TEN DODGY decisions – Jeff the Ref’s Verdict! And the hard-hitting verdict on the string of controversial match-turning moments that have infuriated Boro fans and left the players, management and bean-counters frustrated but national media pundits completely unmoved? Well, these things all even themselves out over the season, don’t they? Hmmmm.
Now admittedly the survey that Teesside’s top whistleblower did for the Gazette today was a very superficial one. There were no graphics to show the speed or direction or ball, no case for the prosecution or defence, no refs-eye view exploded diagram to throw light on the mechanics of the decision, let alone the logic.
Nevertheless such a fortune-cookie trueism was disappointing – but although there were no searing technical insights Jeff the ref’s analysis did reveal some of the thought processes and hinted heavily that the man in the middle is as subjective and contradictory as the average fan.
Take for instance the assessment of incident 3, the penalty that wasn’t at Aston Villa. Luke Young shaped to make a block and was turning his back on the shot when it hit him and possibly deflected onto his elbow. The verdict was “never a penalty in a million years” although Winter concedes “Young’s arms were raised as he slid in to make the block. Had it hit his hands or arm then fair enough….”
Yet for incident 9, the Adam Johnson cross at Chelsea that struck Juliano Belletti on the arm, the ref appears to take a contrary stance. The player had his arms up as he leaped to cut out the cross and misjudged his own flight but Winter says: “No way a penalty. The ball hit his chest and bounced onto his arm.”
So if the ball had deflected up and hit Young’s hand or arm a penalty would have been “fair enough” but when it does that to Belletti it’s “no way.” How does that work then?
Jeff elaborates on the Belletti incident that: “There was no movement of the arm, no intent, therefore no penalty,” which is right and fair and is close to what boils down on the playground to the time honoured “hand to ball not ball to hand.”
Intent is the key to handball, there is no question – yet in the Young incident, Winter does not flag this up. He appears to say that despite Young’s body shape, forward momentum in the attempted block and turning away so he can’t even see the flight of the ball – that is that any of the indicators of intent had been categorically removed – that if the ball had then struck his hand a penalty would be “fair enough.”
For me those two cases are totally contradictory and it is deeply worrying that even with plenty of time to consider the decisions and weigh them up against each other that the verdicts still appear to be both totally subjective and totally in opposition.
Elsewhere in the featurette Winter wanderes offside into another problematic area. Looking at in Incident 8, Darby’s James McEveley’s trip on Gary O’Neil just inside the area that resulted in a free-kick just outside, he says it is often hard to judge when contact occurred when players’ momentum then carries them inside the box as they fall. Fair enough, it must be ‘mare to call, especially when the linesman is either not up with play or has been told not to make those decisions and to leave them to the ref.
But with the benefit of hindsight and slo-mo Winter should be able to say clearly that the decision was wrong. Instead he cops out and ushers what should be a red-faced ref into the traditional Victorian stronghold of unassailable integrity. “The referee deemed it outside. It was an honest decision so I stand by him”. This is of course the get out clause in every single disciplinary panel from local football up to FIFA: “if in the opinion of the referee….”
Yet Winter was not ready to stand by the honest decision of Steve Bennett when he got the Luke Young penalty call wrong at Villa. Then he was just wrong. So why isn’t Martin Atkinson just wrong on this penalty call?
This is not a criticism of Jeff who I often agree with when he assesses the latest dropped blob in his rentaquote role in the media, but it is an interesting pointer to the flawed nature of the individual. Even with the most experienced referees there are layer upon layer of complexity – subjectivity, contradiction, and retrospective retreat into “well, it was an honest mistake.”
Of course, it is that possibility of human error that makes the game so unpredictable and is part of the excitement and appeal of the game and it is only the media overkill focussing on this facet of the game that has made us so acutely aware of the perpetual problems that were once accepted as routine.
There is a lot of academic research into subconscious refereeing bias favouring home teams but little in the way of either research into “big club bias” or on quantifying the football and financial cost of genuine mistakes, potentially a more costly and pernicious problem.
Big business, big media concerns, big clubs won’t accept expensive mistakes for much longer. It is only a question of time before a rich and powerful club loses out on a Champions League place or is relegated because of one quite clearly incorrect decision and “the honest opinion of the referee” won’t go down well with the shareholders who lose multiple-millions. Challenging decisions in that context could do more to undermine the authority of referees and the football authorities than any amount of on-field dissent.
The game needs to address the problem urgently. Whether that is a fourth referee in the stands, a video facility or more willingness of the referee to confer with his linesmen, something must be done. The game will inevitably lose elements of that compelling uncertainty in tackling the problem and may also lose the fluidity of action on the pitch, plus it could hand even more of a free hand to the media who want to be able to shape the news agenda in terms of rows and bust-ups – although to be fair we have arrived at that point already.
Failure to address the issue risks provoking other interests to seize the initiative, inviting the G14 clubs to bring in their own refereeing and disciplinary structure in the interests of maintaining their commercial integrity and removing the element of expensive uncertainty than unaccountable human error introduces to their business plans. That could lead to a fundamental institutional break between the game at the very top and the rest and the repercussions of that could be far reaching and vastly damaging.
Refs need to climb down from their ivory towers and tackle the problems themselves to head off having solutions imposed by commercial interests – and they need to go public on their reasoning. They need a charm offensive to get the public on-side and prevent supporters being manipulated into supporting sinister agendas. Blow the whistle on contradiction.