Manchester United has reached the half-way point in their season and yesterday’s 3-0 thumping of Chelsea was the perfect foil for all that is wrong with the Premier League. From the hapless officiating of Howard Webb, to the overt displays of disrespect from Wayne Rooney, to the hapless attacking of Chelsea the signs are all there that the Premier League is very very sick, if not already passed.
First in this mini-series on officiating and “the beautiful game,” I turn my attention to Howard Webb. Lauded by many outside of the Arsenal circle now for many years as the “best official in England” some of the cracks are beginning to show and I’ve seen a few commentators take some of his decisions to task. Even still, right now, I agree that Howard Webb is the pinnacle of English officiating.
I have seen this type of official many, many times in my career as a sports fan: he’s the “I’m in charge here” official. He’s the guy who feels like it’s his job to dictate the game. He, like Graham Poll before him, will often give out a quick yellow to let both teams know that he’s the boss. The problem is that in doing that he becomes the center of the game rather than the players and even if he gets every decision perfect, by injecting himself into the spotlight, he radically changes the game. It’s no longer 22 men playing against each other in a fair competition it’s “how will Howard Webb call this game?”
In the first 5 minutes on Sunday, Webb gave Lampard a yellow card. Now, I’ve seen a lot of fouls. I’ve seen a lot of Chelsea fouls. I’ve seen Frank Lampard get away with fouls that would have had lesser players sent off. But I can’t recall the last time I saw Frank Lampard get a yellow card in the first 5 minutes of a big game for a very slight foul. It wasn’t Lampard’s transgression (Lord knows he’s sinned) that earned him that yellow, it was Howard Webb telling the world that he was in charge and that one call radically changed that game.
The lie of the whole thing is that Webb isn’t in charge. All you have to do is see the disgraceful way that Wayne Rooney acted after he’d kicked a player who was shielding the ball for a throw in to see this point illustrated. Rooney was called over by Webb, presumably for another talking too (his 3rd of the game) and he turned his back on Webb and walked away. When Webb blew his whistle and called Rooney over he threw his hand up in the universal sign of “go fuck yourself” and kept walking, back turned. It was eerily reminiscent of the Ashley Cole, Mike Riley incident last year that supposedly sparked the whole “Respect” campaign and yet here we are, in the midst of this “Respect” campaign and the league’s best official is chronically incapable of keeping the respect of even one player, much less the whole Manchester United team. Respect, my ass.
Those two instances sum up the problems with officiating in the league: we see it every weekend and everyone knows that the games are not called fairly. As Rafa Bentiez would say “It’s a fact.” When Javier Mascherano can be sent off for his petulant display against the referees while Wayne Rooney gets away with it in every game there are clearly different rules being applied. Does anyone think for a second that Gael Clichy would be allowed to disrespect Howard Webb by turning his back on him and waving him off in the “go fuck yourself” manner? No, of course not.
And back to Lampard’s yellow, I’m no Chelsea fan, in fact I think they are a bunch of cheating scumbags, but that was not the old dirty Chelsea out there by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly not the kind of Chelsea team that deserved 5 yellow cards. And more to my point, if Lampard gets a yellow straight away for that tackle, then how on earth did Kevin Davies escape a yellow against Arsenal for either of his first two fouls? Both of those fouls are straight red cards if I’m officiating because they are intentional dangerous play. Both the “oops, I was jumping” elbow to the face and the “I’m going for the ball” stamp on your opponent’s foot intend harm in order to “soften up” your opponent — red card, end of story. The point is, unless the official wants to say “I’m in charge” fouls are treated differently depending on who is committing them and/or at what point in the game they are committed.
If the league wants fans and players and managers to respect the officials then these officials will need to do something to earn our respect because right now the only time anyone respects the officials is when their club is on the receiving end of beneficial treatment. The danger of that culture, where we all just expect poor decisions or see one team being treated differently than another is that we become inured to that discrepancy between the rules and how they are called and when that happens, you get the referee scandal that hit Serie A and the referee scandal that hit the NBA.
Dirty officials can’t get away with making bad calls if we all expect games to be called fairly. To that end, I’d like to see a couple changes. First, instant replay: there is no reason on earth that penalty claims, goal claims, straight red cards, and the like can’t be challenged using video evidence. A sensible system by which managers and fans can get some satisfaction by challenging a decision is absolutely needed and would lead to my second change. Second, no talking to the officials by managers and players. Apart from asking the fourth official to challenge a call, managers should not be in their technical area disgracing themselves by squawking at the officials. I’m looking at you Mr. Wenger. Moreover, players and managers should not be allowed to follow the official down the tunnel and ask them questions during half-time. I’m looking at you Mr. EveryEnglishManager. Third, displays like the ones that Wayne Rooney acts out in every Premier League match should be punished, every time.
True respect cannot be mandated. However, by cleaning up the big calls using video replay, scrubbing the taint of collusion by keeping managers and players away from the referees during breaks, and by punishing players when they show disrespect the league could clean up its image quite a bit and get things back on the right track. If they don’t, the cloud of impropriety will continue to hang over the league.
Because right now, if Man U was paying off the officials, would anybody notice the difference?