Is Premier League refereeing getting even worse?
It’s never a Premier League matchday without drama and controversy, but this weekend showed a little too much of that. The mood was set from just the 4th minute of the early kick off on Saturday between Newcastle and Chelsea. Running on to a through ball, Demba Ba was brought down by David Luiz on the edge of the penalty area. With the whole of ‘The Sports Direct Arena’ expecting to see referee Mike Dean brandish a red card, they ended up questioning their knowledge of the rules as Luiz was only shown a yellow card. It was a clear goal scoring opportunity that was illegally stopped by the Brazilian, and by the letter of the law, the Chelsea man should have been removed from the pitch, being the last defender. It also would have changed the game, as suddenly Newcastle have 85 minutes against a wounded Chelsea, and the game is suddenly played out differently than it was.
But that was just the start of the big refereeing blunders. Inside the first 20 minutes at White Hart Lane and Tottenham are already all over Bolton Wanderers, and applying constant pressure to Owen Coyle’s men. Leading the wave of pressure is Scott Parker, who notices that Gary Cahill’s poor attempt at a skilful drag-back on the side of the half way line has resulted in the ball away from his feet. Pouncing, Parker sprinted in and stole the ball a second before Cahill could, which meant his attempt to kick the ball led to him kicking Parker. But after blowing for the foul, referee Stuart Atwell brandished Cahill with a red card. To his and his teammates’ dismay, Bolton were left with 10 men. But why? The defender was only on the half way line, at an angle from goal, and hadn’t cynically brought down his England teammate, but instead attempted to play the ball. Neither was Cahill the last man, as replays show that Zat Knight was clearly the last man, not Cahill. But Atwell’s decision left already struggling Bolton a man down against a team with the pace and skill of Spurs, who showed no mercy.
Phil Dowd, who was the referee for Sunday’s six pointer between Wolves and Sunderland, must have been watching Match of the Day in his hotel room on Saturday evening, and thinking that he wouldn’t have made those mistakes. But instead he was the victim of possibly one of the most obvious dives in the Premier League, and Mr Dowd bought it all. Running into the Wolves box, Seb Larsson saw Jody Craddock’s leg dangling out, and leapt over it, flailing his arms about to add to the dramatics. Tom Daley would be proud of the dive, but not the referee’s decision, as Phil Dowd immediately pointed to the spot. Justice was done as Larsson took the penalty himself and gave keeper Hennessey an easy save. This miss was even more costly, as inside 30 seconds after Hennessey’s save, his team were level. And then with less than 10 minutes left, Wolves snatched the winner to the delight of the home fans. This also took some attention off Phil Dowd, as his mistake didn’t stop Wolves from winning, although only because Larsson missed his own penalty. Maybe it was guilt from cheating, but the Swede couldn’t handle the pressure.
3 Shocking decisions in just over 24 hours, all of which have the power to change the game. It would be stupid to claim that the result would have been different if Cahill wasn’t sent off, or if Luiz was, as there is no knowing of that. But what we can say is that they change how the game is played. Suddenly Spurs can attack Bolton with as much width as possible, knowing the risk of being counter attacked is reduced. Newcastle should have been attacking Chelsea more than they did, and Sunderland could have put the game away if they weren’t thwarted by Wayne Hennessey. So how can we help referees from wrongly changing the game?
The obvious start is to reduce the amount of diving, from players such as Seb Larsson. It is difficult enough for officials without the added strain of judging if the player was brought down, or if they are play acting. But is it really possible to remove simulation from the English game? Referees do need to be more strict or punishing a player when found guilty of diving, but what happens if the referee believes the act portrayed in front of him? Should the FA fine or even hand a one game suspension to a player who was awarded a penalty when he hadn’t been touched? Or should our governing body add a yellow card to the players’ name, which means they will have to play more honestly to avoid a suspension for five yellow cards?
However, we still have the issue of consistency from the officials. What one referee gives a red card, another gives a yellow for a worse offence. Newcastle manager Alan Pardew was quick to give his opinion on how we could improve the refereeing;
“The training for the referees is about £30,000 believe it or not. We’ve got assistant referees who aren’t full time. So we’re going to have this problem unless we make assistant referees professional. The referee then has a unit that’s trained – a unit that has trained together and work together and know eachother. Then they can deal with those situations because they’re dealing with them and training on them in the week. Unless we do something like that, it isn’t going to improve. “
He makes a good suggestion, as if the officials understood the game better, they may make more correct decisions. Or should we follow the footsteps of American Sport where there or more than one official on the field of play, allowing them to spot more, and discuss what they saw to come to the right conclusion? However, will this just mean we have more referees on the pitch to make mistakes? From the start of the 2009-2010 season, the Europa League has had 5 officials, instead of the standard 3. The extra 2 stand behind the goal and supposedly help the referee know what is happening in the penalty area. But it seems that the first time we have actually seen them do anything was during the Tottenham match at home to PAOK last week, where the 5th official told the referee of a foul prior to a goal. So in 2 years of them being implemented they have barely changed the game, and if anything have angered fans more that there are more officials there and are still missing incidents.
So do we follow the footsteps of Rugby, where a TMO (Television Match Official) is in place. When a try is scored and the referee is unsure of the grounding of the ball or if the ball was over the try line, the referee can stop the clock and go to the TMO, who can study the numerous replays and give an accurate conclusion to the referee. So if football referees can find a plausible time to stop the game to check, this system may work.
After recent updates to its rules, the sport of Cricket may have the answer. Recent rule changes mean that in some test matches, a team has 3 referrals they can use to challenge the on field umpire’s decision. This then means the decision is sent upstairs to the TMO who views the replays. Interestingly, the decision of the on field umpire is only changed if there is clear evidence that the original decision was incorrect. A successful appeal means the team doesn’t lose that challenge they have, an unsuccessful challenge is taken away from your side. This system is similar to the challenge rules in NFL, with some differences on the quantity available. So could it be implemented in football? If a team are certain they were denied a penalty, the captain would have the authority to use one of their challenges and ask a TMO. This allows the on field referee to have the same authority as he does, and it means the team choose to use the TMO, not the referee himself, meaning his decision stands unless a referral is used.
The only thing that is certain is that the FA, UEFA, FIFA, whoever, need to look at what is happening and find a way to improve the game. Other sports are adapting with technology both here and across the world, and yet the most popular sport around the globe is becoming outdated and in need of some changes.
Follow Dan Eyre on Twitter @Dannye7