Referees’ chief Howard Webb is under growing pressure to U-turn on his decision to allow Premier League officials to work abroad, after it emerged that the two Var officials at the centre of Liverpool’s offside goal controversy only returned from the United Arab Emirates one day before Saturday’s match.
Darren England, the Var for Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and Dan Cook, the assistant Var, were part of a group of English referees who officiated Sharjah’s match against Al-Ain in the UAE on Thursday.
England was subsequently replaced as the fourth official for Sunday’s Premier League draw between Nottingham Forest and Brentford after he failed to overturn the incorrect decision to disallow Luis Díaz’s goal for Liverpool on Saturday, while Cook has been stood down from Fulham’s clash with Chelsea on Monday evening.
It is understood that both England and Cook returned to London on Friday to begin their preparations for the following day’s match between Spurs and Liverpool, which has triggered concerns about their readiness for the Premier League contest so soon after two long-haul flights of nearly eight hours.
“I understand that they officiated on Thursday evening, which means on Friday they will have had a minimum seven hours in the air,” former PGMOL chief Keith Hackett told Telegraph Sport.
“This impacts on their recovery and a loss of sharpness in their performance. In my time in office if they were in Europe on Thursday then they would not officiate until late Sunday or Monday at the earliest. This is yet another example of poor management of these professional sports persons and actual changes must be made to stop these mounting errors.”
There are also fears that allowing referees to work in the Middle East could raise the risk of a conflict of interest, although there is no suggestion that as an issue in the present case. England and Cook both officiated in the UAE, which owns Premier League champions Manchester City, alongside referee Michael Oliver, who earlier this year was allowed to take charge of a match in the Saudi Pro League despite Newcastle United’s ownership links to the Gulf state.
A Premier League chief executive told The Times: “There must be an issue around fatigue for these long journeys in a short space of time. We have absolute trust in the integrity of our officials but from a fans’ viewpoint it is important to remove any possible suggestion of a conflict of interest by a referee being paid to cover a match in Saudi Arabia or the UAE where the league there has the same ownership as one of our clubs.”
England, Cook, Oliver and Stuart Burt were given permission to take charge of the league match in the UAE after an approach was made to the Football Association.
It is not unusual for officials to work on matches in foreign countries on Thursday nights, for example in European competition, before then returning to action on English soil on the following Saturday. Those who have travelled are usually given “off-field” roles, such as Var.
England’s mistake on Saturday was to assume that the Díaz goal had been given, when the Liverpool forward had in fact been flagged offside by the on-field assistant. England therefore told on-field referee Simon Hooper that the Var check was complete, prompting the referee to assume the offside decision had been confirmed as correct.
Telegraph Sport reported last week that the Saudi Arabia football federation has approached leading Premier League referees, including Oliver, about the prospect of transferring to work in the Saudi Pro League.