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.

As Seen On TV

I’ve got a bad throat. That means I can’t shout at the referee, which would normally take all the fun out of going to a football match. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

In a game where six goals were scored by five different players, it may seem churlish to spend much time discussing one man, even when that one man comes straight to Valley Parade from the Premier League. So, for a while I shall leave all mention of the referee. But you have been warned.

City were forced into one change from last week, with Steve Williams failing a fitness test, Simon Ramsden moving to centre back and Jonathan Bateson coming in at right back. What looked like a fairly predictable 4-4-2 showed rather more fluidity than might have been expected, albeit frequently at the cost of depriving the team of any width.

Simon Eastwood had a mixed game. As early as the fifth minute he was saving with his legs to send a shot over the bar and two or three other excellent first half stops kept City in touch. The benefit of one of those saves was, however, very short-lived once Kevin Ellison put home the rebound for Rotherham’s equaliser. Lee Bullock had reacted first to an earlier rebound off a Simon Whaley free kick – of which more in a moment – to give City an early lead. But another Ellison goal following some neat, but defendable, build-up play saw the visitors go in at half-time with a 2-1 lead.

Whatever the team talk had been, Luke O’Brien’s surging run and Michael Flynn’s crashing shot in the first minute of the second half looked to have set up an exhilarating pre-Christmas cracker. Andy Warrington in the visitors’ goal (who is nowhere near the superannuable age he may seem) had had little to trouble him in the first half. Now he had to make one save at the foot of his near post to beat out an Evans pile driver; another to tip over Bullock’s shot after an Evans run and cross; and a third, toward the latter stages, when a 30 yard thunderbolt from James O’Brien looked a certain goal.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the now largely unemployed Simon Eastwood was tasked by nothing worse than the occasional back pass to his left foot. That is until the 78th minute when he was beaten by a quickly taken Roberts free kick from just over the half-way line. The lob went over him as he scrambled back to his line, entering the net via the cross bar to put the visitors 3-2 in front. Their fourth goal, two minutes from the end, was a tap in for Drewe Broughton, which brings me back to the start of the game and all the bits I’ve so far missed out – each and every one of them featuring Lee Probert, our star visitor from the Premier League.

Only a few weeks ago everyone at Valley Parade was bemoaning the woeful performance of the referee against Accrington, one Mr Cook. Bad as his display was, City still had only themselves to blame for not sending Stanley home empty handed. Mr Probert showed how it should be done. He’s a Premier League ref and they do things a little differently. They’re on first name or even nickname terms with the players; they know who has a reputation for diving and who pulls shirts all the time; and they are more likely to play the advantage rule, as Mr P did, to his credit, several times.

However, they also like to talk – and talk and talk and talk. Mr Probert illustrated this perfectly in the first five minutes. He adjudged, quite correctly that the aforementioned Drewe Broughton had struck Simon Ramsden with his elbow. Broughton must have considered himself well and truly told off, judging by the length of the lecture. The rest of us judged him extremely fortune not to be shown a card of either colour, despite the early stage of the game. (What difference, by the way, does it make if you commit a bookable offence five or thirty-five minutes into a game? I bet Mr Probert can answer that one.)

Broughton, however, had clearly not been sufficiently well told off, because in the ninth minute he swapped defenders and Matt Clarke felt the power of his elbow. This time even Mr Probert had to produce a yellow card and leave us wondering what might have happened if he had done the job right four minutes earlier. Playing with ten men after nine minutes tends to have its effect on the game.

But within four more minutes Mr Probert set an entirely different standard for what constitutes a bookable offence. Lee Bullock hung a leg out just outside the centre circle. It wasn’t a dangerous tackle and it was his first foul. Perhaps 13 minutes into a game is acceptable for a yellow card to be produced for an innocuous offence. Bullock shrugged his shoulders at the waving referee, while others tried in vain to point to the disparity with the much more serious and dangerous offence which had previously resulted in a telling off.

But, having set the 13 minute standard for innocuous fouls in midfield, Mr P had changed his mind by the 17th minute. Michael Boulding, with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, attempted to turn Pablo Mills. Mr Mills is not noted for his gentility, as the City physio will be able to confirm when Boulding’s injury has been fully assessed. For hacking Boulding to the floor from behind, a few yards outside his own penalty area, Mills’ punishment was a free kick. Not a card; not a lecture of even the shortest duration; not even a firm stare from the ref. It could, in fact, be argued that Mills won his side a distinct advantage for the rest of the game, given that Boulding remained on the pitch for just three more minutes. The standard had changed back again. The only justice was that this free kick gave City the lead.

Lectures, bookings, goals and other stoppages produced just two minutes of added time, but that was enough to see Simon Ramsden flattened again after yet another leap from Broughton. Neither Mr Probert nor his fourth official, who must have been within a very few yards of the incident, saw anything wrong and play was restarted with a throw in, but only after Stuart McCall came on to the pitch and Ronnie Moore troubled the referee with a few words of his own.

Just five minutes into the second half, Gareth Evans was away down the right flank, outpacing Pablo Mills with some ease until, just in front of the assistant referee, Mills took both his legs, ensuring that the threatening run came to an abrupt and illegal end. So, for his second blatant offence of the afternoon, each depriving a striker of a run on goal, Mills had to be punished. And aren’t Mr Probert’s talking-to’s severe? You just ask Mills, because that’s exactly what he got. In another part of the pitch Lee Bullock must surely have been wondering what he had done wrong.

Within five minutes of that Mills lecture, Michael Flynn was late with a sliding tackle and there was a holding of breath from the City faithful. Anything might be about to happen to Flynny, but the actual result, a yellow card, while entirely correct, came as a great relief.

Which brings us back to that third goal from half-way and another difference between League Two and Premier League officials. We are used to ‘the correct blade of grass’ syndrome with our refs; perhaps we should watch more TV to spot how far away from the foul you can take the free kick if you have a Premier League ref. This one was so far away that it brought Stuart McCall on to the pitch again, this time without the excuse of an injured player.

A pretty obvious hand ball, so clear that even the handler, Nicky Law, almost gave himself up, produced nothing and Michael Flynn being pulled back brought only a theatrical wave of the arms from Mr P. Two very decent penalty claims, either of which could have changed the course of the game, were not seen. The additional five minutes, which became six, brought another booking. Matt Clarke must have spoken out of turn, unless, of course, Mr Probert had by now reverted to the Lee Bullock standard for yellow cards.

The game ended in stunned silence from the home crowd. City had not deserved to lose and this time the standard of refereeing really had had a major impact, many times over, on the outcome of the game. I almost (but not quite) could wish for the return of Mr Singh.

But I should end on a positive. There were some splendid displays in claret, with Bullock, Flynn and Ramsden to the fore, but none more so than the man who never missed a header all day and made sure his clearances were definitively cleared. He has his detractors and is not the most cultured of players, but Matt Clarke deserved any Man of the Match award. Not that I heard who was actually given it, so furious was I with our visitor from on high.

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