The last EPL weekend was not the finest moment in the history of Premiership refereeing. A game involving the defending champions had several questionable calls, and another match featured a huge incident which was missed (which largely drowned out any complaints people had to make about the first game). They gave the pundits plenty of things to talk about, and without fail, they got it wrong worse than the referees.
In the Everton – Man City game, a major talking point was a claim for a penalty to Man City in the 88th minute when they were 1-0 behind. A shot was hit from outside the area as Leon Osman dived across the front of the player and it ends up hitting Marouane Fellaini on the thigh and then his hand inside the box, but a free kick about a yard outside was awarded instead. A large part of the discussion was about how clear it was that Fellaini had been inside, and very little was made about Osman’s challenge. If you rewatched the footage in slow motion, it looked like there was a slight change in direction of the ball as it passed over Osman’s arm (which was about a foot away from his body). What the referee probably saw at this point was a change in the spin on the ball (not clear from the replay as the ball was a blur). It was hard to be conclusive, but there was enough there to accept the referee’s call.
Part of the problem when it comes to calls like this is that the referee’s thinking behind a decision isn’t revealed – I’m speculating, based on what footage was available to me. If the referee had been interviewed after the game and said that he believed that it had caught the arm of the player attempting to make a challenge, maybe more of the pundits would have taken the video (particularly the side-on shot) and discussed this possibility. However, referees aren’t allowed to give interviews so instead, all analysis begins from the point of view of the pundits which is usually only seeing the final of the incident, not all the components of it.
That is shown in the discussion of the foul by Wigan’s Callum McManaman on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara. It usually begins with an image of the horrific way that McManaman’s leg makes contact directly on to Haidara’s knee, then moves to show the referee’s view being obscured by a Newcastle player moving back towards the dfence, then finally a shot revealing that the Referee’s assistant had a clear line of sight on the incident. The general consensus is that it was a thuggish tackle by a lout of a player and the assistant committed a howler by missing it. The full sequence of events is somewhat more complicated.
Haidara loses control of the ball and it goes towards McManaman, who takes a wild swing at the ball to kick it away from the Wigan penalty box. Unfortunately, he not only miskicks it, he is now on a collision course with the Newcastle player and can’t move his leg to stop it catching Haidara (not helped by the fact he is closing his eyes and flinching at this point). It’s reckless play and was deserving of a red card, but when Roberto Martinez claimed after the game that he wasn’t the sort of player to deliberately injure a player, the footage backs that up.
Far more controversially, the referee’s decision not to penalise the player at the time has taken on an element of farce with the FA saying that because an official saw part of it and chose to take no action, then they can’t retrospectively punish the player. Everything about that statement is unhelpful – it clearly implicates the assistant, but then doesn’t explain what the reasons were why they didn’t see the incident correctly. The primary role of the assistant is in tracking the defensive line to see if a player is offside, so if I was to speculate how they reached that decision, I would say that they saw McManaman go to kick the ball and they looked to see how the Wigan forward was positioned against the Newcastle back line (expecting the ball to come forward), and then looked back when they heard Haidara’s scream of pain. They saw the players in motion at the start, and saw that they had collided, but didn’t see exactly how they had clashed. It’s the only way I can make sense of it, but is my analysis any more correct or conclusive than any of the pundits?
Again, we fall back in to this silence that surrounds the referees, and this system seems to be the worst of all possible circumstances. If the referees could explain their decisions, then honest mistakes could be accepted – in a league where players have fallen over trying to control the ball with no-one near them, criticising referees for slight judgment errors would be slightly hypocritical. If all punishments (red and yellow cards, fouls that weren’t spotted) were reviewed after the game, so that mistakes would only affect the match in question, then maybe they’d be more tolerable (for example some of the cards given for diving where contact can be clearly seen in the replays). What we have is an environment where the referee is totally exposed to any supposed errors they’re made and are given minimal protection by the authorities, with no opportunity to defend themselves. In light of that isn’t it about that that we gave them respect for how often they get it right and start to look at ways to both protect them from undue and ill-informed criticism, and to make sure that the long term effects of similar incidents in different games are consistent (even if the referee gets it wrong at the time)? Given how long goal-line technology has taken to even be looked at, I doubt it’s something that’ll be dealt with any time soon.
Written by Neil Biggs