Why football needs its Worst Decisions Ever

Unjust refereeing decisions, such as Reading’s now infamous goal that wasn’t, are a vital part of a football fan’s life.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

It’s not often that a goal is credited to an optical illusion but that’s precisely what happened at Watford on Saturday. And no, not one of artist Anish Kapoor’s visual stunts but the risible excuse given by linesman Nigel Bannister for awarding a goal to Reading. The linesman thought he’d seen Watford midfielder John Eustace score an own goal whereas, as replays confirmed, the ball had gone wide of the post. Another ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ moment for the match officials.

It is customary in these situations to taunt the hapless officials with chants of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ or ‘You’re not fit to referee’. But on Saturday a sinister new chant echoed around Vicarage Road. Sung to the tune of ‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y’ it went: ‘Worse than Graham Poll; You’re worse than Graham Poll; We know you are; We’re sure you are; You’re worse than Graham Poll’. Ouch! Harsh but true.

Bannister’s howler has sparked a heated debate. Not about the use of video technology. Well, it’s reopened that debate too but let’s park that for now. No, the more pressing question is where exactly this decision stands in the pantheon of officiating blunders. Is it, as one poster on the BBC website put it, ‘the worst decision in football history’? The ‘worse than Graham Poll’ chant seems to suggest so. The ‘Thing from Tring’ famously showed three yellow cards to Croatia’s Josip Simunic in the 2006 World Cup.

Arsene Wenger once said that everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home. He was talking about pretty football and I’m struggling to adapt the wife metaphor to refereeing decisions. But the same principle applies. Every fan whose team has ever been wronged by a referee will swear that it was the worst decision since the rules of association football were codified in 1863. Most England fans would vote for Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986; the French might point to Harold Schumacher’s brutal but unpenalised assault on Patrick Battiston in the World Cup semi-final in 1982, and the Germans might question Geoff Hurst’s goal in 1966.

But Stanchion-Gate surely beats them all. Palace fans don’t have much silverware to crow about (ie, the Zenith Data Systems Cup in 1991) but we do believe we were victims of The Worst Decision Ever. Clive Allen’s disallowed goal against Coventry in 1980, when his free kick crossed the goal line, rebounded off the stanchion (the bit at the back of the goal that kept the net up) and came straight back out again. No goal was given: the definitive refereeing cock-up. It was the worst ever because it changed the course of history.

Before Stanchion-Gate we all believed in the referee. Sure, there might have been the odd questionable decision in the past but the TV cameras were not there to capture it. The Clive Allen disallowed goal was televised and, as we stared incredulously at the replays, the scales fell from our eyes. It was the moment we stopped believing that the referee is always right. The moment that refereeing authority began to crumble. The moment that the hitherto obscure architectural term ‘stanchion’ entered popular parlance. As I said, history changed.

And, just as television exposed the fallibility of the referee, so TV replays are now touted as the solution. ‘We’re crying out for video refereeing’, said Reading manager Steve Coppell. ‘Rugby League puts us to shame with the way they use it, and it’s obvious we still have a lot to learn from that.’ Tony Cascarino, writing in The Times, concurred. ‘Referees need help…They are making a mockery of themselves and the sooner we bring in video technology to help them the better’ (1). Mike Walters in the Mirror also demanded immediate action. ‘No more faffing about, no more excuses: stop defrauding the fans and bring in goal-line technology NOW’, he thundered (2).

Personally, I don’t have a problem with a bit of human error. Football is a drama. It needs heroes and villains. It needs great miscarriages of justice. If we excise refereeing mistakes from the equation then we risk diminishing the spectacle.

Ah, but there’s too much at stake these days, say the advocates of video technology. An incorrect decision could have huge financial implications for a football club. The problem with this argument is that you simply cannot eradicate all refereeing errors from football without signficantly disrupting the flow of the game. Rugby, cricket and tennis, which have all brought in technology, are stop-start games. Football isn’t.

That said, I’m not completely against goal-line technology. Whether or not a ball has crossed the line is a question of fact. Given the right technology, a decision could potentially be made within seconds.

However, most refereeing controversies are not purely factual questions. There are far more disputed offside calls than phantom goals but these decisions involve a large slice of subjective opinion. Fifa’s much-derided 2003 guidance on the offside law still provokes heated arguments. When is an attacker in ‘active play’? Is a player who leaves the field of play still active? When does a phase of play begin or end? Video technology cannot answer these questions. There are too many shades of grey.

Disciplinary sanctions, too, involve a large subjective element. Did John Terry’s foul on Manchester City striker Jo deserve a straight red? Was Jo denied a goalscoring opportunity? Was Ricardo Carvalho the last man? Or was it serious foul play, that is, did it use ‘excessive force or brutality against an opponent’? The red card was rescinded on appeal, but the debate rages on.

Goal-line technology may be inevitable but let’s stop kidding ourselves that video replays will eliminate all refereeing controversies. Referees will continue to exercise their professional discretion. They’ll still make mistakes. The referee will still be a ‘wanker’. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist. He is speaking about cricket and football chanting at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Human error has finally crossed the line with the decision at Watford, The Times, 23 September 2008

(2) Reading’s phantom goal against Watford was an insult to football fans, Mirror, 22 September 2008

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Topics Politics


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