THE MIDLANDER: Reffing hell! How the Football League is making a mockery of this season's climax
A few years ago, I was asked to go and watch the top-flight referees work-out at their Northamptonshire boot camp. 'Ho, ho - what a wheeze this will be', I thought as I drove to the hotel where they routinely meet up. I could only have been salivating at the prospect - just like thousands of others would. (ie. Fantastic. A chance to lampoon those clowns). Eight hours later, I emerged, mentally bloodied and a little sheepish. Those sneaky officials had thought: 'A pack of sports' journalists, eh? Let's see how they like a taste of their own medicine.' They laid in wait for us - and didn't we know it. We were wrong, wrong, wrong. Incessantly wrong. As part of our day we were asked to officiate while Keith Hackett showed us ten video clips. We had to say what decision we would make, why we would take it and what punishment should follow. Obviously, they weren't straightforward ones. And on the play-backs it showed us up to be the hopeless amateurs we were. I'm just going to hob nob again, if I may. Last year, as part of a public relations exercise for the sportswear firm Under Armour, we were treated to a game. Howard Webb officiated. Now, I played Sunday morning football for the best part of 20 years. As far as referees go, I've seen the lot. Fat, thin, good, bad, indifferent. As you would expect - apart from one occasion when he gave a foul against me in the first-half - the Yorkshireman was fantastic. Top bloke, fully deserving of his No 1 status, in my humble opinion. So, now I have established the respect I have for officials, let me just point out that I cannot for the life of me understand some of the choices for Football League matches on a couple of a occasions this season. Firstly, this idea of 'fast-tracking'. I'm not sure that it works as a concept, anyway, irrespective of the line of business you are in. Let's face it, how many 23-year-olds do you see running public limited companies? Exactly. Surely, if you are any good, you will reach the top, regardless. But in respect of football, how often do you hear managers talk about 'experience' and its value when they discuss their players. To my mind that word means, that he's been there, worn the T-shirt, understands what the game is about. It was common sense that Mark Halsey - another one of the better ones - was given the tinderbox of the Birmingham versus Wolves dust-up to officiate. You could argue that he could have interpreted a few incidents differently. Rahdi Jaidi's first-half tackle, Cameron Jerome's goal, Marlon Harewood's incessant fouling - but no one could say at the final whistle that he didn't know what he's doing. He does. He's one of the elite. Earlier this season, I, along with 30,000 disbelieving others, watched Stuart Attwell produce a performance that could have prompted crowd disturbances at the Derby-Forest clash. Honestly, awful does not do it justice. Inexplicable decisions, given by a man way out of his depth, literally a few weeks after he had given 'the goal that never was' at Watford. Why, why, why promote someone to such a fixture when what he really needed was to be taken out of the firing line. What is Attwell? Twenty-five years old? If his overlords wanted him to taste a derby atmosphere, why not start him off a little bit lower down the scale? Say, at Chester versus Shrewsbury. Similarly, whose idea was it to send 23-year-old Michael Oliver to the Birmingham City versus Plymouth Argyle match? Alex McLeish has got splinters in his backside from sitting on the fence so often. He's hardly uttered one word against the officials. Good on him. But even he was moved to contest the sending-off of Maik Taylor. Having seen the footage myself, I can understand why. Now, it's not been overturned. Fair enough. Any boss worth their salt should stand by their employees. But my point is this: At this stage of the season, why would the authorities leave themselves open to criticism by appointing a referee who quite clearly cannot have the experience to judge these matches? Red card offence? Birmingham goalkeeper Maik Taylor (right) challenges Plymouth forward Jamie Mackie and is - amazingly - sent off You are just asking for it. We are reaching the climax of the season when refereeing decisions take on undue importance because of the immediate effect they have on the destiny of whichever clubs they are officiating. Surely, this particular stage of the campaign is not the most opportune time to be sending them to matches at this level? There weren't any Premier League fixtures on Easter Monday. If Halsey can be drafted in for the Birmingham versus Wolves clash, why couldn't they have appointed a few more to the job? Okay, the outcome for Taylor and McLeish may have even been the same. But at least if they were coming from men of experience, with the authorities paying due respect to the importance of the occasion, it would be that much less difficult for managers like McLeish to stomach.
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