19 October ~ The dubious art of modern football journalism was on full show after Tottenham Hotspur's 2-1 victory over Fulham at the weekend. In a four-minute interview with Fulham manager Mark Hughes, the BBC reporter spoke five times, each time on the single incident of Tottenham's winning goal. The hack had his talking point and, unlike Edwin van der Sar, he wasn't going to let it drop.

The manner of Tom Huddlestone's winning goal "must have left a bitter taste in your mouth", the reporter observed, banally second-guessing Hughes's emotions. Referee Mike Dean had overruled the linesman's offside flag against William Gallas as Huddlestone scored with a well-struck shot. Hughes admitted that he was surprised at the decision, hinting that it had been down to "peer pressure from the Tottenham guys" surrounding Dean. The Fulham boss then went on to talk about other aspects of the game, but when he paused for breath, the reporter was ready.

"Did it take you by surprise that Mike Dean went across to have words with his assistant at all?" After Hughes mused that he could understand Huddlestone lobbying for a review after scoring with such a great shot, the reporter helpfully chipped in with an observation rather than a question: "You don't see it too often, the linesman flag for an offside and a referee over-ruling." Pushed for further thoughts, Hughes ventured that the referee had maybe "lost faith" in his linesman after having overruled another call in the first half. Got enough now? Apparently not, as the interviewer felt obliged to remind Hughes that Blackpool's Ian Holloway was about to serve a one-match suspension for criticising the very same official. Alerted to the sudden possibility of FA disciplinary action, Hughes finally eased himself out of the journalist's controversy trap, and stonewalled the question. At last, interview over.

In fact Dean was absolutely correct to talk to his assistant. Yes, Gallas was in an offside position when the ball was struck, so the linesman was right to flag. But it's impossible to tell from the linesman's position if Gallas was blocking the goalkeeper's view of the ball. Dean had a much better perspective, and could judge whether or not Gallas's position in any way affected the outcome. And that, presumably, is what the two officials discussed, before Dean, who as referee has the final say, decided that it was a perfectly good goal. Referee overrules linesman – not really controversial at all.

There was a similar incident in the Everton-Liverpool game, when Mikel Arteta's shot swerved past both his offside team-mate Yakubu and goalkeeper Pepe Reina. This time the linesman didn't flag and, under questioning from the BBC, Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson refused to moan about it. He instead acknowledged the power of the shot even as he preposterously claimed that Liverpool had been unlucky to lose – not because of the match officials, but because he said they had played so well (maybe he meant to add, "compared with the Northampton game"). And even though Yakubu ducked, and was unquestionably in Reina's line of vision, you like to believe that the linesman, if he spotted Yakubu at all, was human enough to think, "I'm not going to disallow a thumping great goal like that".

You could argue that under a stricter application of the game's laws, neither goal should have counted. Yet there's something seriously wrong when moments of great skill are cancelled out by a minor technicality. In both cases, the referees or their linesman made instinctive judgements that the goals should stand, and that the offside players were irrelevant to quality shots that would most likely have gone in anyway. No matter how many nagging halfwits with a microphone try to eke out a talking point where none should exist, that's plain good officiating. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (15)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-10-19 11:14:34

Hear hear, Mr. P.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-10-19 11:39:47

The popular media are starting to ruin football for me. Nothing seems to be about the game anymore, it all seems to be about creating a soap story. There are hours of coverage about Liverpool's buy out, Rooney's refusal to sign a contract and private life, Joe Hart drinking only 7 days before an England game etc. But on top of this is now this quest for incident. Trying to spin a story out of something that wasn't really an issue and dominating the whole game. I didn't watch the Arsenal game but all I know of it was that Jack Wilshire fouled someone and it adds to the narrative of Wenger being a bit biased when it comes to his players fouling. No idea what the game was like. WBA got a great draw (for them) at Old Trafford and all I know of how that went was that Rooney sat on the bench and didn't talk to Fergusson after which adds to the narrative that Rooney is not happy privately and that Fergie is a surly manager. Everton v Liverpool only goes down as Liverpool having "more misery heaped on them" and the buyers were there to watch.
It's time that football became a sport and no longer a soap.

Comment by tomwfootball 2010-10-19 11:43:39

Not sure I'm in full agreement here. Unimaginative, dog-with-a-bone interviewers are certainly annoying, but overlooking infringements simply because someone gets a meaty connection on a shot sounds like a slippery slope to me. If a player is interfering with play, he's interfering with play - whether the goal in question is a 45-yard overhead bicycle kick or a deflection off someone's arse from two yards out.

Comment by johntheface 2010-10-19 11:55:41

so if a player goes in two footed on a defender, comes away with the ball and crosses it to his strike partner who then uses his hand to knock the ball over his marker's head and scores a screamer from 20 years out the goal should stand? nonsense. if the rules have been broken, the goal shouldn't stand. simple. if a linesman does think "I'm not going to disallow a thumping great goal like that" then he's guilty of match-fixing and should face prosecution. what's the difference between that and a goalkeeper thinking "I'm not going to save a thumping great goal like that"?

the tottenham goal was a strange one. the linesman flagged, so he obviously thought it was offside. the referee took his word, meaning he obviously thought the linesman was correct or had a better view than him and was in a better position to make the decision. so what made them both change their mind? i'd love to know what they said.

"why did you flag?"
"gallas was offside, couldn't you see?"
"no, not really. huddelstone says it should stand though"
"oh, might as well give it then"

(by the way, i'm not fulham fan!)

Comment by Jobi1 2010-10-19 12:17:47

While I agree entirely with all Ian's comments regarding modern football journalism, I also have to agree with the comments above regarding the decision making process. I don't think it's within the officials' remit to make speculative judgements based on the aesthetic qualities of a piece of play, they are there only to apply the laws of the game. Lovely as it would be for the Corinthian spirit to take over and the players become self-governing, I think we're best leaving such things to the officials for the time being. Yes, even Mark Halsey.

Comment by Jonny_Bananas 2010-10-19 12:33:51

All of this highlights exactly what is wrong with football these days, the need for controversy and the media wanting to get the final stranglehold in it's grip on the sport, namely the power over the referee's decision. "Tottenham Get Good Away Win Thanks To Thumping Goal" would have been the headline 20 years ago, now it is "Hughes Slams Officials" or "Fulham Robbed By Linesman's Mistake" and hours of chat and analysis of every decision. Watching the Blackpool v Manchester City game on Sunday, yes there were two 'line' decisions that could have gone either way, a different set of officials may have given Blackpool a 1-0 lead rather than the other way round. Ian Holloway (who knows more than anyone what the media expect from him post-match) comes out after the game suggesting the top flight needs TV replays for the offside decisions and indeed a foul in the build up to the second Tevez goal. I can imagine Holloway was equally as vociferous about TV replays last season in the second tier and may well be if he ends up managing at that level again. Interestingly the Sky pundits couldn't give a clear cut answer to any of the three decisions after about an hour of looking at replays. Two different video officials could come up with two different decision on each incident. I really don't think City got the best of the calls because they are obscenely wealthy but I am sure their players and staff would have been up in arms had Tevez had two goals disallowed and an 'offside' goal gone in against them. If that had happened the media outlets (who have invested a lot of time and effort in telling us how good City are going to be) would have had an even bigger field day demanding that they have the power to make those important decision.

Comment by imp 2010-10-19 14:54:11

@johntheface. But I'm not talking about two-footed tackles (clear foul), I'm talking about marginal offside decisions that are open to interpretation on the spur of the moment. There's no way to prove definitively that Gallas/Yakubu are interfering with play, the referee has to make a judgment call, and that sometimes involves talking with his linesman (your imaginary conversation is nonsense - I've already outlined why Dean would have talked to his linesman in this case). Too many fans, coaches and hacks expect perfection from referees instead of treating subjective calls as an integral part of the game. I'm fond of quoting Carlo Ancelotti on this - once the referee awards a goal, it's a goal.

It's insane to suggest a linesman is guilty of match-fixing because, from an impossible angle, he deemed that Yakubu was not interfering with play and so didn't flag. It does however betray a common misunderstanding of what it means to be a referee, and what dictates the course of a game - human error, by referees and especially players. It makes no more sense to expect a perfect game from a referee than it does to expect one from a player. But the hyper-inflated importance of football leads to the ludicrous 'replay everything' demands of Ian Holloway as cited by Johnny-B above. Of course there will be goals as good as Arteta's and Huddlestone's that get cancelled out. But it's better for the game when they're not, and better referees, in my view, give the attacking team the benefit of the doubt.

Comment by ooh aah 2010-10-19 15:35:31

"I'm fond of quoting Carlo Ancelotti on this - once the referee awards a goal, it's a goal."

Easy for Ancelotti to say given the number of piss poor decisions that went in his favour last season.

I don't think tv replays are a good idea, as mentioned above it's not always clear cut, but I do think there should be some mechanism to try to improve refereeing standards in the premiership which I don't think are quite high enough. Any league which employed Mike Riley for that length of time clearly has quality control issues.

Comment by johntheface 2010-10-19 17:37:30

alright, I may have over-exaggerated with the two-footed tackle and the imaginary conversation was clearly meant to be a bit tongue in cheek but I stand by my main points.

at no stage did I imply an official should be responsible for match fixing for getting a decision wrong. my point was that, taking the "I'm not going to disallow a thumping great goal like that" quote literally, he's decided to give the goal because it was such a good shot (which, by the way, arteta's wasn't. he toe-poked it, admittedly pretty hard, and it went in pretty near the middle of the goal. the only reason reina didn't save it was cause he couldn't see - i'm not a liverpool fan either!) even though it might have been against the rules.

as for the tottenham goal, obviously that's not really what I believe was said (although, I have no less evidence that's how the conversation went that you did so forgive me for not taking your account of what "presumably, what the two officials discussed" as gospel). I'm just curious as to why both officials initially thought the goal shouldn't stand, had a conversation and decided it should.

I personally believe, and I get the feeling I'm on my own in thinking this, the benefit should always go to the defending team. goals change games. unless the officials (not the players or managers) are 100% sure no fouls were committed or any players were breaking the offside rule they shouldn't give the goal.

Comment by tratorello 2010-10-19 17:53:00

I don't think that refereeing standards should be improved until all TV pundits, commentators and managers are made to sit an exam on the laws of the game and have all achieved a sufficient level of understanding to be able to speak about the officials decisions.

Most of the buffoons with a microphone have absolutely no idea what the laws of the game actually are and yet are the first to hammer the officials when they make a marginal decision.

Comment by Jonny_Bananas 2010-10-19 18:07:38

I agree Tratorello, how many times do you hear pundits using expressions like "You have to give the benefit of the doubt..." or "He gets the ball first before he takes the man..." none of which has anything to do with the laws of football. It is bad enough having failed managers explaining tactical decisions and such but when they show not the first idea of the laws of the game it is awful.
Interestingly, Setanta used Graham Poll as an expert during their coverage of the Premier League. I recall a specific incident, John Terry was sent off for a dangerous tackle at Goodison and the referee , just before brandishing the card, said something into his microphone. "He's asking his assistant what happened, he doesn't know what to do!" screamed the ex pros in the studio (with much prompting from the producer.) Poll tried to explain what was going on from the official's viewpoint, that the referee would be informing his assistants of what he was about to do, but despite reiterating this several times the conclusion from the studio was "Referee hasn't got a clue, he needs technology to help him." The red card was quite right by the way but why not spend 10 minutes debating it and making the referee look foolish anyway!

Comment by Nefertiti2 2010-10-19 20:48:13

The Worst proponent of this technique is the BBC's garry richardson, probably because he doesn't seem intellectually capable of holding more than one idea in his brain at any one time.

Comment by jameswba 2010-10-20 09:43:12

I agree with the premise of the article. We're encouraged, to a mind-numbing degree these days, to believe that 'there's so much at stake', 'so much riding on a referee's decision' etc etc. No, it's a game of football, there are three points at stake, nothing more. It's true that millions of pounds might also be 'at stake' over a season but that is nothing but another symptom of the problem.

And yet... I was watching Marseille v Zilina in the CL last night. Zilina denied a clear penalty, Marseille score from a corner that shouldn't have been. Marseille win 1-0. As a fan, my agreement with the principle of this article was out of the window. It didn't matter that Marseille were that bit better anyway, that the Zilina keeper might have done better with the goal, that Zilina had chances to equalise. No, the ref was to blame.

But I even think you can reconcile these positions. Fans should be allowed their passions, to indulge their sense of what might have been. Reporters are there (or should be)to be objective, report the game as a whole, not reduce it to one or two selected moments of controversy.

Definitely agree with Tatorello too. How can you can be an 'expert' on a game you don't even know the rules of?

Comment by donedmundo 2010-10-20 11:13:34

Interestingly, the pundits eventually decided that the Huddlestone goal was not offside because the ball had hit a Fulham player on the way through. In other words, it had been 'played on'. It makes you despair. 'Played on' has had no part in offside decisions for more years than I care to remember. These 'experts', however, haven't quite caught up with this.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-10-20 14:32:34

Tratorello I agree wholeheartedly on the expert point. It is very difficult to get refs on to the panel because by the time they retire they are an object of ridicule. When Poll is on MOTD2 I really enjoy it because a top class ex referee gives his view to the letter of the law as to what has happened and so there is no room for real debate. I can already hear derisive snorts at the phrase top class, and there in lies the problem. No referee can come through the tarring and feathering ceremony that is football with enough credibility to be on TV. Even as one of the few to make it, Poll is hilariously reminded of the number 3 whenever he appears.

If you judge the World Cup Final as being the greatest stage of football with the greatest footballers it would follow that the ref is rated as being pretty decent by the rule makers and keepers. However Howard Webb has a reputation in relative tatters and was not great before. In my view the problem is that we all know a time the ref robbed our team of a decision that could have changed our season for the better. We can rarely recall the time the ref didn't make a decision that could have made the season worse. Sum it up over a period of years with different fans and you have pretty much every referee labelled an idiot and the only one left who can give a view on TV that has any authority is an ex player who may or may not know the rules.

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