We’re only seven games into the Premier League season and referees have already had the time to have a massive impact on Stoke’s season. I should make this clear: this piece isn’t dedicated to persuading you that refereeing decisions are the sole reason for Stoke’s poor start to the campaign. However, not only have we had the usual rotten luck of penalties and red card decisions (or lack of them) go our way; but we’ve also been on the receiving end of some abnormal actions from match officials and have even had a story surface surrounding some dishonest tactics employed by the governing body. Refereeing is a sensitive subject: we can’t expect every decision called in a season to be correct, but no doubt there are some issues that should be addressed.
Particularly in the first couple of games, the officiating spotlight was cast over the murky subject of contact in the penalty area from set pieces. Clubs were told at the start of the season about the re-enforcement of these rules and that players, and teams, will be punished if they overstep the mark. In the games against Manchester City and Everton, three penalties (two against Stoke, one for) were given for debatable reasons regarding the new law enforcement. We’ve all seen the incidents by now and all have an opinion on them, that’s not my issue. My issues is the strictness with which these laws are implemented for a short initial period, and then forgotten about after a few games have passed and a few big decisions have been made. Very little can be argued if the governing bodies state that they are going to stick tighter to the rules that they’ve created but when it’s in place for such a limited period it can eventually affect unfairly negatively against certain clubs. For example, plenty of penalties could, and should, have been given since the one given against Stoke at Goodison Park, denying Stoke a crucial and well earned result.
This problem continues deeper and even referees seem to be unsure with themselves about how severely certain actions should be punished. For instance, Mike Dean seemed incredibly keen on awarding these penalties for grappling in the area, but very few other incidents have been given so far. Another example is Mark Hughes’ sending off against Spurs. Hughes did probably deserve his marching orders for straying from his technical area and putting pressure on the match officials. Despite this, there have been many occasions similar to this and some managers seem famous for doing it: Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have often crossed the line and managed to get away either unscathed or with a gentle warning. Hughes’ dismissal was arguably the turning point in that game at the bet365 Stadium and once again, Stoke have a reason to feel hard done by due to the fact that most referees would have let the situation slide.
A recent topic of discussion has been retrospective action. I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago talking about the Mark Halsey situation and how the referee’s governing body, PGMOL, have told referees to lie about whether they have seen incidents in a game so that players can be punished following a post-match review. Without going into too much detail, if this kind of deceit is happening in football, it should not be allowed to continue. PGMOL should not have to protect their officials and should instead be highlighting where they have made a mistake and, by publicly stating that such mistakes have been made, the authorities may be inclined to have a fairer solution to this ongoing problem.
A common theme runs through sanctions being given through retrospective action: whenever poor refereeing decisions are highlighted throughout the media, retrospective action usually follows, if applicable. For example, Sergio Aguero’s elbow on Winston Reid was hot press and, because of this, the Man City striker received a retrospective ban for his actions. Now cast your mind back to Stoke’s draw with Manchester United just over a week ago and back to Paul Pogba’s bizarre hauling of Joe Allen to the floor, right in front of the referee. Now, the referee may have seen the incident and therefore retrospective action shouldn’t be taken. However, no media outlets decided to broadcast the incident despite it being one of the most outright offences of the weekend. Perhaps if the media had made light of Pogba’s grapple on Allen, The FA would have had to at least make a statement in reply or, as mentioned earlier, the governing body have have decided to ‘overrule’ the official and ban him anyway. Not that Stoke would have got any joy from the outcome but, in any case, justice should be served.
I’ve only highlighted incidents involving Stoke City and that’s because, to be honest, Stoke have had some very noticeable decisions being given against them and this is a Stoke City fan channel after all. However it’s well known that these bad judgement calls can, and are, given week in, week out all across football. In answer to why Stoke have been particularly unlucky so far: it could be a number of factors. Former referee Howard Webb described Stoke’s home as “the hardest place to officiate”, the hostile atmosphere and passionate fans surely to affect referees one way or another, they are only human after all. Whether they decide to sympathise with fans or decide to overcompensate as a result, it’s certainly something to consider. Another reason could be Stoke’s reputation, especially in regard to the grappling in the box. Stoke have been cast by media as a team that survives off this kind of contact and perhaps referees subconsciously take note and try to act against this where possible. Other teams will be affected by similar prejudice and, unfortunately, it’s an area which would be very hard to amend.
So, what am I trying to achieve by writing this? Well, honestly, nothing will really come of it. But I think I’ve raised some areas within the refereeing world that should be addressed in order to provide a fairer outcome for all involved. Laws should be enforced for the long term in order to stamp out ills within the game such as diving, time wasting and grappling. Referees should agree between themselves on how harshly to officiate so that the abyss separating them can be gradually closed. If a referee does make a mistake, don’t hide it. Abuse against officials is completely unnecessary, but they should be subject to criticism in the same way that managers and players are. Apparent media bias against clubs and players should not directly affect what decisions are made and everyone should be treated with equal discipline, no matter their background or reputation. Refereeing is an impossible job and, without extra assistance, there will always be debate within football. Up to a point, debate and opinion is what makes football fantastic. But stakes are high within football these days and no team should benefit, or suffer, greatly thanks to officiating. As for Stoke, things will get luckier for them and with that the results should too; although, sometimes, you need to make your own luck.
Consistent inconsistency. Doesn’t sound right, does it?
Written by Ben Rowley
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