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