I’ve never liked Graham Poll as a referee – I know, I know, until he gave the same player three cautions in a single match at the World Cup in 2006, he was the cat’s meow in England. But to me, Poll had been preferred by the powers that be in England for all the wrong reasons. First and foremost he smiled a lot, and smiling makes you look like you’re very calm and have everything under control, which, by the way, is exactly the impression the referees want to give. They also seemed to enjoy that he carried on conversations with players from time to time – even joking with them. That looks good on tv, because nothing makes you look more in control of the situation than if you’re calm enough to have a conversation that doesn’t involve cards, and even joke about it along the way. I’m not intimidated by Roy Keane, or Franky “F—king Four Fingers” Lampard, just look at me, I’m having a laugh with them!
But let’s take the international standard bearer for good refereeing – Pierluigi Collina. Ever see him smile at a player? Ever see him make a joke with any of them? Ever see a game of his get out of hand? And for all the fear he instilled in players throughout his illustrious career as the world best referee (perhaps ever) did you ever see him send a player off? Of course it happened, but usually with good reason, at least you assume so with Collina for one good reason – he gets the calls right no matter what kind of pressure he's under.
At the end of the day, English referees, just like the English FA, are concerned with one thing above all else – the illusion of control. We’ve got it all under control, and we know exactly what we’re doing. And we’ve got the smiliest, most gregarious, charming, take charge referees in the world to go with the smiliest, most exciting, take charge players in the world.
Well, it seems Mr. Poll would beg to differ.
Recently, Mr. Poll went to great lengths to criticize the “Respect” campaign of the FA, which was ostensibly intended to reduce the amount of abuse directed towards the referee allowing him to do his job properly. But wait, wait – there’s more!
It turns out, just with all things coming out of the FA, what they’re saying is almost the exact opposite of what they’re doing. In the opinion of Mr. Poll, this campaign is an effort by the teams to reduce the number of cautions and sendings-off by referees to key players, making them unavailable for matches. There is an easier way to do this. Players could simply be fined by the FA for abusing referees. So why don’t they do this?
As with all things that make no sense in football, just follow the money. What happens to the fan support if half the good players in the team are (rightfully) suspended for accumulation of cautions, or simply serving a 3-match ban for a sending off? And what happens when the television audience isn't happy? Like so many things coming out of the English FA, this is really much ado about nothing.
Referees have enormous power in football - no single individual on the pitch has the ability to change the nature of the match the way a referee does. If he calls it tight, it can be an advantage to the skilled teams, but then he gets hammered for getting too involved in the match. If he lets a bunch of stuff go, he's letting the players determine their own fate, but then he gets hammered for letting the match get out of control. At the end of the day, it seems with 99 out of 100 referees, no matter what they do, they get hammered. But by having a "respect" campaign, creating the illusion of an effort by players to be more congenial, it puts MORE pressure on referees not to send them off, even when they deserve it.
Then there's Mike Riley.
Last week Riley took it upon himself to send Frankie-Four-Fingers-Lampard off for a violent conduct in what appeared to be a 50/50 challenge on Xavi Alonso in Chelski's match against Liverpool. Probably scared shirtless, as can be expected of a guy who's 5'5'', 135 pounds sopping wet, and looks like he just came down from the mother ship, in amongst some of the strongest, fastest and hardest men in the game. But the television replays show that Riley, like so many English referees, completely overreacted to the challenge, and sent a player off, basically for going in hard on a tackle. In American football, the pendulum has swung so much in favor of the quarterbacks that if a defensive player blows him a kiss after the ball has left his fingertips, he's likely to get a fine. (Jack Lambert, a hall of fame linebacker for the Pittsburg Steelers, may have said it best when asked what they could do to protect the quarterback more - he promplty responded they could put a skirt on him.)
In the world's football it's different - posession of the ball is a fleeting concept - with every touch the ball is technically within the realm of a player's control, but in reality is there for the taking, and knowing just when and how hard to go in for it, particularly in the EPL, is becoming more and more confusing.
Having been shown the replay later, Riley admitted he got it wrong - that's not the first time he's gotten it wrong, but by my account, the first time he's admitted it. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and one key player for Chelski was sent off, and the tenor of the game was changed for the remainder of the match. Liverpool took their undeserved numerical advantage and pulled off a result that they scarcely deserved, and one that has kept them within striking distance of league leaders Manchester United. On the other side of the dugout, Luis "Felipao" Scolari has been given his marching orders by (The) Roman (Emperor) Abramovich and Chelski have all but conceded that their chances of winning the EPL. The truth is that Abramovich has shown himself to be so fickle, that Riley's error may well have cost Scolari his job, because there's no guarantee that Chelski wouldn't have gone barnstorming through the remainder of the season and/or won the Champions Leauge - now we'll never know.
Is it fair to say that given the freedoms of the "Respect" campaign that Riley may have been too quick to exercise his power (incredibly incorrectly as it turned out?) Do some referees need to be forced to think twice before they reach into their pocket for that terrible red card? I suspect that Poll would not agree with that assessment, but this may have been an unintended consequence of a program designed to protect referees from abuse, when in fact, it appears the one who needed protection against abuse of power, was Frankie Four Fingers.