James Lawton: Luddites destroying the beautiful game
Refusal to embrace video technology is distorting title race and exposing refs to ridicule
Published 16/12/2011 | 05:00
Football's failure to deal with the crisis of confidence in the ability of referees to survive ordeal by TV replay has now gone beyond outrage. It is perverse. In the past, the delay could be attributed to some weird combination of official obduracy and an insistence on putting the ego and tender feelings of a match official before a growing volume of grotesque mistakes -- one that is threatening to distort seriously the current season.
Now it is impossible to know quite what it would take to persuade the rulers of the world's most popular game to join cricket, tennis, and rugby (both codes) in embracing the TV technology, to explain within seconds, precisely what happened to everyone in the world, except those who have to make the vital game and season-changing decisions.
This has to be the reaction to this week's extraordinary decision of the Professional Game Match Officials board to appoint Chris Foy to Premier League matches tomorrow and next Tuesday.
Many believed that Foy's atrocious handling of the Stoke-Tottenham game last Sunday would lead, inevitably, to his standing down this weekend and then his reinsertion in the list when some of the heat had gone down. It is the way it generally goes in the Premier League.
Instead, while stepping back from the crowning insult to aggrieved managers of giving Foy a plum assignment like Manchester City against Arsenal on Sunday, the Game Board decided that the man who effectively destroyed the competitive foundation of the Stoke-Spurs match gets to preside over Fulham and Bolton tomorrow and Wolves against Norwich on Tuesday night.
The insult is, however, still wretched and still profound.
At a conservative estimate, Foy made four serious errors, all at the expense of title contenders Spurs. He then compounded the disaster by cheaply dismissing a player of the same team. We then learned that Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp would be spared prosecution over his post-game protests.
Foy's escape from even token punishment would be less outrageous if his performance had not come at the end of a series of glaring, match-shaping mistakes by his top-flight colleagues, eight of whom were listed by the guru of refereeing, former Fifa match official Graham Poll, in his newspaper column.
Over his most recent contribution to the debate ran the extended headline, 'These are dark days indeed for the men in black, so can we be confident our referees won't turn into Christmas Turkeys?' He concluded his piece thus, "These are worrying times. I believe we do have excellent officials, but they have to prove it."
Unfortunately, it is a little late for such a face-saving exercise. What they need is not some heavenly guidance in preternatural levels of judgment, or the insertion of eyes in the back of their heads, but something that it is so readily available it requires no more than the flick of a TV switch.
They need -- how many times do we have to say it? -- a little help. This is help which doesn't have to be signalled by the bugler of the Seventh Cavalry but a word into the referee's headset.
It came, unofficially but with huge benefit, to the man in charge of the 2006 World Cup final when he was told by the match supervisor that Zinedine Zidane had just head-butted Marco Materazzi.
It could have similarly helped the official who allowed Thierry Henry to get away with one of the most sickening examples of cheating in the World Cup qualifier against Ireland at the Stade de France in 2009. It could have prevented the agony of the referee in Bloemfontein who gasped 'Oh my God', when he saw that he had ruled out a legitimate goal by Frank Lampard against Germany in the 2010 World Cup.
But then what is more shocking, the way those incidents have been allowed to fade gradually from official memory or the fact that the manifest failings of Foy in his last appearance are brushed aside in just a couple of days?
Maybe the worst aspect of the crisis is the misconception that the authorities are protecting the officials with their Luddite stance. The opposite is true. They are exposing the referees to mounting ridicule as the evidence builds that the game has become too fast, and unscrupulous, to be monitored without the help of technology.
Certainly it is a theory that gets some additional support from the appointment of the man to control Sunday's potentially pivotal encounter between City and Arsenal. It is Phil Dowd, who is presumably considered the man most capable of handling the weekend's most prestigious assignment. An experienced, respected official he may be, but it is also true that a few weeks ago he booked Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand instead of the real miscreant, Romelu Lukaku.
In charge of Chelsea's game with Wigan tomorrow is, incidentally, Martin Atkinson, whose decision to dismiss Everton's Jack Rodwell, and completely unbalance the Merseyside derby, was quickly overturned by FA officials.
Another huge collision distorted by official error came when Newcastle survived with a point at Old Trafford after an assistant referee erroneously decided that Rio Ferdinand had yielded a penalty rather than completed an an inch-perfect tackle. Where do we stop?
Perhaps not before recalling referee Mike Dean's failure to dismiss Chelsea's David Luiz for a blatant last-man foul on Demba Ba at Newcastle -- a grim counterpart to the mistake of his colleague Stuart Attwell, who dismissed Bolton's Gary Cahill at White Hart Lane, even though Scott Parker still had an entire half of the field to negotiate. Also not easy to forget is the non-corner by Blackburn's Morten Gamst Pedersen which helped Blackburn win a point at embattled Wigan. That was the error of the high-profile Andre Marriner.
Mistakes happen, it is true. But the scandal is that they no longer have to go uncorrected and lay waste to the competitive integrity of what is supposed to be the world's best football league.