One aspect I have neglected thus far to comment upon in my survey of twenty years of fan voices is the conversation topic that dominates every message board and phone in down the land: the perceived inadequacy of referees.
For most of us, eyes glaze over during these rants. Few of us have the stomach to listen to another Manchester United fan complaining of Drogba’s theatrics and partisanship prevents us from really caring, even if the moaning is justified.
When our own club is involved, we are a little more outraged of course but, in a conscious attempt to conform to the friendly spirit and anti-message board culture of the blogosphere, we have decided to leave talk of the men in black well alone. Almost every refereeing decision can be viewed from multiple points of view. I for one felt that Howard Webb did pretty much as well as he could in the World Cup Final given the Netherlands’ full frontal assault on the game’s moral code. I also spent hours debating the wherefores and whys of Nani’s opportunism against Spurs recently but my friends and I failed to reach consensus on those rum events.
But sometimes, a refereeing decision or performance can be so plain abject that open-mindedness becomes trapped in amber. The most outrageous single blunder of recent times was Stuart Attwell’s ghost goal in the Watford v Reading game in 2008. Indeed, the disbelief that has risen among football fans at this and a litany of subsequent controversies have done nothing to harm Attwell’s increased standing in the game. Perhaps someone out there who has seen him referee well could reassure me?
And now we have the new Attwell: Michael Oliver. Being the son of an existing football league official immediately raises hackles but the extreme youth of this kid has raised serious questions. Last season, Neil Warnock, admittedly not renowned for restraint in such matters, raged as his Crystal Palace charges of the time were knocked out of the FA Cup by Watford – a Jose Fonte header myseriously ruled out for pushing.
Blowing up against the attacking team for non-existent shoving in the penalty area is a fault of the entire refereeing fraternity of course, but this season, Oliver, having reached the ripe old age of twenty five, has done a lot to confirm these worries. Six players have been sent off at his behest, the most debatable being Pablo Ibañez’s inexplicable dismissal in the Blackpool v West Bromwich Albion game. Then, East Anglian fans including blogger Little Norwich were left dumbfounded by Grant Holt’s ejection from the fray at the Madejski Stadium a fortnight ago.
Mistakes happen but one cannot help but draw conclusions about this surname dodger’s youth. As Little Norwich alleges, Oliver appears to have been fast tracked. His career to date is a sequence of firsts – the youngest ever referee to appear at Wembley, the youngest ever referee in the Football League, the youngest fourth official in the top flight and, this season, the beater of Attwell’s record as the youngest ever Premier League middle man. Following on from his Madejski madness, he was unaccountably entrusted with a Premier League match as Blackburn beat Aston Villa.
The argument goes that players are blooded at a young age, so why not officials? True, but just as Peter Marinello and Nii Lamptey failed to confirm their potential on the pitch and were hence doomed to obscurity, referees, when they are the authors of especially nutty decisions, should be assessed more critically and blooded more slowly.