The season is over and we are in a short period of what passes for dispassionate contemplation of the fortunes of the greatest team. So now’s the chance to do something almost impossible: Speak about referees and refereeing sensibly.
I need to issue a trigger warning before I start. Some of the things I am going to say are going to make some of you want to take an axe to the screen you are reading this on. I’m not here to be popular and if you want conspiracy theories or lazy saloon bar slagging, then there are numerous web sites that will cater for you.
For those that remain, some ground rules. Firstly, in 2016-17, yes I think it’s fair to say that City got the short end of the stick. While no fan of any team has ever admitted they were darn lucky over an extended period of time and about 95% of fans everywhere are beyond convinced that their team is year after year the victim of miscarriages of justice that rank only slightly below the Birmingham Six, I think our case in 2016-17 is more than averagely compelling. There’s the ballad of Raheem, diving and penalties, and incidents against Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool, Monaco, Everton and the Cup semi-final are not outweighed by Claudio Bravo being lucky against United in the Old Trafford Derby and a bit of good fortune against Boro late in the season.
However, if you think there is a conspiracy going on, go and waste your life with people who think Barack Obama is Muslim. While we are about it, the word “Stonewall” is appropriately used about a bar in New York but is socially unacceptable when used as an adjective to describe a penalty. I tend to think that the people fondest of “Stonewall” in this context are also the people who would be most horrified at the thought of an elite gay footballer. You are allowed to say that it’s a very difficult job that gets no thanks when it’s done well and gross criticism and threats of personal harm when it goes wrong. I would strongly recommend that you reflect on the fact that people who voluntarily put themselves in a position of authority in front of a baying mob of 50,000 and risk the ridicule of the global village for good but not outstanding pay are unlikely to be lacking in self-confidence, ego and arrogance.
Are there cock-ups? Yes. Always have been, always will be, but always worth looking at what can be done to reduce them. Technology can be helpful, but sometimes answers some questions only to raise others. Lo-tech (vanishing spray) can work just as hi-tech (goalline technology) can remove controversy. But neither will tell you if Monreal’s handball in the penalty area in the 93rd minute at the Emirates in early April was deliberate or not. And the England friendly in Paris this week proved the Raheem is as skilled at not being given penalties he should be when there is a video ref in the house as when there isn’t one.
Anyway. Down to business. Let’s think of two whistlers we all love to hate, Andre Marriner (the guy who couldn’t see Kyle Walker attempting to exchange shirts in the 75th minute against Spurs in January) and Mike Dean – who is Mike Dean, and that’s enough.
Start by googling the referees for the two most famous games at the Etihad. Manchester United on April 30th 2012 and QPR on May 13th 2012. In fact, don’t bother. Marriner did the Derby and on youtube you can see Dean signalling the goal as Aguero whipped off his shirt (you’ll be pleased to know that after the melee, Sergio was absolutely correctly cautioned).
It would be difficult to imagine a tougher appointment than the April 2012 Derby. Not just a potential title decider but a local derby, 44 years, not in my lifetime and Mario Balotelli on the bench . In the spring of 2012, Marriner was in the form of his refereeing life. Because of this and the difficulty of finding an official who hadn’t refereed either side for a few weeks, Marriner got the gig. If you are one of the “the best referees are the ones that don’t get noticed” brigade (and I have a lot of sympathy with that view) then I am presuming that you will accept that Marriner is a highly capable performer. He refereed the match brilliantly and his work in the opening 15 minutes in setting the standards he expected of both sets of players was outstanding. To use another cliché, at no stage was he in danger of losing control.
Mike Dean is famously trusted with big, high stakes, potentially volatile matches. The QPR game explains why. He is a man not short of confidence in his opinions, prepared to shut the world out and give what he sees. Not a bottler. Therefore, when Joey Barton melts down, Barton walks. And at 93.18 in that match, Aguero receives the ball from Balotelli and a QPR defender advances towards him.
At that moment Aguero has a choice. He can get his shot away and hope or does he fall over the lunge of the QPR defender. We know he did the former, but in another world, maybe with another player, it could have been the latter. The referee would then have had to make the biggest penalty call in the history of English (and maybe even World) football.
And Dean – as we all know – would not have bottled it. He might have got it wrong (although he would have been likely to call it right) but he would have followed the evidence of his eyes. For that reason he was the right appointment for that game – and is a fine referee, albeit one completely lacking self-esteem issues and because of the absence of a self-doubt filter, capable of making the odd comically bad mistake.
These referees may not be the best in the world, but they are more than good. They are capable, competent and professional and deserve our respect. When remembering their mistakes, remember the awkward silence that descends on the Etihad when David Silva either miscontrols like Ged Brannan or passes as accurately as Andy Morrison. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen and everyone changes the subject to avoid embarrassment.
So what makes a good referee?
For a start, you’ve got to be seriously fit. This has always been the case – and if you read the memoirs of refs from decades ago, so many of them make this point immediately. But in the age of the high press and the counter-counter attack, keeping up with play for the full 90 minutes has become dramatically more demanding. It’s not just a stamina issue – it’s the need to be able to sprint dynamically as Leroy Sane puts the afterburners on to get inside his full back and on the end of that De Bruyne pass. No wonder refs are getting younger. We will come back to this in the cases of Andre Marriner and Mike Dean, both of whom are closer to 50 than 40.
Not only that, you have to be able to run intelligently. It’s no good keeping up with play if you position yourself in such a way that your view of the action is blocked. A restricted view is at times inevitable, but refereeing just like football, is a game of triangles. Howard Webb was exceptional not just at keeping up with play but at positioning himself to make as many decisions as possible as easy as possible.
To be able to do this, a referee needs to have an understanding of how teams are likely to approach a match tactically. Coaches need to understand that a surprise selection or tactical change may wrongfoot the ref as much as the opposition. It also means that certain referees are simply better suited to taking certain matches than others. To give on obvious example, City vs Spurs in 2017 is a game between two high-pressing teams that will counter-attack at lightning speed and demands one of the quickest, most athletic referees available.
When you are there, you’ve got to decide what is a foul, what isn’t and how serious it is. This is where Marriner is thought to be generally very good. In other parlance, he’s not afraid of a card, but he’s good at the “quiet word”. And with Marriner, it is quiet – a word in passing is enough to get his point across and the punters in the stands may not even notice it. Marriner’s problem as he enters the autumn of his career is that he was never the quickest, and he’s getting slower. He’s the Pablo Zabaleta of refs. He’s still good enough for the Premier League but wasn’t the ideal selection for City and Spurs in January.
As for Dean – he’s like the Deputy Head at school who was in charge of handing out bollockings. We all knew this teacher was good at his job and almost fun in small doses – but we dreaded seeing him every day.
And this is the problem – Dean and Marriner are two from a very shallow pool and familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly frustration. We get this pair appointed to City games again and again.
To make things worse, they’ve been around for a very long time – Dean has been on the Premier League list since 2001 – his longevity is hugely impressive – and Marriner joined in 2005. They are given City games because there aren’t enough better than them. At the moment they should be approaching the end of their careers, specialising in the Derby matches and relegation dogfights that need their experience, they are taking games like City and Spurs that need a younger official just to keep up.
This shortage also manifests itself in the use of Anthony Taylor – another referee good enough for the Premier League but forced to do City and United matches. I have zero doubts about the “Altrincham” fan’s honesty, but he is on a hiding to nothing. It’s unfair to ask this of the man. His best performances always seem to be in all-London matches. There’s a reason why.
What about technology? It’s coming and the trials of it are just about the only justification left for international friendlies. Let’s do a couple of hundred games and see what happens. Football is a chaotic game (in its truest sense) and we need to use these friendlies to see how video technology protocols deal with freak or unforeseeable issues as well as making sure managers can’t game the system and decisions don’t take ages and stop the flow of an exciting match. How will video technology cope with the beach ball on the pitch like at the Sunderland vs Liverpool game a few years ago? Or do we accept that technology is an improvement but not perfection? Will it be seen only slightly less bother than it’s worth?
But there’s something more basic. If we need more referees in the Premier League (and we absolutely do or Dean and Marriner will be travelling to matches using their bus passes) then we need to be giving the best of the Football League referees a chance to show what they can do.
That’s difficult, I hear you say. Every match is hugely important, and we can’t take risks. But everyone has to make a debut and if there’s one thing should send you into paroxysms of rage about the way our league is run, let me give us this.
On the last day of the season, the title, second place and the relegation places were all settled before kick-off. The only matches that had anything riding on them involved City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Appoint experienced officials to those games, but the other seven matches should have been given to the best performing Football League refs. As it happened, all seven were taken by the same old faces. What was the point in Mike Dean taking charge of the Swansea vs West Brom dead rubber on the last day? Send him on holiday – he’ll be needed next season –and give someone new a chance, someone who might just be able to replace Dean when his very successful career finally ends.
And we ought to be exchanging referees from time to time. A couple of our guys go to Italy for two or three weeks and we get some Serie A refs in return. I find it difficult to believe that this won’t help. Foreign players transformed the quality of our league yet English football acts like the UKIP party conference when it comes to referees.
In conclusion, it’s a bit anti-climatic to start a discussion thinking refereeing mistakes are a conspiracy and finish seeing them as a Human Resources issue – but there’s some truth in thinking of it that way. It’s also not just an issue of quality of referee – although that can certainly be improved. It’s also about the quantity of officials capable of handling a City match to the required standard.