By George Ankers
"I'm curious to know if Steve Bruce got a phone call ... if Chris Hughton got a phone call ... if [Michael] Laudrup got a phone call. Nobody called me to apologise about the fact that it was not a free kick against West Brom just before their second goal, or the penalty at Everton that would have been 1-1 for us. I don't know if Paul Lambert got a phone call. I don't know."
When referees' chief Mike Riley phoned Steve Clarke to apologise for a stoppage-time penalty that bailed out Chelsea, Jose Mourinho was perturbed. Was a precedent being set? Are officials now going to personally apologise for every wrong decision? We should all hope not.
|REF RILEY APOLOGISES TO CLARKE|
|4/1||Chelsea are 4/1 with William Hill to win the Premier League
Referees are under scrutiny like never before. On the BBC's 'Match of the Day', analysis of each game invariably begins with a debate over the most contentious decisions; the play itself is secondary. One of BT Sport's innovations is the inclusion of former ref Mark Halsey as a co-commentator - what should be a useful insight into why decisions are given but, in reality, essentially an exercise in armchair analysis consulted far too frequently.
On the pitch, technology has begun its slow but inevitable integration into decision-making with Hawkeye used to determine if the ball has crossed the line. But, for the vast majority of calls, the man in the middle is on his own.
The argument that usually comes and goes is back - come down harder on referees, drop them down the divisions if a mistake is made. Interview them after the game just as you would a manager or a player, have them defend themselves to the baying mob, who have dissected every decision on Twitter and worked themselves into a righteous fury.
Only a token note is ever given to the thankless nature of refereeing and it has to stop. The referee is not incompetent or knowingly biased, nor is he answerable to managers, fans or the media.
It is a job that you would only ever do for the love of the game, such is the pressure under which officials are put. They see each incident only once, from as best a vantage point as they can take. They cannot see video evidence and, unlike cricket or rugby, they do not have a colleague watching a television screen to back them up.
As if it were not hard enough already, players do their best to throw them off, simulating injury and surrounding them with demands for action against their opponents. Considering the pressures put upon officials, their success rate is actually fairly impressive. Punishing them for a single incident, no matter how crucial in context of the game, would be nonsensical.
After the match finishes, the managers weigh in. With Mourinho one of the worst offenders, they turn to the referee as a target of blame so as to avoid criticising their own players. While this is understandable behaviour on their part, it only adds to the demonisation of officials.
Brown's red card prompted a particularly peculiar response from Sunderland boss Gus Poyet. He demanded an apology of his own, adding: "They called a British manager and I think it's time to call a foreign manager and we make it equal: 1-1." When did such a thing become an issue of nationality? Poyet's remarks imply a political argument but there can be no politics about an immutable element of the sport.
You might argue that, with the huge amounts of money sloshing around football these days, the stakes are higher and the effects of a wrong decision more serious than ever. Perhaps – but it is not the referee's fault that you might have a potentially lucrative deal with an 'international noodles partner' riding on that penalty.
It is the authorities who should feel fans' ire. The Football Association's nonsensical policy of only reviewing incidents if they were missed by the officials only adds more gravity to each mistake, which can only promote fear in a referee. They are left to fend for themselves while the mob rages on.
When you walk out onto a football pitch, you are agreeing to play a game overseen by a real-time human arbiter. Most of the time, this will create no problems. Sometimes, this will see your team 'get lucky' and do better than they should. Sometimes, it will undermine you. But you knew the risks before you started.
There is no perfect referee waiting to replace the ones that we have. Given how appalling their treatment is, potentially better ones have quite understandably not pursued the occupation. Human error will continue to be part of football and the men in the middle deserve respect.
Decisions even out in the end. Maybe not over the course of a match or even over a whole season - statistics aren't perfect - but referees should not have to prostrate themselves in front of us when an error slips through. If they front up and acknowledge mistakes, all the better, but we are obliged nothing. Get on with the game.
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