THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Manchester City need all the help they can get. In recent matches the referees have not come to their aid. Steve Parish muses on the inconsistencies of referees – and of the TV watchdogs

Alan Wilkie’s penalty award in the Manchester FA Cup derby, and Martin Bodenham’s failure to spot Asprilla’s elbow at work when Newcastle met City at Maine Road the week after, were both well examined by Match of the Day.

A referee making a wrong decision is common enough. Refs like Wilkie missing a clear push by Bruce on Symons but seeing a minor grapple as ‘holding’ typifies the sort of inconsistency – or blindness or bias – that makes a nonsense of the complaint that referees have been turned into ‘automata’.
 
There is no consistency of interpretation between referees, or even too often between one referee’s decisions in one match. Even fairly basic stuff like a player not wearing shinpads – hardly a matter for sharp eyes and instant judgment – seems to pass some referees by these days. Tim Flowers illegally marks his goal area week by week, and in the end it’s not a referee that punishes him but the ball hitting the illegal rut and bouncing over his shoulder, ho-ho!
 
But nor is there any consistency in the television treatment of incidents, and commentary. In the first minute of the Manchester derby Cantona and Brown both leapt in hard for the ball. With the ball out of play Cantona and Keane both then kicked Brown and got away with it – with Wilkie commended by summariser David Pleat for “defusing the situation” by allowing a quick throw-in, and by John Motson – “the best thing he could have done”.
 
Wilkie didn’t “defuse the situation” – he either did not see violent conduct or he chose to ignore it. But so too did Match of the Day, not even bothering to run the whole incident later. Why? To protect the judgment of their own commentators?
 
Now when Asprilla swings an elbow in a tussle with Keith Curle – an understandable if dangerous reaction when a defender is holding you back – the cameras dwell on it. Who decides which incidents to re-run? On what criteria? Does someone make a judgment that elbowing and butting are more serious than merely kicking an opponent? Or is it that Asprilla is Colombian and black? Or just the BBC bias toward United?
 
Then the FA steams in, picking up on incidents that the TV producers choose to highlight and ignoring the ones we all see but TV fails to analyse. But it is not just the odd highlighted – or ignored – bit of violent conduct that has brought so much criticism of referees this season. It’s that players do get away with tackles from behind that damage opponents, yet are booked for silly little dissents (often getting sent off for a second yellow card offence).
 
Graham Poll was widely criticized for booking so many players in Manchester City’s recent game with QPR. Yet most City fans wondered why he’d taken so long to start taking names, perhaps leading QPR’s players to think they could kick anyone with impunity. Later he had to reap the whirlwind he’d sown. Daniele Dichio was sent off for two offences, the first of which was for kicking the ball away (not very far at that) with Poll actually putting a finger to his head as he got the book out. Yes, it was crazy. But as we near the end of the season, clubs are losing players at vital times not for mass violence or thuggery, in which only a limited number of players indulge, but for being silly.
 
The advantage goes not to the team they were playing at the time, but to all their rivals for trophies and relegation. It will not help Man City if Asprilla is suspended for thumping and nutting Curle; it will help Man United and any of City’s relegation rivals who play Newcastle.
 
Some suggest that having professional referees might help, but officials already watch TV replays and know what they’d have done if they’d been refereeing that match, and they are already paid a goodly sum as a match fee. The only point would be to pay them even more, and the only point of that would be to reduce the temptation to take a bung. Not that that goes on, of course, though it might explain a lot.
 
Attempts to ‘clamp down’ work for a couple of weeks, then after that it’s anyone’s guess how referees will play it. Why didn’t Gerald Ashby send Monkou off for carting Wise in the Southampton-Chelsea televised match? “It didn’t need a Cup Final referee to make that decision,” said Motson, but another referee might have shown the red card.
 
A mistimed sliding tackle in the penalty area should not mean a penalty and a sending off. Why must a goalkeeper get a red card for misjudging where the edge of the penalty area is, while limb-threatening ball-and-man tackles go unpunished altogether because they’re not near goal? The FA/FIFA could change the disciplinary rules. Two pieces of dissent resulting from petty instant frustration are not worth the same punishment as violent conduct. Players are often only cautioned for the sort of tackle from behind that under the laws is now “serious foul play” and a sending-off offence. Whatever the rules say, we now have equal punishment for unequal offences.
 
A player gets the same punishment for kicking the ball away and for kicking an opponent from behind up the arse. The two offence rule can still apply but a double yellow sending-off for dissent should not mean the same suspension as for giving two opponents a good kicking. Skills are flourishing now that the crunch from behind is supposedly outlawed, but players must not be frightened to try and make a genuine attempt to tackle and get the ball. While it might have seemed a bright idea to take away the referee’s need to judge a player’s intent in favour of just judging whether he got to the ball first, referees will still make mistakes in that judgment.
 
City v QPR was a throwback, a game spoiled not by a lot of bookings but by players breaking the laws of the game. Or as one journalist once put it, “The game was ruined by a referee who insisted on blowing up for every foul."

From WSC 110 April 1996. What was happening this month

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