Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Referee's A.... Well, You Know

Sometimes, you read something that is so, well, strange that it passes under you radar. Then, some way down the line, you're reminded of it again and you can't help but think, "well, what on earth was that all about?". It is with this in mind that my thoughts have been directed involuntarily towards Graham Poll - or, has he's known to TV anchormen world-wide, "Graham Poll from Tring, in Hertfordshire".

Now, before I go any further, I should probably point out that I'm not by nature a referee-hater. I've refereed a few matches myself down in the nether regions of Sunday League football, and it is an utterly thankless task. I find it amazing that people volunteer to do it every single week. To the same extent that I am against the introduction of video evidence, I am strongly of the opinion that the human error of referees and their assistants is a huge part of the appeal of football. Now is not really the time to be having the video evidence debate yet again, but part of what really makes the game so unpredictable is its very humanity - the frailties and vulnerabilities of those involved are part of what makes it theatre. The more powerful clubs don't like these uncertainties. They wanted rid of the European Cup because massive amounts of money were dependent on knock-out football, which is less predictable than league football, and if they get half a chance, they'll try to get rid of the human error of referees with the introduction of video evidence too.

However, Graham Poll's behaviour over the last few months are starting to give me a real cause for concern. The "three yellow cards" issue during the Australia-Croatia match at the World Cup, I was willing to overlook. There were two linesmen and a fourth official there too, and they have to accept a degree of culpability for the oversight. It didn't make an enormous amount of difference to what happened (though it would have been interesting to see what FIFA's reaction to it would have been if it had) and, in any case, without these sort of mistakes, football wouldn't be the game that it is. Poll was deservedly sent home - the perpetrator of such a mistake clearly couldn't be allowed to referee any further matches in the tournament - and it was appropriate that this was the end of the matter.

Safely returned to his country of origin, one might have expected Poll to want to have a quiet season, and to let the dust settle a little bit, but over the last couple of weeks a couple of decisions have come to light that have left me wondering if he's actually fit to do the job. The Spurs-Chelsea match was notable for the somewhat peculiar sending off of John Terry and, predictably enough, Jose Mourinho was none too happy. The next day, though, the FA reported that they were to speak to Poll over rumours that he had said that he felt that Chelsea's players "needed to be taught a lesson" after the match.

This (and I was reminded of it by this month's "When Saturday Comes", which plopped through my letterbox yesterday morning) was strange enough, especially when you consider his performance at The Emirates Stadium on Saturday lunch-time. Arsenal's first goal looked (to my eyes) at least a yard offside. Their first penalty was a perfectly clean tackle. Their second penalty... well, at best it was outside the penalty (though Van Persie studiously waited until he was inside the penalty area before going to ground), and at worst, well, he handled the ball before Jenas got anywhere near him. Was he evening up the score for Tottenham from a few weeks before? Trying too hard to even up a score? Or... (and I confess that I'm getting into the realms of fantasy here) who did the result of both of the above matches suit? Manchester United? Arsenal? Does Mr Poll from Tring in Hertfordshire have an agenda that he doesn't want made public?

There was a time when we freely discussed English referees being the best in the world, and wondered aloud whether referees from the developing football regions should be given the responsibility of high pressure matches like World Cup matches. We overlooked the likes of Clive Thomas' ridiculous ruling out of a perfectly good Brazil goal against Sweden and continued with our blinkered belief. There are still, I'm sure, plenty of people of otherwise sane people who would claim that "British is best", in spite of the evidence to the contrary. However, just like goalkeepers, cars, national health, and more or less anything you care to think of, it simply isn't true. Graham Poll was sent to the World Cup as the best we have to offer FIFA as a referee. What that says about refereeing standards in this country doesn't really bear thinking about.


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