Bad Ref Afternoon

I’m becoming increasingly fed up with paying my money to watch games refereed by officials so one-sided you have to wonder whether they are cheating.

There is a problem in football and Andy Utley’s comment on the BfB report on the Rotherham United game sums it up. Tired from asking the question “bias or bloody rubbish?” supporters such as Andy – and myself – are frustrated at the inaction of the game’s authorities to these Bad Ref Afternoons are voting with their wallets.

Andy’s comments about contacting the Football League about a Referee’s performance are far from unique in the BfB post bag and a good few City fans after the Oldham/Blackpool/Southend/Shrewsbury games a few years ago wrote to the football authorities to complain about what they saw as bias in the officials and all got the same response of “say what you like about the Refs but never say they are cheating.”

Not that Andy’s comments – or my thoughts on the subject – are the only voice to be heard. Chris Barlow on BfB – late on an evening – added

To talk of conspiracy between referees against BCFC due to SM’s attitude even defies my current drunken state.

Chris has a valid point too and one which Tony Pulis the Stoke manager would agree with – he would not see Referees as against City but rather suggest that Lee Probert is just not giving the right decisions. The flaw in the idea that Referees are blighted by a bias against Bradford City is that they have seemingly been for Bradford City and while aspersion are not to be cast our chairmen are no whiter than any others.

This is countered by the idea that it is rare for a team who wins a game to have a lasting memory of any referee. Think back now to the last time City got what you could call a favour from an official. It is a much harder task than recalling the last time you stomped away in anger.

There is an attitude in football that any cheating in the game is always detected and thus the suggestion of cheating is always wrong. This is often and obviously untrue. In League Two Accrington players have been banned for betting on their own team to lose while at the other end of professional football the likes of Juventus were relegated for fixing matches.

We see that cheating is commonplace – certainly more commonplace than the Football League’s terse replies to genuine concerns suggest – with the Italian example being a very high profile collection of games in which teams had favourable Referees. One wonders if any Inter supporter trooping away from a game with Juve, AC Milan et al complaining about the offside goal that the Ref “just got wrong” was told that “referee’s don’t cheat.”

The word “cheat” has a strange set of connotations in football. It is a given that players cheat all the time – when Thierry Henry did it in the World Cup play-offs the reaction was a condemnation not for the player for blatantly abusing the rules but for the officials for not spotting the abuse – and in some cases plaudits are expected when players show any honesty at all. I recall being invited to admire Cristiano Ronaldo by a work mate because he had “cut diving out of his game” as if the fact that he no longer cheated was something to be celebrated rather than the fact he had condemned.

Managers tend to avoid the “cheat” word for fear of the FA sanction it brings although Stockport County’s Jim Gannon feared it not – and fell foul of it not – when he stated that he believed that having kicked up a fuss over one Referee’s poor performance officials were penalising County as a result. Gannon was never charged by the FA and the comments fizzled out after his move to Motherwell. He was last seen in colourful debate with Hugh Dallas about the standard of Scots officials.

The manager’s secret language though contains a number of phrases the heart of which is the asserting that the Referees have shown a bias. From “FIFA will be pleased” to “You don’t get those decisions at Old Trafford” they say meaning that bias has been shown against their side but stopping short of airing the words. Stuart McCall employed some Referee code saying that a recent official would find the decision embarrassing meaning simply that the man in the middle was wrong. As a result the people of Carlisle grew angry suggesting once again that anyone who questions the officials should be made to shut up.

McCall’s comments after the Carlisle United game echoed Andy’s as the City manager added that he felt sorry for Bantams supporters who had paid to come North on a Tuesday night only to see a game ruined by an official and his decision making. Tellingly in the spat between McCall, his old mate Greg Abbott and the local Carlisle newspaper the referee of the day – Tony Bates – kept his mouth shut.

Therein is the problem – and perhaps the solution – in Refereeing. For ninety minutes a week officials issue edicts to players which ripple through to managers and to supporters but once that ninety minutes is up they walk away from the ground never to utter a word about the game again (stopping only, perhaps, to summarily judge that someone has sworn at them in the car park).

Managers talk about games, players talk about games, fans talk about games but referees will not. Indeed it is in the Laws of the Game that officials are not to use body language as signals inform supporters of the reasons for decisions so the generous Ref who points to his palm to signal handball is risking the wrath of his superiors who would have him make, but never explain, decisions.

With that in mind Bates could not mime a second tug to show all why Simon Ramsden was sent off at Carlisle and Lee Probert could not make the dive motion he obviously though the Bantams defenders were doing when the Rotherham’s Broughton’s elbows were flying around. Perhaps this is for the best. Referees already seem to be falling into Pantomime, we do not want it to be mime.

Referee do make a detailed report for the FA after every game but trying to get a look at that report is out of the question. A polite mail to the authorities, a raging demand as a consumer of the football product, a pleasing begging letter. No matter what you are not seeing why the man who ruined your trip to Cumbria did what he did. It is a policy which is supercilious to the point of an insult.

Supercilious and utterly unnecessary. It is well within possibilities that a referee could fill in his report online with the ability to add a note on every yellow card or goal given, to make general comments on the game and give reasons that on a Monday morning every fan who had spent good money going to a match could log on and read.

So if Lee Probert had made a couple of notes on his match report: “44 mins – I felt that Ramsden was injured not the contact from the player and not by an elbow” and “3-2 Rotherham – I thought the Free Kick was taken from within an acceptable area of the offence penalised” then at least supporters would have a reason for the decisions. Communication is important in increasing respect and trust. It is good to talk, I know I heard it on an advert.

Sadly though the line from officials is not that they want respect – as the campaign is titled – but rather fealty and this is a problem for football. Supporters have past being tired with this position and have moved into an action of inaction.

Me, Andy and many others are fed up with paying money (and spending a day of the weekend) watching referees that behave in the way we so often see and knowing genuine worries will be summarily dismissed out of hand by the FL simply which only serves to thumb the nose of the footballing authorities at the supporters. The outcome seems to be that more and more supporters decide against a trip to Barnet or Exeter because of the risk of one of these “bad ref afternoons”.

There are other reasons why football trips are less enjoyable now that they were ten or fifteen years ago but no matter what list one draws up the quality of refereeing is a significant reason why a fan can’t justify spending the thick end of £50 on an away trip.

The culture of secrecy that officials live under not only leaves supporters asking the “bent or bloody rubbish” question but also creates a set of conditions in which cheating referees would be allowed to prosper. Start to address the issue with refereeing by creating a feedback loop in which fans can at least find out why decisions are made and one shines a cleansing light into the world of officials.

Failure to address this issue and the game carries on turning off supporters by tiny, significant and avoidable increments.

The Resolution

I have on a scrap of paper a list of things I want to achieve for 2008 – as close as I get to writing a list of resolutions – which tells about wallpapering back bedrooms and fixing bathroom leaks. About going to more gigs and about creating different websites. It is the things I’m doing next year.

When I was a teenager I used to make new year’s list that would include the phrase “Go to 20 away games.” Not anymore and this 3-1 defeat to Hereford United is a blinding example of why.

This is the build up part of the match report. After the details of the game I’m going to tell a truth as I believe it and you can believe it or not. Here is the build up.

Having let GNN leave and shifted Omar Daley up field Stuart McCall put out a raw midfield that included Scott Phelan and Tom Penford with Kyle Nix – so impressive a player Nix – and Joe Colbeck wide and the young four – five following Alex Rhodes’s entry replacing an injured Penford – performed well against a much fancied Hereford side that arrived and exited Valley Parade second in League Two.

Indeed on the field there was very little to separate the Bantams from the Bulls but the 3-1 win for the visitors was entirely down to Referee Graham Laws and his two assistants. The opening goal came when Theo Robinson was allowed to handle down a free kick and lash home and by free kick I count the most curious award when Omar Daley was pushed to the ground in the rain and penalised. In driving rain and on a pitch that bordered on unplayable any team would want free kicks given on the flanks to be hoisted into the area and poked home.

Second goal and Trevor Benjamin held Donovan Rickets around the waist as Dean Beckwith headed in. For a minute before I watched Benjamin, Matthew Clarke and Ricketts jostle. I watched Benjamin put his arms around Ricketts and I watched the ball headed in.

Stop. Let us step back to May 1981 and my first ever football game – Bradford City vs Hereford United. We lost 1-0 that day but I was hooked. 26 years on and had I seen this game I would never have stepped in a football stadium again so unjust was the game.

Back to the future and I can not believe that the second goal was given but I doubted the first one would be. After David Wetherall had followed in a rebound to get one back for City Hereford “regained” the two goal lead when they tonked another curious flank free kick in to three offside players in the eight yeads in front of Ricketts goal. When the rules of football were modified to include the concept of interfering with play it was never supposed to be that players would be allowed free reign to wander offside in the six yard box in front of the goalkeeper.

I assume this because if this is the plan then the game is really, really in trouble.

Second half and City introduce Billy Topp who looks good but in this pantomime the game is behind him. The rain stops but the game was over a long time before.

So to the chase rather than the build up. Referee Graham Laws took charge of this game in a biased way understanding that the word bias means “A particular tendency or inclination” which was most obviously seen in the giving of bookings – a yellow card for Paul Heckingbottom’s first and minor offence while Ben Smith was visibly told that his third offence had gathered him his caution – and then seen in the blind eye turned to offside players at one end while Matthew Clarke’s attempt to covert a corner which saw Benjamin push him to the ground did not garner the obvious penalty. It was one set of rules for one team and another set of rules for the other.

At this point I should bring forward my oft given comment that either the referee was so bad that he randomly gave a set of bad decisions which totally perverted the game because he was having “a bad day” rather than anything more sinister or that he had somehow created the result himself because he had been bought or betting or something of that ilk.

After that I would say that I was not sure which of the two options I would prefer and muse on either the idea that I would rather they be bought than the officials be that inept or I would wax lyrical about Juventus and the idea that if corruption can exist in the highest level of European football isn’t it a given that it could in League Two in England?

I’d say that in both of these scenarios the Football Authorities are ready to turn a blind eye. They brush off the idea that bad officials are ruining games and refuse to make public referee’s post-game reports that would at least tell supporters. We are the guys who pay the wages after all. The Authorities of the game mount a bizarre high horse to the idea of corruption in the English game and will reply with angry to the suggestion that there should be so much as an investigation into bent officials and bought wins. From the top of my head I can think of Lou Macari and his betting on his own Swindon team to lose, of Tony Kaye and the 1966 match fixing scandal of Aldelecht being found guilty of bribing Referees to beat Nottingham Forest in the European Cup in 1981, of the Italian titles won by Juventus which appear on the CV of the man that the Football Association have made England Manager.

I could rant about all these things but I’ve done so too many times now and write up my new year’s list without the ambition to go to as many Bradford City games as I can because – simply – as a fan I can’t trust the result of a game like Bradford City 1 Hereford United 3.

I believe that for whatever reason Graeme Laws wanted a two goal win for Hereford United and made sure he got one. Perhaps he had money on it? Perhaps he had been paid to get it? Perhaps he just wanted to see if he could make a result? I’d love an investigation into this game, into the Joe Ross game at Luton three years ago, into last year’s defeat to Blackpool at Valley Parade but I will never get one and while I make no suggestion as to why Laws created a result I do believe he did.

So without a sense of clarity and justice in the game I drift and I drift away. Many things can be done on a Saturday that are not watching perverted football games and often I do them and I doubt I’m alone – 13,000 at Valley Parade and about 2,500 when we go away from home – not because of a lapse in love for the club but for the game that reveals in turning a blind eye.

26 years ago I watched Bradford City lose to Hereford United and fell in love with the game, now I am very much out of love with football but as a man who has given a quarter of a century to the game I believe I – we – deserve a game which is clean and is seen to be clean and we deserve officials who can be trusted to be honest and not inept and until we get those things interest in football at this level will wane.

Hereford United’s supporters at Valley Parade wandererd away singing that they were going up – they are if they get Graeme Laws every week and they may make sure they do – but there is a hollowness to football when trust – as it was today – is missing. it was today – is missing.

Given The Choice Of Two Evils

Football at this level needs to do something about the quality of Referees right now or it faces a nothing of a future.

Yes I am furious about the red card for Steven Schumacher which stopped a rampant Bradford City getting a much needed three points from Blackpool who had taken the lead but struggled to keep it following Omar Daley’s superb equalising strike after an hour. I’m furious cause I did not think that Schumacher even committed a foul let alone one worth being booked and I’m furious because Blackpool made the man advantage count to inflict what could be a fatal blow on City’s hopes of staying up.

Yes I’m furious about the fact that Referee let the visitors pass the ball around Donovan Ricketts for a third goal as if the injury time, last ditch goalkeeper out situation meant that the basic rules of the game did not count.

I’m furious about the fact that after a quarter of a century watching football I can still come away from grounds totally clueless as to why things have happened one way and not the other and have no one attempt to clarify things for me. Is it really that hard to have a way of communicating between Referee and supporters? I’m furious about all these things.

However I am more furious about this feeling I have in my stomach that will not accept that today we saw another dodgy Referee.

That is what we are told to accept. That the man in the middle makes a bad call this week against us and one next week for us and while only a fool would suggest that is an acceptable system it is something of a status quo in the game.

I’m no longer able to accept that idea. I’m looking for another explanation and I’m looking in places that I used to think were for raving mad men only.

Biased referees are a part of football at the moment. Referees who have been paid off to make sure one team gets a result are a part of football at the moment and if I’m asked to make a choice between the idea that today’s official Mr Bratt was making his decisions after being paid off or was just so utterly incompetent that he would send of Schumacher, would allow Blackpool’s Robbie Williams to stay on the field following his last warning as he committed offence after offence, would wave such a very off side goal into the net then I’m stuck between two options neither of which are welcome.

I would prefer that Mr Bratt had taken a pile of cash to get the result rather than thinking that he represents the standard of refereeing. One side of that question can be addressed after all. If Bratt really is the standard of refereeing then the game is not worth watching.

Certainly that is what I concluded at the end of the game as for the first time in my life I left a game early. That was not football it was pantomime. I doubt the best villains worry about being booed and I’m sure they are rewarded handsomely.

Half of Serie A – including the third biggest club in the world Juventus – are under punishment for match fixing and as I type the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are still sitting round the G18 table with proven cheats. I do not believe it is naive to suggest that if cheating can exist at the very top level then it is possible in the money hungry, paid less world of League One.

Which is not to take anything away from Blackpool who played a good game – but so did the Old Lady of Turin over the last two seasons when they won the league only to have it stripped away. The Juve players and fans were distraught with what they assumed to be steamroller football being found to be Referees moving the obstacles out of the way.

Blackpool played well but they did not deserve the three points that they were gifted when Schumacher was sent off. Take your pick between paid off bias or game perverting incompetence but be sure of this – whichever it is it is killing football at this level and was the only thing that cost City three vital points today.

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