Plenty of referring controversy this weekend. Arteta was offside for Arsenal’s goal; Hernandez was offside for one of Man Utd’s goals; Suarez had a goal ruled out for an offside that wasn’t; Torres was sent off with a second yellow for diving; Valencia was also booked for diving in the same game; Ivanovic was sent off for a fairly minimal contact. Were all these decisions justified? Were the referees rubbish or biased?
I’m sure most people who criticise refs have never attempted to referee a game at any level. Would they be any good if they did? Of course not. That doesn’t stop them having a go, though. I actually refereed an Under-7s match this morning, which is both the lowest level of organised league football and the highest I’ve refereed at. Believe me, that was hard enough – there was a lot going on. Several times I was barracked by one of the managers, who are supposed to have signed a code of conduct preventing this, and once by two parents – who both declined my invitation to take over if they thought I wasn’t doing a good enough job: “It’s not about that, mate,” said one. Isn’t it? Well shut the f*** up then.
My point here is that refereeing at any level is difficult. The higher up the chain you go, the harder it is, and when you get to the Premier League the game is so fast that it’s almost impossible to get everything right. People who phone up radio stations or tweet complaints about referees are usually hopelessly deluded in some way or another. Often they don’t understand the rules of football, and they certainly don’t allow any leeway for incorrect decisions. Sometimes they put forward ideas such as that foreign referees are much better than British ones, though with no supporting evidence.
I’m certainly not going to claim that Premier League referees or their assistants always get it right. Clearly they don’t. Whether they should get the help of video replays is another debate; what I’m discussing here is whether their decisions are justified and the best they could have made at the time and under the circumstances.
So, the examples in the first paragraph: Arteta was offside, and it looked fairly obvious. Linesmen, as I still like to call them, have a smaller job than the referee, but one which is just as tricky. They have to be looking in two places at once, and see when the ball is kicked and where everyone is standing at that precise moment, even if players are moving swiftly in different directions. In the Arteta case it didn’t look like the trickiest decision, so I’d suggest that most of the time it would have been called. Arsenal got away with it.
The Hernandez case for Man U’s winner against Chelsea was more difficult for the officials. Chicharito was offside only briefly and the linesman’s view was obstructed by two Chelsea players. Replays showed it was the wrong decision, but it was a perfectly understandable decision. The officials couldn’t really be expected to do better, and if you ran the same situation 100 times they would be unlikely to get it right in more than a few.
Suarez clearly wasn’t offside, and it seemed incredible if that was the decision. But look at Coates climbing on the back of the Everton defender – both hands on him to get above and head the ball into Suarez’s path. Perhaps that’s what the free-kick was (rightly) given for. Ultimately the right decision, but I’m not sure what exactly was going on in the officials’ heads, as the flag didn’t go up for a long time.
Torres was sent off for a second bookable offence, when Mark Clattenburg adjudged him to have dived when challenged by Jonny Evans. Replays from the side showed that there was a small amount of contact, but of course the referee didn’t have the advantage of seeing it from the side or in slow motion. The question is, did the referee do the best he could in the circumstances? I’d say yes he did, and was therefore justified in booking Torres and thus sending him off. Clattenburg was almost directly behind Torres about 15 yards away, which is where he should have been. Torres threw himself to the ground somewhat theatrically, and that may have been because he could see a covering defender and was aware that his touch had taken the ball too far for him to catch it. So did the decision make sense? Was it justified? Yes.
You could also argue that Torres was lucky to have been on the pitch that long anyway, after putting his studs into Tom Cleverley’s arm for his first booking. However, that is seen as being less controversial than a sending-off for diving when there was contact.
Valencia was later booked for a dive that looked fairly clear-cut. More theatrical and with less contact than with Torres – certainly less contact than would make a professional athlete normally fall over. Again, that looked like a perfectly reasonable conclusion for the referee to come to.
Ivanovic’s sending off also got little argument from either the BBC or Sky pundits, though some I saw on Twitter were less generous to the referee for giving the decision. This may have been partly because it was Ashley Young, a player with a history of ‘simulation’, who went down under Ivanovic’s challenge, and it’s true the contact was minimal again. But Young was clear, in full control of the ball and should have scored otherwise, so I’d personally give him the benefit of the doubt on any diving accusations this time. It wasn’t a controversial decision for me.
So overall on this small selection of incidents I would have expected the officials to do better on the Arteta offside, but the others are only controversial in the eyes of the media. As long as we’re not giving referees help with video technology, we can’t expect them to get everything right. I think it was Matt Dickinson in The Times recently who said something similar to this. The only test of ‘controversy’ should be: Was the decision reasonable from the referee’s point of view? Is that what an official should have decided on the evidence in front of him at the speed it happened and from the angle an official should be viewing it from?
If a referee, even the attention-seeking Mark Clattenburg, makes reasonable judgements based on being in the position that a competent referee should be in, then that’s not controversial, that’s just football.