By Nick Friend
On the weekend of the Academy Awards, it was fitting that in a season marred by a staggeringly low standard of officiating, two of England’s better referees should engage in their own private competition.
This week’s nominees were Martin Atkinson and Kevin Friend, generally considered to be two of the country’s more competent men in black. Atkinson is nominated for what one critic described as “amongst the worst performances in Premier League history”, whilst Friend’s performance was labelled as “pretty pony” by Gary Lineker.
Over a combined 180 minutes, you could argue without fear of riposte that the two men missed five stonewall penalties and three incontestable red cards – two of which should have been received by the same player, Burnley forward Ashley Barnes.
Since the weekend, there has been something of an impasse. Jose Mourinho hired out Chris Kamara’s sofa in order to abuse and make a scapegoat of poor Ben Shepherd all morning on Goals on Sunday – for, of course, through the blue-tinted eyes of Mourinho, it is Shepherd’s fault that Sky Sports didn’t apologise for spotting and condemning Diego Costa’s multiple stamps on Liverpool players in the Capital One Cup last month. Then, naturally, Sean Dyche disagreed with him. He rather missed the point, claiming that, in real time, Barnes’ attempt to snap Nemanja Matic in half “looked like a coming together.” He then proceeded to describe Barnes’ earlier assault on Branislav Ivanovic as “a yellow card at worst.”
Down on the south coast, similar discussions were going on. Ronald Koeman wanted penalties (at least two of which he was more than entitled to), whilst Brendan Rodgers described Kevin Friend’s performance as “excellent.” ‘Excellent’ in the sense that his first-half brain-melt had prevented three spot-kicks against Rodgers’ side, an arguable red card for his goalkeeper and a red card for Joe Allen’s last man challenge in the third minute.
Yet, the fact that discussions are not about Coutinho’s wonder-strike or Burnley’s fantastic point at Chelsea epitomises the depths to which Premier League officiating has plummeted. Indeed, beyond Mourinho and Koeman, Sam Allardyce and Gus Poyet both saw questionable refereeing cost their sides at the weekend.
Mourinho, along with many others, called for technology.
Technology, though, cannot be the answer.
Not because the game would become stop-start, but because that is not what technology is for. Cricket’s Decision Review System, tennis’s Hawkeye and football’s goalline technology have a common use – the technology is there to rule on the tightest of margins in incidents that take place at high speed.
I would like to see technology used to determine tight offside calls but beyond that, it is not necessary.
Without a shadow of doubt, the referee in England is Mark Clattenburg. For me, he is the perfect official. He has a great understanding of the game, meaning that he knows the difference between mistimed and malicious. No referee plays the ‘advantage’ rule more effectively. As a result, he has the respect of the players – ask yourself the last time you saw a group of players surround Clattenburg. They don’t. He exudes calm and control.
However, more than anything else, what separates him from his peers is his fitness. And by this, I mean more than just his endurance. His ability to keep up with play means that he simply doesn’t make mistakes. It’s hardly rocket science. The most basic biology will tell you that if you are five yards from an incident, you have a better chance of reading it correctly than if you are forty yards from the same incident.
The game has moved on. The pace at which the game is played is unprecedented. Yet, I would bet that the referees’ fitness test has remained the same as it was a decade ago.
It is not an issue of competence. You can’t tell me that all of these referees are hopeless. These guys have not reached the very top of their profession by accident.
What the majority lack, though, is the sheer speed and acceleration to match that of Messrs Walcott, Bale, Sterling and so many others.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Mike Jones, Chris Foy and Anthony Taylor are just poor referees – the sort whose mere name being announced on the tannoy system is enough to warrant an almighty groan and raft of expletives from all four corners of the ground. Yet, you cannot tell me that Mike Riley doesn’t know who his weak links are. However, if there is nobody better out there, what is he meant to do? As much as Clattenburg refereeing every match would please everyone (apart from Adam Lallana and John Obi Mikel), it is obviously not a realistic option.
This is not a case of ripping up the rulebook and starting again, nor is it time to bring in technology to check every little throw-in.
The problem and solution go hand-in-hand. They have to speed up. Clattenburg has shown that it is possible and now the others must follow suit.