Atkinson - incompetent at best
I have never known a set of fixtures to be so beset by awful officiating. It seemed that every game played over the Easter weekend involved at least one serious error from a referee or linesman. The consequences for Wolves were a defeat they could not afford at Stoke, where the referee awarded two free-kicks incorrectly that both led to goals. Similarly Wigan Athletic suffered defeat at Chelsea where the linesman failed to give players offside on two occasions where goals were scored. Liverpool suffered another poor result at home thanks, in no small part, to Michael Oliver failing to award a penalty when Luis Suarez was tripped by Hutton. The same man then denied Norwich City two blatant spot-kicks at Tottenham yesterday. What the hell is going on?
Arsenal won on Sunday, but that was no thanks to Martin Atkinson and his colleagues. Even if you accept (I don't) that Atkinson didn't have a proper view when Balotelli tried to end Song's career, surely one of the other officials must have seen it clearly. Everyone in the stadium could see it apart from those that matter. This is a trend that has been developing for a number of years. How can it be that everyone in attendance can see something differently to the man with the whistle, or the idiot with the flag? I remember seeing Balotelli get sent-off at Anfield earlier in the season and feeling that he had been dismissed simply because of who he was. I got the impression on Sunday that he was staying on the field for exactly the same reason. In short, Atkinson was afraid to send him off because of the publicity that surrounds Balotelli. That was the reason that the Italian was still around in the 91st minute when the referee finally had no further choice but to dismiss him (he had no choice after the Song incident if we're being honest, but failed to do his job).
I have written many times in the past that I believe the match officials in this country to be corrupt. If football is bent in Italy, and in France and elsewhere, then why not in England? We have the richest league in the World. The people charged with officiating would be the easy targets for any corrupting influences. Why should people have to accept the FA stance that their officials are beyond reproach? However, that's not the angle I want to investigate in this piece.
One of the other explanations for what we witnessed at the weekend, and have been seeing with increasing regularity for the past twenty years, is the idea of a football referee as someone you recognise - a celebrity, if you will. When I was growing up you only ever knew the English referee that went to the World Cup. You would see an interview, on Cup Final day, with the man given the honour of officiating the end of season showpiece at Wembley. Refereeing the FA Cup Final was the career highlight of any official. Back in the days before the Premier League a referee could be at Highbury one week, and Newport County the next. When the Premier League was formed the FA decided to set up its "elite panel." Basically they selected the twenty or so "best" referees and made them the preserve of the Premier League. All of a sudden the likes of David Elleray, Dermot Gallagher, Graham Poll and Paul Durkin were able to become household names. Because there was more televised live football, and a smaller pool of officials to be selected from, they were on the screen all the time. Sky would even use some of them in their advertising campaign. The likes of Poll seemed to rather enjoy their new limelight.
Since the introduction of the "elite" referees we have seen a terrible increase in "mistakes." Such incidents are obviously controversial. As a result of the controversy there is a lot of publicity. As a result of the publicity there is often a picture of the referee at fault, and his name is across the back pages of the newspapers. Effectively the referee is the "star" of that particular show, and not the players. Consequently it is good for the ego of these cretinous individuals as there is no such thing as bad publicity.
The likes of Poll have somehow managed to get a television career out of their errors. Gallagher and Jeff Wynter have also had their own "spot" on Sky TV where they defend to the hilt any refereeing mistake, and trot out the usual "it's a difficult job" nonsense. How difficult was it for the linesman at Old Trafford on Sunday to see that Ashley Youg was offside before he dived for the penalty? The answer is that it was not difficult and he chose to not give the offside. That is cheating, plain and simple. Going back to Poll, and in order to prove my point, he has admitted that he gave red-cards to certain players in order to "make a name" for himself. The man has written an autobiography for God's sake, as have Elleray and Wynter. Poll once admitted to not sending off Wayne Rooney at Highbury as it might "spoil the game," leaving aside the fact that the referee is supposed to see the laws of the game are applied. It is quite despicable when you think about it.
At the moment the referees are headed up by Mike Riley. This is a man who was the Howard Webb of his day, in terms of his favour towards Manchester United. He single-handedly ended Arsenal's 49 game unbeaten run at Old Trafford when he gave a penalty for a Rooney dive over Sol Campbell. The FA reap what they sew when they employ someone like that to be the man in charge. Referees are also assessed on match day by ex-referees. Given my observation on the Sky segment with Gallagher/Wynter I have little faith in any referee ever being marked down by the assessor in the stand.
So how can the problems be remedied? The answer lies with young men who have been released from Club's having not quite made the grade as a player. These men would, first and foremost, know what it's like to play football at a high level and a good standard. They would also be at the same peak of physical fitness as the men they are officiating - how can a 49 year-old man be expected to keep pace with a game being played by the athletes that play Premier League football? The FA must bite the bullet and realise that their way of appointing referees at all levels of the game is wrong. The sort of person that becomes a referee is the lad who never got picked to play in the playground. They like football, but have no ability whatsoever, so they turn to refereeing as their way on to the pitch. They are also officious little toe-rags who want to get some authority over somebody else - Elleray being a prime example of this. Given that the PFA is always banging on about young footballers being out of work at the end of every season, what better way to keep them in the game than by "fast-tracking" them through the referee system?
There are a few other things I want to see. Firstly, the "elite panel" for the Premier League must be disbanded in order that the officials become "anonymous" once again. I don't want to know who the referee is. Football officials should be neither seen, nor heard. Another thing is that the FA must not keep "disciplining" managers who wish to criticise a referee. What is wrong with saying that the referee had a bad game, when it is apparent to all that that was the case? It is outrageous that a referee can directly influence the outcome of a match (or even a season) with their mistakes, but be beyond criticism from those it affects the most. The final thing I want to see is the FA taking action against their own officials for poor performance. This does not mean "dropping" them from the Premier League for a week or two, but actively suspending them from refereeing. If I made mistakes in my job, that were as costly to people as we've seen in the Premier League this weekend, I would be suspended, investigated, and probably sacked. Why should football be any different?