The fact that the referee Martin Atkinson sounds even more like the comedian Bob Mortimer than he looks was not the most interesting revelation to emerge from Sky’s recent effort to show the human side of match officials on The Referees – Onside with Carragher and Neville.
Criticism from fans goes with the territory of whistle blowing, but asked how he feels about his staff being criticised by former peers-turned-pundits such as Howard Webb, Mike Riley, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited managing director and former referee, explained to embedded reporters Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville that it is in fact the brickbats of players-turned-pundits which tend to disappoint as they are often hurled from a position of blissful ignorance.
“If you’re a former player, you’re not expected to know the rules of the game,” said Riley, whose blithe assertion went weirdly unchallenged by the two specimens of the breed seated before him, both of whom are renowned for their fastidious approach to punditry.
The same cannot be said for all sportsmen. The comical sight of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, England internationals who had amassed 151 caps between them at that point, pleading with the French referee Romain Poite to explain the rules of the sport during a Six Nations match earlier this year will live long in the memory of all who saw it, but it can reasonably be argued that even for those who play the game, rugby is a form of organised chaos governed by laws so byzantine only the most devoted anorak could be excused for not being familiar with them all.
On the World Rugby Laws website, the complexities of that particular sport’s offside rule is explained in 23 often long-winded and barely coherent clauses spread across 11 different subsections. By contrast, most young footballers are taught the finer points of their sport’s equivalent at the kitchen table in a 60-second tutorial involving assorted condiments.
Compared to sports like rugby, golf or cricket, the laws of football are fairly straightforward and, while former players who are paid handsomely to analyse games could be forgiven for not being familiar with some of them, it is hardly unfair to suggest they should at least be on nodding terms with most of them. Match officials, on the other hand, have no excuse for not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the justice they hand down, a state of affairs which rendered the performance of Keith Stroud in last Wednesday’s Championship match between Newcastle United and Burton Albion all the more extraordinary.
In case you missed it: having awarded Newcastle a penalty which was dispatched by Matt Ritchie, Stroud incurred the vengeful and raucous wrath of the home team’s players, back-room staff and most of the 48,814 crowd by disallowing the goal for encroachment. Instead of ordering the penalty be retaken, he further incensed most present by making the bizarre and completely incorrect decision to award Burton an indirect free-kick, prompting a lengthy break in play during which he consulted two of his fellow match officials.
For reasons best known to themselves, they appeared to do little or nothing to convince the referee he was about to make an embarrassing and potentially career-defining blunder. And make no mistake, with one or two notable exceptions, it is by their errors that football referees tend to be defined no matter how competent they are.
As the camera cut or panned from one referee or referee’s assistant to another on Carragher and Neville’s documentary, it was each individual’s errors that leapt immediately to mind, rather than the decent performances – the ones that tend to go unnoticed – for which they would rather to be remembered. Anthony Taylor? That Sam Vokes handball in Burnley’s match against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Stuart Attwell? Reading’s “ghost” goal at Watford all those years ago. Mike Dean? Five rescinded red cards this season. Indeed, the notable exception among all those featured seemed to be the female referee’s assistant Sian Massey-Ellis. The 31-year-old will have to mess up spectacularly before her career is defined by anything other than the sexist jibes of a pair of former employees of the TV network on whose documentary she was appearing.
But back to Stroud. Just as the notion that the official from Dorset could have become a member of English football’s refereeing elite, without actually knowing something so basic as what to do after penalising a player for encroachment at a spot-kick, is too weird to even contemplate, we are also left to assume he suffered some sort of brain-freeze which quickly spread to those tasked with helping him to avoid such meltdowns.
In Carragher and Neville’s film we got to read the merciless self-criticism penned by Taylor in his report on that Liberty Stadium horror show, but one feels Stroud’s explanation for his tomfoolery in the white heat of the St James’ Park cauldron would make far more riveting reading.
While entertaining, one suspects Carragher and Neville’s occasionally banter-rific documentary about referees is unlikely to alter the views of any one-eyed, tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who think each and every match official is biased against their team. Stroud’s inexplicable gaffe was even more entertaining and even less likely to change closed minds.