to see the total loss of confidence amongst players because they simply didn't know how those two officials would respond. It was visible; there was a fear in making even the fairest of tackles.

Even when the strictest of referees was in the middle, at least the players knew the score; likewise one at the other end of the spectrum.

So on to my other point. The 'ch' word to an official is deemed as repugnant as the worst racist and sexist comments one can imagine and I can see where they are coming from, because I don't believe there's a single cheat amongst them. But that is not to say that prejudice is non-existent. Recently Gary Neville related the meetings of his club with Graeme Poll some time back when that official as much as told him that referees were human beings and did remember insulting behaviour and leaned accordingly.

And before anyone might think of tut-tutting, let us simply accept the notion of human nature. It is what it is; people are what they are. The tolerance level of one person can be at total variance with that of another; what is any official's breaking point if he's getting a non-stop verbal barrage from somebody like Joey Barton or even Craig Bellamy in his ear? Just as one will crack a witty to subdue the moment another might take immediate personal umbrage. The reality is that anyone can pontificate from afar on the rights and wrongs, but nonetheless, referees are still human beings and as such can only be consistent across the board to a limited degree.

So that once an official has crossed swords with a particular type of person out on the field, he cannot fail to have some sort of prejudicial opinion about that player the next time they meet. This could work either way; tolerance level might be reduced or he may lean too far over backwards to be fair.

I would maintain that this prejudice can be further extended to cover an entire club. I simply cannot accept that some referees are not in awe of Ferguson, for example. It defies their human nature to believe otherwise. Yet it can work in reverse and I would humbly suggest that amongst the refereeing fraternity, there are those whose strength of character is so high as to be unhealthy. It's my contention for example, that Howard Webb has had such a distinguished career that at times he almost looks to be controversial to reinforce his standing. Colloquially, he thinks he can walk on water. Things certainly came to a head last year with his controversial handling of two Liverpool -Manchester games and the subsequent portrayal of the man in an AIG shirt on many major websites. The final straw as far as Liverpool fans were concerned came with his ludicrous award of a penalty at Anfield against Spurs. The subsequent full-scale chanting everywhere around the ground (bar the visitors' section) of the man as 'Fergie's rent boy' was hugely condemning even if not true. My own reading of this is that he's by no means a cheat in any sense of the word, but I do question whether he has an inbuilt, sub-conscious prejudice against Liverpool. And nor do I doubt for a moment that there are not similar such situations in terms of other officials with regard to other clubs.

I know some of my readers are from the refereeing fraternity and I don't doubt for a moment that controversial observations such as these only harden the siege mentality and even serve to reinforce the wall of silence philosophy which prevails. But this too, in itself, is a source of constant debate.

Last week, Alan Pardew, the Newcastle Manager, told Sky that the referee Mike Dean had apologised personally to him for a bad error of judgement early in the match; a decision which clearly had a massive impact on the rest of the game. Further to that, I don't doubt for a single minute that the interaction between players and officials would extent to mutual apologies throughout the 90 minutes. But the big question is whether referee Dean should have been able to extend his apology to the Newcastle supporters by admitting his mistake through the media.

I find myself with mixed feelings on this matter. It's not difficult to envisage any official standing in front of a microphone and being tied in knots post-match by a silk-tongued interviewer. In no way at all should a match official's standing be compromised in such a way. After all he should stand or fall by his performance on the pitch not in interview mode. However, I really do think that there's a case for every referee to have a spokesperson at their side post-match in order to put out a short statement, even an acknowledgement/apology in the event of a hugely debatable match-changing decision. In terms of public relations it would surely work wonders.

Imagine the PR person reading out a statement on behalf of Chris Foy which went something like this: "Can I just apologise for my failure to give Tottenham a penalty for hand ball on the goal line by Dean Whitehead. In all honesty the incident happened extremely quickly and from my angle I was unable to determine that the arm was involved. With hindsight, I recognise that I was wrong and wish to tell the Tottenham players, supporters and management that I am sorry for the error."

In terms of all other decisions taken during a game, for the most part they are more often than not incidental. Even when a manager complains that a corner leading to a goal was the wrong decision, it hardly has the public in a long drawn-out clamour despite the press trying to hype it up. It's just the way it is. Football supporters, for all their instinctive tribalism towards each other are generally accepting of minor errors all the time, even by officials. But it's the big ones that they demand are got right and if that demands the use of technology, then so be it, though I recognise that most referees would be in favour too.

Once again it would help if there were more explanations via the media. Many people realise that the officials are linked up via mouth and earpieces, though perhaps are not as aware that on the flag handle is a buzzer which transmits to an armband worn by the referee, causing a vibration. If commentators don't know this, they should; either way they still talk about linesman's use of the flag. To which I would normally respond: They don't need to; they can talk to each other! Except that argument is made to look foolish with the somewhat needless and even bizarre situation which occurred at Old Trafford recently.

When Mike Jones correctly adjudged Rio Ferdinand's excellent tackle as fair against Newcastle, his assistant begged to differ. But why did he flag and embarrass his leader? He could have simply buzzed on his flag handle and expressed his opinion through his mic. Jones could then have quietly overruled him without much ado. Instead the whole world knew there was a conflict of opinion and worse still the referee gave in to his assistant.

If the technology is there it should be utilised with maximum efficiency. In both codes of rugby, the television audience can hear all the dialogue which takes place between the officials. The effect has been to get more decisions correct as well as, many say, to improve player behaviour and for them to be less challenging towards the officials. Why does football not follow suit?

However, I digress. It is absolutely no consolation to the supporters of any club to see such extreme mistakes from our top referees. Yet at the back of my mind is the recurring conclusion that quite simply the game is now too quick to be controlled in the way it is. I watched the aforementioned Whitehead handball live on telly on Sunday and quite honestly even with a much better angle than the referee, found myself wondering if I'd really just seen a player handle on the line. I've thought for some time now that these guys need some technological help, but I doubt Fifa will oblige, except for goal line decisions. I don't believe that's good enough.


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